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WGU Lassoes Texas

August 4, 2011

Western Governors University continued to live up to its name on Wednesday, as Texas Governor Rick Perry announced a partnership with the fast-growing online institution — and was promptly showered with praise from nearly everyone.

Western Governors, a regionally accredited, nonprofit university founded in 1997 by 18 politicians who held that office at that time, represents an alternative model of higher education that has garnered both praise and skepticism.

Aimed at working adults (the average student is 36), Western Governors confers bachelors and master’s degrees based on a student’s ability to demonstrate skills. There are no classrooms and no professors. Students learn online and mostly on their own, with light guidance from their advisers. They take proctored tests at local testing centers whenever they feel they are ready. Students pay tuition — between $2,890 and $4,250, depending on the program — every six months until they graduate, which 40 percent of them do within four years. (First-time, full-time students are considerably less successful, graduating at a 22 percent rate.)

The partnership with Texas will create a state-branded version of Western Governors called WGU-Texas. Texas is the third state to create a local version of Western Governors, which is based in Salt Lake City, Utah; Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels created WGU-Indiana last summer, and the Washington State legislature voted WGU-Washington into existence earlier this year.

Like Indiana and Washington, Texas will not allocate any money out of its state budget to Western Governors, which supports itself based on tuition. However, a Western Governors spokeswoman says the university is currently working with Texas officials to allow Texas residents to spend in-state financial aid grants on the Utah-based institution.

Amid deep cuts to public higher education budgets, Governor Perry earlier this year challenged state institutions to come up with some way to offer a four-year degree program for the total price of $10,000. Alas, WGU-Texas is not the answer to that challenge, said Catherine Frazier, a Perry spokeswoman. The average Western Governors graduate earns a degree in 30 months, or five pay periods; including fees, that means $14,735 for the least expensive degrees (information technology and business), and $21,890 for the most expensive (nursing pre-licensure).

“But, certainly, having this affordable option does prove that a degree can be offered by an institution at an affordable price,” Frazier said.

In its effort to expand into various states, Western Governors has faced criticism from some educators, particularly in Washington state. “[B]rain research demonstrates that real learning requires students to struggle with difficult material under the consistent guidance of good teachers,” wrote Johann Neem, an associate professor of history at Western Washington University, in an April op-ed for The Seattle Times. “WGU denies students these opportunities. In fact, its advertisements pander to prospective students by offering them credit for what they already know rather than promising to teach them something new.”

But advocates say the Western Governors model has its place in the constellation of state higher education systems. For adult students who possess the knowledge and skills to bypass a chunk of the curriculum — either because they have some prior college or because they have picked it up in their working lives — the competency-based model is a good way to avoid the tedium and expense of sitting through redundant classes, the Center for Adult and Experiential Learning has said.

“The idea is that these adult learners will bring certain skills and knowledge to the table and that they [will] be able to use them to accelerate progress toward an academic degree and advance in the workforce,” said Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, in an e-mail. “While students will typically be able to gain course credit for having specific knowledge in certain areas, students reach a point at which they acquire new knowledge and skills beyond their existing levels,” Chavez said. “These are the skills that take them to the next level and that offer increased workforce opportunities.”

The WGU-Texas announcement met with glowing praise elsewhere. The partnership “will help address our state's key workforce needs while offering affordable career and continuing education opportunities to Texans over 30," said State Senator Judy Zaffirini, a Democrat who chairs the state senate’s higher education committee, in a statement.

“This low-cost alternative will expand access to more Texans, engaging our diverse student population and upholding our statewide commitment to help more students reach their academic and lifelong goals,” wrote the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of former administrative heavyweights from the Texas higher ed system who have challenged much of Governor Perry's higher education agenda.

Rey Garcia, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, said his organization was planning a statewide articulation agreement with WGU-Texas that would make it easy for students to finish their bachelor’s degrees at Western Governors after two years at community college. “The traditional universities don’t make it terribly easy for students with an applied science degree [at a community college] to transfer into a baccalaureate,” Garcia said in an interview. “WGU is a lot more flexible in that regard.”

Garcia added that he is not worried students will skip the community colleges altogether and opt for all four years at WGU-Texas because “they’re considerably more expensive than we are.”

But Mary Aldridge Dean, executive director of the Texas Faculty Association, said prospective students — especially younger ones — should consider more than just the price tag when considering enrolling at WGU-Texas.

Dean pointed to recent research showing that community college students who take in online courses are more likely to fail than those who take face-to-face courses. When the bar for admission is low, the likelihood that a student might not have the discipline or academic savvy to complete a degree program is high. And Western Governors’ hands-off instruction model, where students are mostly left to learn from course materials rather than live teachers, will probably increase that risk, Dean said.

“I worry that a lot of this is smoke and mirrors,” she said. “They’ve always played the numbers here with these things, and that’s what I’m afraid they’re going to do with this.”

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