Note: This is not a disparagement post. I had a good experience at WGU because I knew what I wanted to get out of my time there and where I’d need to look elsewhere for some deeper understanding. I completed the degree very quickly, and I think it’s important to be realistic about anything that seems too good to be true.

My background

I have written in the past about my experience attending Vanderbilt University’s coding bootcamp back in 2019. For me, it was a positive experience where I understood both the benefits that it would provide, but also the downsides compared to traditional education. That coursework landed me my first job in software development, and I’ve continued to be successful over the last five years. But at the same time, public perception of bootcamps (and hiring budding software developers) has changed for the worse.

In light of the recent trends of layoffs and hard market conditions for software engineers, I decided to hedge my bets. I looked into a computer science masters degree – Georgia Tech’s OMSCS program was particularly exciting to me. However, my last math course I barely passed and even if they were to accept it would have been completed the better part of 15 years ago. Not exactly a strong candidate. I needed a way to bridge that academic experience gap and preferably a quick one, considering I already have an undergraduate degree. There’s ways to do that via community college classes, MOOCs, or other “shortcuts”, but for me the obvious choice was to just suck it up and get a computer science bachelors degree.

To that end, I stumbled on the solution many others before me have discovered – Western Governors University. The premise is simple: you earn a degree and proceed at your own pace. I don’t mean you get to set your own hours or you can study when you want to. WGU is competency-based. If you can prove you are competent in a subject, you pass and immediately move on to the next class (some small exceptions notwithstanding). Typically you’d prove competency with an all-or-nothing test or with a hands-on project. This is perfect because if you have working experience, chances are you are already competent at a lot of things, like building web UIs or writing SQL statements.

So, I enrolled in the WGU BSCS program, and I’m happy to announce that I’ve completed it!

The catch: it only took 3 months.

Don’t get me wrong. I started on November 1, 2023 and completed a bachelors degree by February 1, 2024. I know that my experience is an outlier. It’s a very convenient way to earn a degree and if I got laid off tomorrow at least I could say that I have a bachelors in computer science and be reasonably competitive in the job market. Something just feels wrong about getting a degree that fast, and I simply must question the competency methodology.

On Rigor

The word “rigor” is tossed around a lot when discussing collegiate course load. WGU is no different in that regard (it is a university after all), but what is different is how students are graded. WGU students like to tout that their courses are just as rigorous as brick-and-mortar (B&M) schools. I think that can be addressed in two parts.

The material no doubt is equally rigorous. This much can’t really be argued because the courses use the exact same textbooks as traditional schools would. I found the ebook platform that WGU uses to be even better than physical textbooks in some cases, especially for math, because it makes the diagrams, flowcharts, and problem sets interactive. In fact, I ended up buying some of the textbooks second hand to read through in more depth this summer when I have more free time.

There aren’t really any “lectures” per se – you’re pretty much expected to teach yourself the material, at your own pace, however you can. For people that don’t learn well from books and reading, that can possibly artifically raise the difficulty of the class, but I wouldn’t qualify that as more or less “rigorous” than lecture-based classes.

I think the competency model is significantly less rigorous than traditional examination models. That comes in two flavors: exams and projects. WGU calls exams Objective Assessments (OAs) and projects Performance Assessments (PAs).

Objective Assessments

Objective Assessments are exams that essentially function as all-or-nothing finals for each course. The way it works is the course picks some core competencies that it wants to cover and then asks you (mostly) multiple-choice questions relating to those. In theory, this more or less objectively gauges how competent you are.

In practice, a single exam simply can’t cover the breadth or depth of knowledge that a traditional class would. For my original undergrad you might need to take five exams over the course of a semester with each of the first four exams to cover roughly 1/4 of the material and those would be followed by an all-encompassing final. All the exams would be more or less the same number of questions but you might see a mix of question types like multiple choice, essay, fill-in-the-blank, problem solving, etc. The first exams could reasonably go into more detail than the final exam just due to time constraints. All in all that would give good coverage of the material.

Now imagine a model where you’ve eliminated the first four exams and left only the final which encompasses only 50 to 75 questions. And for good measure it’s only multiple choice. Also the questions are 90% similar to the practice exams that WGU not only provides but requires you to take before you can start the Objective Assessment.

That simply cannot be considered as rigorous as a traditional school. It’s great for going fast, but not great for truly testing your knowledge of the material. It lead to some really hilarious class completion times on the order of less than two hours for classes that I had some passing experience in. Or that time my eyes glazed over reading the operating systems textbook and I skipped 1/4 of the material and passed the exam anyway (don’t worry, it’s one I’ll re-read later because I’m interested in it).

Performance Assessments

Performance Assessments are like the individual projects you needed to do at traditional schools. You might be given a coding problem to solve, or write a paper, or some other task. I found these to be really contrived. For instance, if I was writing a software design document, I’d be expected to come up with the business problem I was trying to solve in addition to the actual solution. It’s almost like writing a solution then coming up with a problem, and then taking that one more step further and coming up with the business that’s having that problem. It’s a really weird way to prompt for the task – I didn’t personally have a lot of difficulty with that due to experience but someone who has no industry experience is really going to struggle to imagine how the QA department at a mid-sized dev consultancy works (if that’s what they chose as their business).

There’s also a lot of frustration here because at least some of the projects should be autograded. There’s no excuse for an algorithms class to not be autograded, and yet, the WGU version is a single algorithm that can be implemented with a nested loop that isn’t graded for accuracy. Oh, and there’s a huge paper to go with it, too.

PAs are all graded manually as well. Screw up that algorithms assignment? Well, you’ll have to wait 3 more days before your examiner can get a chance to look at it. I messed up something minor in the PA for a version control class (essentially git 101) and that one took me almost a week to complete just due to waiting on an examiner to be available. All in spite of the fact, of course, that I make many times as many commits, merges, squashes, conflicts, and reviews in my day job as what that class required.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Alright, I don’t want to come across as all bad. It’s really not. As I said before in my bootcamp post, it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you get into it. If you know that, you can make informed decisions that net you good results.

Is WGU the new bootcamp? I’m not sure. On one hand, the material is definitely rigorous. On the other hand, I can’t see how the competency model isn’t lacking compared to traditional school. Cost is also a huge factor (roughtly $4,300 per 6 month term at time of writing).

The big draw is you can go fast (like, really fast). That’s got some huge upsides, but I can’t help shake the thought that sometimes faster is too fast, and I’d hate for people’s perception of the school to sour because of it.

For me, this is just a box to check – I now have a BSCS. This isn’t a terminal degree for me. I have applied to a few masters programs (GT OMSCS included) and hope to hear back shortly about how my educational journey will continue.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!