When Western Governors University opened its virtual doors in 1999, the nonprofit, all-online university founded by a bipartisan group of 19 U.S. governors was surviving on grant money and struggling to "sell" an unproven academic model to potential students.

Today, thanks in large part to the leadership of its president, Robert Mendenhall, WGU has an enrollment of 24,000 students and is self-sustaining, despite tuition of less than $6,000 per year.

Mendenhall's leadership has led to some of WGU's most notable traits, in particular its "competency-based" learning model. Rather than sitting in classes, online or in person, WGU students get the opportunity regularly to demonstrate their competence in course subject matter, with faculty serving as mentors — a "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage." WGU's decision to measure actual learning as opposed to time in classrooms is ideal for the busy adult learners attracted to the university: average time to complete a bachelor's degree at WGU is 30 months.

And those degrees are worth something: WGU is accredited by several major accreditation agencies.

Mendenhall's leadership has helped WGU achieve one of its founding goals: helping bridge the gap between the one-third of U.S. adults who have completed a bachelor's degree and the two-thirds of today's jobs that require bachelor's degrees.

More than 80 percent of WGU's students are low-income, ethnic minorities, residents of rural communities or first-generation college students. The average WGU student is 36 years old with a family and a full-time job — a life situation that makes WGU an ideal educational choice.