Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Sue Allmon from Western Governors University in Indiana
Raina Chezem: Can you provide a brief background on WGU? How the institution was formed?
Sue Allmon: WGU opened its doors 10 years ago as an experimental site – the first 100% online university receiving Title IV funds. Western Governors University (WGU) is one of the original participants in the Distance Education Demonstration Program (DEDP). 19 member states, including Indiana, provided ‘seed money’ to open the non-profit university. WGU is a non-standard term, competency-based learning system with 6 month terms. We participate in Pell Grants and Stafford loans, subsidized, unsubsidized, PLUS and Graduate PLUS. We do not participate in any of the campus based programs (SEOG, Work Study, etc).
WGU-Indiana opened its doors on June 11, 2010 as the state’s 8th state university. We are Indiana’s new non-profit, online university. We started with 250 students, and now, a year later we have over 1200 students.
WGU-Indiana is flexible, offering online, competency based, customized curriculum and personalized mentoring with quality faculty. We are affordable, WGU-Indiana is 1/3 the cost of other online universities and our partnership with Indiana allows SSACI funds to be utilized by our students. We offer quality to our students and their future employers. WGU and WGU-Indiana are fully accredited, competency based learning university. 97% of employers rate WGU graduates as equal to or better than graduates from other universities.
Raina: How many students are enrolled at WGU?
Sue: Nationwide, WGU currently has over 23,000 students. For WGU-Indiana, we have, as of our June start, over 1,200 students.
Raina: What is the biggest challenge you have being exclusively an online school?
Sue: Communications with students is vital for us. We don’t see our students F2F, so we must rely on technology to ensure our students are served. We have an extensive in-house call center to handle and transfer our phone calls. We also have a great email communication system to not only answer student questions, but to also, as you do in an office setting, anticipate underlying questions, and answer those as well. Another issue is perception in the higher education world. Many colleagues assume since we are an online school, we must be for-profit, which isn’t the case, as well as concerns about the integrity of our educational programs.
Raina: What do you see as the next big challenge for WGU moving forward?
Sue: There are a couple of things that we need to watch for and do. First, as we continue to grow, WGU and WGU-Indiana needs to maintain our personal touch and communications with our students and with each other. We will experience growing pains, in a good way, and need to be ready to address those pains. We pride ourselves on our mentors not having more than 80 – 100 students assigned to them, as we grow, we will need to continue that trend and be constantly on the lookout for qualified, quality faculty to hire.
Second, as we are an innovator, we will need to continue to educate others on who and what we are. Our uniqueness, while a good thing, sometimes can cause friction with others who may not understand who and what we are, so we need to continue to communicate our message and method to those around us. We are constantly working with the Department of Education on how regulations affect us and what changes we would like to see enacted to better enhance the educational experience of our students and all online, distance education students.
Raina: WGU keeps the default rate low, what are some important steps you have implemented in keeping students current?
Sue: We require all of our students, in their first term, to complete entrance counseling if they wish to pursue a student loan. We also have included some questions on our financial aid application that require a student to review their NSLDS history and report back to us their current loan debt, who that load debt is with, what their monthly payment will be based upon that current loan debt, and based upon this current debt, what their annual income would need to be to keep that monthly loan payment at 7% or less of their monthly income. This is done prior to entrance counseling and before any packaging on our part. With this addition to our up front counseling, we have seen a significant decrease in the amount of actual loan borrowing at WGU - students are declining their unsubsidized loans to reduce their overall loan debt. We are also looking to become even more aggressive in the front end. We are looking to institute a financial literacy program as part of our online orientation program and discussions are under way to develop a four year budget plan program that a student will need to complete prior to receiving an award package from WGU.
We have hired a fulltime debt management counselor who is working with our students upon graduation or withdrawal from the university to ensure exit counseling is completed and we stay in touch with our students reminding them during grace, that their loan payments will be starting soon and providing them with resources on repayment options. Our debt management counselor also works with our delinquent borrowers in getting them either back on a repayment plan or into a deferment or forbearance program that works best for them.
Raina: How long how you been in financial aid?
Sue: I have been involved in financial aid for over 26 years. Obviously, I began my career as a financial aid protégée at a very young age…
Raina: Within the financial aid community, who has been a mentor to you?
Sue: I have been very fortunate to have a number of individuals who have provided me with encouragement and sage advice over the years. A few I would like to recognize include Joyce Hall, Purdue University; Linda Handy, University of Indianapolis; Tom Stone, former FAD with University of Evansville; and Paul Stewart, former FAD with Rose Hulman.
Raina: What do you most enjoy about your job at WGU?
Sue: The innovation! Since we are still the only non-profit, exclusively online university receiving Title IV funds, we are consistently in contact with DE over rules and regulations and how they will impact distance learning students and how can we lessen the burden on those students. I like being on the ‘cutting edge’ of DE regulations and working with DE to move into the 21st century and beyond in providing services and funding to students and institutions.