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WGU Labs receives grant to research inequities facing underserved students

Salt Lake City— WGU Labs, Inc., an affiliate of online nonprofit Western Governors University (WGU), announced today that it has received a planning grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support research on access and outcomes for WGU’s students of color, ethnic minorities, low-income students, and other student populations historically underserved by higher education.

Inequity remains one of higher education’s most pressing and persistent student success challenges. With this grant funding, WGU Labs—the university’s research and development hub and an accelerator for scalable EdTech solutions—will create a plan for research and improvement of student equity at WGU.

The project, known as the Equity Initiative at WGU, seeks to understand the systems and processes that lead to inequities for underserved student populations by examining the WGU student experience from application and enrollment through graduation. The research will aid in the discovery of processes that may contribute to inequitable academic outcomes for WGU students. WGU Labs will engage thousands of current and former WGU students, faculty, staff, and leadership to guide research and planning, and the findings will help WGU create and implement a plan for student equity over the next several years.

The first research report will be available in September of 2020, and subsequent reports will be published on a regular basis during each phase of the research. The project will be led by WGU Labs’ Research Scientist, Dr. Nicole Barbaro, Ph.D.

“We hope insights from our research will not only help shape how WGU attracts, retains, and graduates students in the future, but will also provide actionable insights to other institutions working to solve similar problems,” said Dr. Barbaro. “Making measurable progress toward equity at scale here at WGU will hopefully set an example for other institutions.”

More than 70 percent of WGU’s students come from one or more historically underserved populations: low-income earners, rural residents, students of color, and/or first-generation college students. The university consistently outperforms peer institutions in measures of access and affordability, innovative academic support, and postgraduation outcomes like student debt and career success for these populations. However, the fact that disparities remain means more must be done to close the gap and ensure pathways to opportunity through education for all.

“Partnering with foundations that share a passion for exploring new learning models and implementing new technologies that increase equity for underserved students is central to our mission,” said Annalisa Holcombe, President of WGU Advancement, the university’s fundraising arm that was created in 2018 to support efforts to expand access and improve outcomes.  WGU Advancement spearheaded collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund the Equity Initiative at WGU. “Finding scalable solutions that address student inequities at WGU and across higher education is possible with support from partners like the Gates Foundation.”

The grant for the Equity Initiative at WGU is the second gift secured in as many months to fund research led by WGU Labs. In April, WGU Labs announced the launch of the College Innovation Network—an initiative that will connect thought leaders from education institutions with educational technology innovators to advance students’ academic, career, and life outcomes—which is funded through a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. In addition to these research projects, WGU Labs signed its third partnership agreement last week with InScribe, with research and development already underway for Edquity and MajorClarity.