The Department of Education's (ED) Office of Inspector General (OIG) is calling for Western Governors University (WGU), a well-known online education provider, to repay hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid, saying in an audit that the institution was not eligible to receive Title IV funds.
The OIG produced the audit report after investigating Western Governors' situation for roughly five years. The university is a leader in competency-based education, a model through which students can earn college credit through proving mastery of certain skills, and has been held up as an example of competency-based and online learning by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
But the OIG claims in its report that Western Governors has been ineligible to receive federal financial aid funds because too many of its students were enrolled in courses that did not meet the definition of distance education. Although WGU's courses were accredited as distance education courses, OIG determined they did not meet the 1992 federal definition based on contact between instructors and students, and thus deemed them to be correspondence courses. A federal requirement limits the percentage of students who can enroll in correspondence courses. The OIG is now recommending that WGU repay nearly $713 million in federal aid dollars it received between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2016, as well as any federal aid funds received since then. The OIG, however, cannot enforce this recommendation unless ED accepts it.
The inspector general's audit found, for example, of the 61,180 regular students enrolled during 2013-14, at least 62 percent were enrolled in one or more courses that did not meet the federal definition of distance education. The inspector general also found that 69 of WGU's 102 courses “were not designed to offer regular and substantive interaction” between students and instructors, and thus did not meet the definition of distance education.
In an enclosed response to the audit report, WGU President Scott Pulsipher "respectfully, but strongly" disputed the findings, which he said were "based on misinterpretation and misapplication of statutory and regulatory guidance."
"The OIG has applied an arbitrary definition and antiquated interpretation of instruction and faculty roles that are not substantiated by the distance education provisions" of the Higher Education Act (HEA), Pulsipher wrote. "The OIG reviewers' approach may be appropriate for traditional campus-based higher education models, but it is not aligned with law nor consistent with today's online- and technology-enabled model."
Publication Date: 9/22/2017