Gov. Bill Haslam spent last summer crisscrossing the state in an effort to brainstorm ideas about improving higher education in Tennessee. As a result, Haslam is pushing a state partnership with Western Governor’s University, a private, nonprofit online school.
WGU has received national accolades for its forward-thinking ways of administering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Instead of degree completion focusing on the time spent in class, WGU has “competency-based” course completion.
That means students progress through classes once they have mastered assessments — and they work at their own pace. The competency measures are established in collaboration with experts and business leaders in the field.
“Our average student is 37 years old, has a job and usually a family. So they are people who have a lot of other obligations and responsibilities that make it difficult for them to go to an on-campus university or even an online university where you have to be online at a certain time,” WGU public relations coordinator Joan Mitchell said.
Degree programs are offered in business, health care, information technology and teacher education. The class schedule is divided up into two six-month terms, and students complete as much work as they can during that time frame. During the competency-based assessments, students are monitored by webcams provided by the school to ensure integrity.
WGU even offers teacher licensure, as the only online college accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. It partners with local school districts to fulfill student teaching requirements.
The WGU Tennessee initiative is part of what Haslam is calling the “Drive to 55” — an effort to boost the percentage of adults with college degrees to 55 percent from its current number of 32 percent. WGU costs about $6,000 per year, and it takes most students about two-and-a-half years to finish.
However, due to the Web-based nature of the program, Tennessee residents can already sign up for WGU — whether the state supports it or not.
The most recent completion and placement report for WGU, a report required of all certified postsecondary schools, shows that of 96 students who completed WGU degree, only 26 of them were placed in jobs in their field in 2011. During the prior year, none of the 51 graduates were placed in the field.
But Mitchell says those numbers are deceiving.
“Placement is a harder one for us because about two-thirds of our students are already employed full time,” Mitchell said. “A lot of times, they get a promotion. ... Some are career changers so they will move, but it’s a little different from a traditional university.”
The state’s support for WGU, specifically, amounts to a one-time $5 million contribution in next year’s budget for startup costs. WGU Tennessee will have office space and a chancellor, but no classrooms. Most of the state’s involvement amounts to marketing.
“A majority of Tennessee residents still haven’t heard of WGU, so by establishing a state-based WGU Tennessee, we’re able to commit some resources that will increase awareness statewide,” Mitchell said. “We find that both employers and students ... find that the state-based university has a lot more credibility. They are a lot more comfortable with it.”
Enrollment at WGU in Indiana increased tenfold in two years after the creation of a state-based university, according to WGU’s 2012 annual report.
WGU does have a few legislative hurdles to clear before final approval. First, the legislature has to approve a bill that provides an exemption for “nonprofit, online universities” from the Postsecondary Education Authorization Act. The exemption from the PEAA means that WGU-TN will operate like any other nonprofit university in the state and not be subject to state oversight and reporting regulations.
The legislature must also approve the budget — including the $5 million payment toward WGU-Tennessee. Haslam believes the investment will pay off.
“In the next five years, more than half of the jobs in Tennessee will require post-secondary school credentials,” Haslam said. “WGU Tennessee will fill a critical gap in our higher education landscape.”