I didn’t need the degree.
I was 30 years old with a family of four and I already worked my dream job as a marketing director for a private college without a single degree. I had written that idea off of going back to college years ago because the cost and time to acquire the degree were too great at that point in my life. The return on investment just wasn’t high enough for the cost involved.
Still… I wanted one.
I knew I was capable of it but the outcome did not justify the great costs of time and money to me.
That’s when I discovered Western Governors University.
This school was designed to help you fly through the material as fast as you are able and rewards you for it by charging you less. I honestly can’t tell enough people about it who felt like I did before I discovered the program.
I wanted to take a moment to explain the program, the approach I took, and the results I got after I earned my degrees.
How Western Governors University Works
WGU doesn’t have a campus, you don’t have to watch a single lecture, and you have a dedicated mentor who calls you weekly to help you through the program. It’s a very different program for a particular kind of student.
Let’s dive into the four key differences that allow you to go so fast:
1. Competency-Based Education
This is an educational philosophy that WGU is most well known for that says you should be able to prove that you know the material by demonstrating core competencies in the topic. In WGU, that means you can skip to the final exam or paper as soon as you start the course. All exams and papers are pass/fail and you can’t move forward until you pass.
Any course that ends with a final exam also includes a pretest that closely mirrors, but is not identical, to the final test. This allows you to assess your knowledge of the course without even cracking open the textbook.
2. Remote Test Proctoring
There are other college programs like CLEP and DANTES that allow you to “test out” of a course but you have to schedule, drive, and pay a fee to a testing location to take the test.
With WGU, you can do it from your own home, schedule it within an hour, and take multiple tests in a day if you want. They provide a remote proctor to watch you through a custom wide-angle lens webcam. It makes a huge difference in accelerating your time to graduation.
The cost of each exam is already included in the fixed rate cost of the program. This brings me to…
3. Fixed-Rate Six-Month Terms
Everything you need to graduate is covered in the cost of a fixed-rate six-month term and you’re allowed to take as many courses as you would like during that six months (even if it’s the whole degree program). So, if it cost $4,000 for a six-month term and you complete the whole degree in that term, then you only pay $4,000.
It is Accredited & 100% Legitimate
WGU is accreditated by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) as well as many other national accreditation institutions like the ACBSP for business schools.
They are widely accepted but, if your aim is to get into an elite graduate program, WGU might not be the best option for you. If that is your aim though, you probably wouldn’t be reading blog posts like this one. 😉
How I Accelerated My Progress
For starters, not everybody who goes through WGU goes as fast as I did and you’re allowed to go at a typical pace. My wife went through the BS in Business Management program and finished in 18 months after only transferring in 30 credits (still twice the normal speed). She could have gone faster but she wanted to go at a speed that felt thorough and diligent to her.
I took a different route to earn my BS in Marketing Management in 8 months and then my MBA with an emphasis on Information Technology Management in just 6 months. Many others have done it faster too. Felix Wong was a particular inspiration to me with his post on the topic.
While Felix had the luxury of working full time on his degree, I had to complete both of mine while working full time and still taking care of my family of four.
Here was my approach:
1. I Made Speed My Focus
I know myself well enough to know I do better in sprints than I do in motivational marathons. So, working fast was my plan. I had most of the knowledge coming into the program, I just needed to show it and take some time to fill in my gaps.
My goal was to go from zero to 120 credits in the shortest time possible for my undergraduate. I didn’t know how fast that would be, so I set three goals to aim for:
- Base Goal: 365 Days (12 Months)
- Green Goal: 240 Days (8 Months)
- Super Green Goal: 180 Days (6 Months)
I got so close to the super green goal, but one class (Fiance) put me back weeks, made me depressed (setting me back a few more weeks), and pushed me just under my green goal of 130 days. That’s a rate of a credit hour every other day.
After that, I knew I could get the MBA done in six months and I did. It was still hard though and I nearly got derailed by the project management course.
2. I Made a Plan For Every Class
For both degrees, I allotted a certain amount of days per class. I gave myself as little as two days for some classes and as much as 30 days for others. I always tried to do it faster than the number of days I had allotted to give myself extra days on classes that would prove to be more difficult than I thought.
At the beginning of my undergrad degree, I was knocking out a class every other day with many only taking a day to complete the 2-hour pretest in the morning and the final 2-hour test in the evening.
Classes like College Algebra, Finance, and IT Project Management hit me hard though, and I was thankful for those extra days I gained.
3. I Studied Ahead of the Program Start Date
Even before the start date, I got to work preparing for the courses I knew I would struggle more with. As a marketer, I knew my trouble would be with the three accounting and finance courses so I bought a few lightweight books on the topics and read them thoroughly to give myself a primer beforehand.
Here were the books that were the most helpful for me if want to prep for the same classes (I’ve heard from multiple business graduates now say that finance was the most difficult class).
4. I Took Advantage of the Two-Week Onboarding Time
WGU lets you start two weeks early to go through the short onboarding course they have. While they don’t let you take any final exams or submit papers, you still have access to the course material and paper rubrics.
To get a head start I wrote all the papers I could for the first three courses whose final was determined by papers. Two days ahead of the official start date, I took the pre-exam for the first test and made sure I was ready for the final exam.
That way, by 6:00 AM on my first official day, I had turned in the final papers for three courses and completed the final exam of another to knock out 12 credits before breakfast.
5. I Double Dipped School With Work
There were plenty of papers to write with fairly open rubrics on topics like HR, leadership, and marketing, so I would find relevant work projects for them. That way I could work on papers during work time.
6. I Took Risks
There were many times I risked taking an exam knowing I would be cutting it close. After all, you don’t have to pay to retake the exam (unless you have to retake it a third time) and you don’t get to move forward until you pass.
I passed all but one exam that I risked taking. If you fail, they will make you go back through the course more slowly and take all the little practice tests in the textbook throughout the course. It’s the right thing for them to do and you clearly need it if you missed the mark. The one time I had to do it cost me an extra 7 days to requalify for the final exam.
7. I Influenced My Capstone Group Projects To Move Fast
Both of my degrees had massive capstone projects that required large papers, exams, and a group project.
That group project can drag on if you don’t take control of it and influence the group to knock it out faster rather than slower. Since other team members in that group will also have terms closing in a month or two, it’s not too hard to persuade the group. Still, a good amount of charm, compassion, and making the best accommodations for the concerns of others will go a long way to help them see your point of view.
8. I Leaned Into My Experience
This is the largest point that you need to take into consideration when reading blogs like this one and others. I came into these degrees with ten years of experience and having read a few hundred business, leadership, and career books already. That’s the key thing that helped me test out of so many classes in a single day.
The one time I recommended WGU to a recent high school grad, it did not go as well as we had hoped.
Still, even if you haven’t read hundreds of books, you’d be surprised how much of the knowledge is common sense for those who have been working in a company for a few years. All those annual HR meetings, IT security memos, and marketing experiments add up to more knowledge than you would think.
9. I Utilized Good Test Taking Practices
All the same test-taking practices you’ve utilized before apply. Here were some of my favorites:
- Chew gum – I always had a fresh stick ready to go to keep me alert during the test.
- Cram before bed – I usually spent 15 minutes reviewing my study guide or key terms before going to bed if I was taking a test the next morning.
- Skip hard questions and come back to them afterward.
- Use the process of elimination to narrow down the right options (nearly all tests are multiple choice).
- Come into the tests well-rested.
10. I Took the PreTests First
The profs and your mentor will tell you to save the pretest until you have spent some time on the material. This is the wrong approach even if you want to take your time.
Always start each course with the pretest to reveal how much of the topic you already know and which subtopics you are weak in. If you pass, you will still know which sub-topics to spend a little bit of time in before you take the final exam. If you fail, then you have a clear guide on which sections you might already know and can pass over before you retake the pretest.
Was It Worth It?
Short Answer: Yes, it was 100% worth it.
Is it the same as getting a Harvard, Wharton, or Kellogg MBA? Not even close, but neither is getting a degree from the no-name school down the street or your state college. I’ve found that people don’t really care where you got your degree as long as you have it. The one exception is if you went to a very competitive/famous school.
You have to look at it in terms ROI (Return on Investment) which is the total outcome divided by the total cost of the investment.
What Was the Cost?
I paid $1,200 for the BS In Marketing Management (tuition minus what I got in the pell grant) and I paid $3,800 for the MBA (It was $4,200 minus the alumni scholarship worth $500).
That’s about $5,000 cash I paid out of pocket.
As for the time commitment, I worked HARD for those 14 months to wake up at 4:00 AM most mornings and then spent three long evenings a week studying and taking tests. I also spent an additional 8 hours over the weekend in different chunks on top of waking up early. It took some toll on my wife and kids but not so much that we look back on that season of life with any kind of regret.
What Were the Outcomes?
Here’s what I gained:
- A different level of confidence. I have a lot less imposter syndrome now.
- Two years after I finish I changed jobs and my income went up by 40%.
- Four years later my income is up 120% from that time.
It’s hard to pin down if it was the degrees, the confidence, or all the other stuff I did that led to the success. I honestly think it’s a combination of everything that led to where I’m at today. People have made small remarks multiple times about my degree in positive ways that have revealed to me that they see it and make assumptions about what I can do as a result.
A college degree is one element of many but it is, in my opinion, a solid element of success.
If I had to spend $30-100k and six years of my life, I would have found a different way, but at the cost of $5k and 14 months, WGU makes it a no-brainer.
The ROI makes it well worth it.
What Others Have Said
I’ve had the privilege of encouraging a few others to do the same since I graduated. Here’s what they’ve said:
“Hey Dan, I just wanted to follow up with you. It was about this time last year that I was starting my degree at WGU in software development. I saw that you had gone to WGU and I reached out to you to get any tips. You sent me a super helpful video that I was greatly encouraged by. Since then, I have graduated from WGU in about 9 months thanks to your tips about just taking the preassessment first and attempting to finish classes in a single day. I always enjoy reading your content on LinkedIn and am thankful for people like you who are willing to invest in others that you don’t even know. Thanks man! Keep up the good work!” —Ethan Sanders
“WGU was a game-changer for me. I had 1yr of my college done when I got back into WGU. I finished the next “3yrs” of college work in just 6 months to earn my undergrad in Business Management. Then I was able to finish my MBA in just 4 months.” All while working full-time and preparing for our first child. Dan was a huge inspiration to get started and his advice on just charging forward with pre-assessments was dead-on.” —Matt Tibbets
This can be you too. You don’t have to wonder if going back to get your degree is realistic. You can do it!