By Christine Cooke
Published on October 4, 2017

Education is desperate for innovation – both in K-12 and in higher education. We live in a dynamic, ever-changing technological world, and as a result, our lifestyles and careers are transforming. So, too, should our education.

A recent audit of the innovative, competency-based Western Governors University (WGU) has sparked a discussion about innovation in education.

In short, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Education recommended that the forward-thinking university return nearly $713 million of federal student aid. According to the audit, courses are not designed to have “regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.” As such, the audit says that WGU courses are “correspondence” rather than “distance” courses, meaning they are limited in receiving federal financial aid.

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WGU strongly disputes these findings. In its response to the audit, WGU states that it is fully compliant with the 1992 statutory language regarding instructors; that courses meet the definition of “distance,” not “correspondence”; and that the university is fully accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), which determines when academic staff members are considered faculty.

Many have weighed in on the subject, talking about the need to update our view of education and our public policies. To read more of the coverage, check out this Deseret News article, this Forbes article, this NPR article and this op-ed.

The debate spurred by the WGU audit is an opportunity for all of us to join a crucial conversation about innovation. It’s an opportunity to rethink our definition of education, learning and instruction in both culture and in law.

Sutherland Institute invites you to join the discussion and to ask that lawmakers remove statutory barriers to innovation in education. You can do so by contacting your state legislators, your federal delegation, and the Department of Education during the department’s review period.

You can find the contact information for your elected state and federal representatives here.

Submit comments to Dr. A. Wayne Johnson, COO of Federal Student Aid, by emailing

Christine Cooke works as a policy analyst for Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress. Christine has a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in English Teaching and graduated from Arizona State University with a law degree. Prior to joining Sutherland Institute, Christine was an English teacher at a public junior high school and a residential treatment center. As a student attorney in the Arizona State University Juvenile Advocacy Clinic, Christine represented clients in juvenile law proceedings and taught community legal education to high school students. She worked in legal and policy research with the legal counsel for the Arizona Office of the Governor, legal counsel for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the Goldwater Institute, and The Heritage Foundation. Christine has made appearances on Fox-13 News and KSL’s Sunday Edition and is regularly featured in regional publications and radio shows. She currently sits on a state committee that advises the Utah State Board of Education on specific education issues. When in her home state of Arizona, she loves to spend time with her family. She also loves music, hiking, and making cookies.


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