Diverse: Issues in Higher Education reports that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation just gave a $1.2 million grant to the online Western Governors University to investigate whether online education programs can “improve completion rates for… low-income students and help them improve their economic status”

“The study’s goal is to demonstrate that the WGU competency-based online education system, with personal mentors for each student, can significantly improve completion rates,” says Dr. Robert Mendenhall, WGU president. “We feel it does, so now we aim to show the hard facts to support it, and through the study results encourage other online schools to adopt some of our protocols. [WGU’s] whole focus from the beginning has been to extend to underserved populations and help them succeed.”

WGU is the only accredited online university in the country that awards degrees based on the competency system. To receive a degree under this system, students must demonstrate skill in their subject matter as opposed to accumulating credits. Students undergo a series of examinations to measure their expertise in their subject matter, such as field work evaluations, performance tests and projects.

This is all well and good, but I don’t get why the Gates Foundation would give money to a school to prove its own usefulness. I’m not privy to the world of such grants and studies, but isn’t this a conflict of interest? I’d think that money would be better spent on an independent third party that could evaluate WGU from the outside.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.