fizkes via shutterstock
(Fizkes via shutterstock)


For thousands of Connecticut residents, one of the adverse impacts of the coronavirus pandemic is the disruption of their plans to pursue a college degree. This fall, Connecticut’s community colleges have 15 percent fewer students than a year ago, exceeding the national average of a 9 percent enrollment drop, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

These numbers surely represent dreams deferred; every effort needs to be made now to ensure that they do not become dreams denied.

At a time when employees are furloughed, jobs are eliminated altogether, children are learning from home, and industries are making fundamental shifts to new ways of operating, strong career pathways supported by relevant higher education are more important than ever.

In-demand jobs and career paths remain, and projections point to increasing needs for skilled professionals in fields ranging from healthcare to education to information technology. Connecticut, which didn’t recover all jobs lost in the last recession, will need all-hands-on-deck to achieve economic growth when the pandemic eventually lessens. Education will play a vital role in assuring people of every age, background, and economic circumstance have the opportunity to succeed.

Many enroll in a community college or traditional university to establish that path forward, but circumstances have forced difficult decisions with potential far-reaching consequences for prospective students and their families – and our economy. Black and Latinx families have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, which in turn has forced many to set aside or interrupt college plans.

What’s more, Connecticut’s promising free community college program for lower-income students is in jeopardy, with state funding promised but not certain. The University of Connecticut has announced its similar initiative – the “Connecticut Commitment” – has been suspended. It was projected to benefit 6,000 students over the next four years.

The pressing question is this:  How, in the midst of a pandemic, can the dream of higher education continue to be realized for the thousands of Connecticut residents who need a workable pathway to education that meets the moment, and keeps them on track to build the better future they desire.

The barriers are substantial, but fortunately, there are options. Connecticut’s outstanding colleges, public and private, are continuing to provide life-changing education for many, making a difference in countless lives. For some students or would-be students, however, another approach might make getting a degree or industry-relevant certification more attainable.

Connecticut enrollment in competency-based degree programs at Western Governors University (WGU) has more than tripled during the past five years, especially in the urgently in-demand field of nursing. For the 2,000 Connecticut-based WGU students and alumni, this model can be the difference that makes possible achieving a college degree and advancing in their career.

For example, WGU Master of Science in Nursing student Stephanie Tomaino said that her ability to continue with her studies while also working full-time in the cardiac ICU of Hartford Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic would have been impossible without the flexibility of the WGU model.

Since 1997, nonprofit Western Governors University (WGU) has provided accredited, career-relevant degree programs through an online, asynchronous, competency-based model. Through this unique approach, students accelerate through their learning at their individual pace, fitting their studies into the spaces of their lives. Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge, rather than “hours” spent in a classroom.

One of the most important elements of WGU’s model is customized, one-on-one support for each student; every WGU student is assigned a program mentor – a faculty member with advanced degrees and relevant experience in a field of study. Mentors provide individualized learning support to keep learners motivated and on track to complete their degrees.

The key is a focus on skill-based mastery that leads to career advancement, at a cost much lower than other universities, with a flexible schedule that allows learners to stay employed while earning a degree and move at an accelerated pace. It also is a way to help retain homegrown talent in Connecticut – an attractive prospect for local businesses.

Even as Connecticut’s impressive higher education institutions continue to fulfill their essential role in preparing Connecticut residents for their futures, WGU offers a way forward for those facing barriers to traditional, on-campus education, providing a distinction that can make a positive difference.

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 120,000 students, including 700 students and 1,200 alumni in Connecticut.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that has nearly 800 students in Connecticut, and more than 1,450 alumni in the state.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.