Western Governors University Praised for Reducing Student Debt

Published October 26, 2016

Western Governors University (WGU), an online, nonprofit university, is receiving praise for its Responsible Borrowing Initiative (RBI), a program to reduce student loan debt.

Total outstanding student loan debt in the United States has now reached $1.26 trillion, more than the nation’s credit card debt. WGU’s RBI program has reduced its students’ borrowing by 41 percent since it was first implemented in 2013. From 2013 to 2016, students who borrowed money to attend WGU decreased their average annual borrowing from $7,870 to $4,640 per year.

The American Association of University Administrators awarded WGU’s Responsible Borrowing Initiative its Exemplary Model Award in August for reducing student borrowing at WGU by $400 million. 

WGU’s vice president for financial aid, Bob Collins, developed the Responsible Borrowing Initiative. Collins supervised the creation of a simple, one-page statement customized for each student accepted to WGU. It states the cost of tuition at WGU, any grant aid the student will receive, and the minimum loan the student needs to borrow to cover “direct costs,” meaning tuition and fees.

A typical letter issued by most universities to a student about financial aid states the maximum amount the student can borrow from the federal government.

“Students entering WGU with more than $30,000 debt from prior student loans are assigned to participate in the program,” WGU’s website says. “Our goal is not to deter students from attending WGU, but to ensure that every student receives the financial resources needed to graduate without incurring unnecessary additional student debt. This program is not optional and students who meet the criteria will be included in the program.”

‘A User-Friendly Tool’

Mollie McGill, director of programs and membership for the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education’s Cooperative for Educational Technologies, says WGU’s program should be model for other educational institutions.

“The initiative demonstrates WGU’s commitment to affordability and provides a model that any institution, regardless of size and mission, could replicate,” McGill said. “The student loan debt problem in the United States is huge. WGU has created a user-friendly tool for students in their financial aid decisions, and the initial results of the Responsible Borrowing Initiative clearly show that it is achieving its goals.”


Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at Cappex.com, a website that connects students with colleges and scholarships, says compared to WGU, the U.S. Department of Education takes the opposite position on student borrowing.

“Department of Education guidance precludes colleges from limiting borrowers to just direct charges,” Kantrowitz said. “But nothing stops [colleges] from making recommendations to their students.”

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.