Western Governors University began as a bold experiment to create a completely online university—a place where learning is self-paced and the institution’s value is measured not by the profiles of its incoming freshmen, but the career success of its graduates. As the COVID-19 pandemic forces colleges and universities across the country into a virtual learning environment, we talk to Scott Pulsipher, president of the nation’s largest online competency-based university.
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Scott Pulsipher has served as president of nonprofit Western Governors University, the nation’s first and largest competency-based university, since April 2016. He leads all academic, operational, and organizational functions as WGU’s president.
Pulsipher blends a personal drive for making a difference in the lives of individuals and families through education and a passion for technology-powered innovation. At WGU, he is focused on rapidly advancing curriculum quality, new faculty models, data-driven learning, and a different cost model.
Under Pulsipher’s leadership, WGU has expanded to serve more than 120,000 students from across the United States. The university has been named one of Fast Company’s 50 Most Innovative Companies and earned the #1 NCTQ Teacher Prep Ranking and a Center of Excellence for Nursing Education recognition from the National League of Nursing. More than 170,000 WGU graduates are now working across every major industry.
In 2019, Pulsipher was selected by the U.S. Department of Commerce among a group of 25 U.S. governors, Fortune 500 CEOs, and education and workforce leaders to serve on the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board. Recently, he was named one of the Top 100 Influencers in Edtech by EdTech Digest.
Before coming to WGU, Pulsipher had more than 20 years of leadership experience in technology-based, customer-focused businesses, including Amazon, Sterling Commerce (now part of IBM), and two successful startups that traverse retail, supply chain, banking, payments, and manufacturing sectors.
Pulsipher earned a bachelor’s degree in management at Brigham Young University and an MBA at Harvard University.
More About Scott’s Work
WGU President: Secret to Online Learning Is Putting Students at the Center
Tips From The Top: One On One With Scott Pulsipher, President of Western Governors University — Thrive Global
WGU President Scott Pulsipher on Bringing Customer-Centric Culture to Universities — EdSurge
Season 2, Episode 4 Transcript: Download
Growing up in San Francisco, Ebony Beckwith attended an academically selective high school where most of her classmates were university-bound. She opted for a different path, heading directly into the workforce while winding through several community colleges before realizing she needed that four-year degree to reach her career goals.
Gerald Chertavian believes every young adult has potential and deserves a clear pathway to a great career, whether through college or directly into the workforce. And as founder and CEO of Year Up, he’s proving that with the appropriate training and employer support, it can take as little as one year for “opportunity youth” — 16- to 24-year-olds who are neither working nor in school — to move from poverty to a well-paid, in-demand career, often with a Fortune 500 company.
There’s no shortage of big, ambitious ideas for creating an education-workforce system that improves upward mobility for more people. Harvard education economist David Deming uses hard data to stress test those ideas and see what might work, and what probably won’t. We talk to him about what he’s learning and what he recommends we do right now to improve the value of education for an increasingly diverse workforce.
Historically, the path to a college degree and upward mobility for Black students usually led through a Black college or university. Even today, with mainstream institutions welcoming many more racially diverse students, HBCUs remain a driving force in launching Black leaders, including Vice President Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University. To find out what HBCUs can teach the rest of higher ed about student success, we sit down with Reynold Verret, the child of Haitian political refugees who grew up to become president of Xavier University of Louisiana, a small HBCU that is the nation’s No. 1 producer of future Black doctors.
In the not-so-distant future, workers will make dozens of career changes over a working life of 75 or even 100 years. Michelle Weise, an expert on the future of work and author of “Long Life Learning,” says human skills like communication, creativity, and teamwork will remain critical in an era when robots and automation take over routine jobs. What’s more, workers increasingly will need to learn new skills rather than assuming a degree early in life will carry them through.
Long before JFF’s Michael Collins became an education-workforce policy expert, he was a Black kid living in Hartford, Connecticut, bussed to school in the white suburbs. The experience, followed years later by a stint teaching low-income Latino students in Texas, drove home the racial and economic disparities he’s been working to solve ever since. In the midst of a pandemic disrupting education and work — especially for low-income people of color — we talk to Michael about how to equip people for jobs today without closing off opportunities to advance in jobs of the future.
After spending a year inside admissions offices, journalist and author Jeff Selingo reminds parents and students that admission into college is not just about grades and hard work, and it never was. We talk to Selingo about his latest book, “Who Gets In and Why,” to explore how colleges can improve admissions and increase opportunities for disadvantaged students and how students can maximize their college experience — wherever they go to school.
How can we better equip learners with the skills they need for today’s jobs? What roles should educators, employers, and policymakers play in transforming education after high school? And how do we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with new insights about what’s working and what’s not? In Lessons Earned, Strada Education Network’s Ben Wildavsky and co-host Aimée Eubanks Davis of Braven sit down with bold thinkers who are challenging the status quo and exploring ideas to help all Americans navigate between learning and earning. Learn more.
While many employers are laying people off during the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon is expanding. The online retailer is hiring more people and helping employees upskill so they can advance either within or outside the company. Amazon’s Ardine Williams talks about how employer-based education programs fit into America’s postsecondary landscape.
After edtech firm Guild acquired his startup incubator Entangled, Paul Freedman and Guild CEO Rachel Carlson set out to help workers use employer benefits to upskill and, with luck, shield themselves from the next recession. Neither could have predicted the economic downturn would come amidst a global pandemic that has robbed tens of millions of Americans of their jobs in a few short months. We talk to Freedman about the role technology can play in helping those workers get the education and training they need to recover.
Long before COVID-19, America’s most vulnerable students were struggling to access not only education and skills training, but the social connections that open doors to great careers. Aimée Eubanks Davis, founder and CEO of Braven, says the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities has also laid bare inequities in the education-to-workforce ecosystem. It’s time, she says, to level the playing field so all college graduates can secure strong first jobs that lead to long-term career success.
Rhode Island has improved the lives and livelihoods of its residents by combining classroom education with hands-on, work-based learning. But what happens when businesses are shuttered and students must learn at a distance? Meghan Hughes, president of the Community College of Rhode Island, says the COVID-19 pandemic is actually a great opportunity for her school and its students to demonstrate how they can adapt in trying times.
How do we make sense of higher education and its relationship to the economy in the midst of a pandemic that changed the world overnight? Normally, when the economy is down, you go back to school, says Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. But what’s your strategy if that’s not a great option right now? Carnevale explains why this economic crisis is different, who’s most at risk, and what it means for post-high school education and training.
It’s time for colleges and universities to take a hard look in the mirror, says University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski. Too many students don’t make it to graduation and others are faced with the false choice between pursuing a broad education and gaining technical skills, when they actually need both. At UMBC, he’s proving that with the right support, even the most challenged students will succeed.
Oren Cass, author of The Once and Future Worker, says we’ve gone too far in our college-going culture, steering too many students down a postsecondary pathway that only serves about one-third of our population. It’s time, he says, to destigmatize vocational and technical education, to create and fund alternative pathways between high school and the workplace, and to fill millions of jobs that don’t, or shouldn’t, require a college degree.
McDonald’s is one of the nation’s largest entry-level employers, and like a growing number of businesses, it provides extensive education benefits for front-line workers to improve opportunities for themselves and their families. Lisa Schumacher, Director of Educational Strategies at McDonald’s Corp., talks about how the fast-food giant supports workers as they earn and learn, through English-language training, money for college, and technology aimed at helping them explore their career options.
Anthony Abraham Jack, a Harvard University researcher and author of The Privileged Poor, discusses his own experience as a low-income college student as well as the experiences of many of today’s learners who are navigating an unfamiliar affluent campus culture they struggle to understand, let alone join. He suggests simple things educators can do to make their campuses not only more diverse, but truly inclusive.
How can we find better ways to measure and value the job skills possessed by Americans who don’t have a traditional college degree? Byron Auguste, a former White House economic adviser and current CEO at Opportunity@Work, says screening out job applicants who can’t check the degree box eliminates opportunity for millions of people who already have what it takes to do a great job.
What can employers do to prepare today’s workers for the jobs of tomorrow? Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health and a former leader in the California Community College system, talks about how employers, labor unions, and educators can work together to help workers learn what they need to get better jobs. Education is not a one-time inoculation to prepare people for a lifetime of work, she says. Frequent booster shots are needed throughout our careers.
Lessons Earned, a new podcast from Strada Education Network, explores how to improve education and work.