Model online school gets big gift from Gates Foundation

WGU Indiana students graduate in an average of two and a half years.

An expanding online university that allows students to move through coursework based on competency, not just class credits, received a $4.5 million grant that will be used to bolster its web-based programs in Indiana, Washington state, and Texas.

Western Governors University (WGU), a Utah-based nonprofit online school formed in 1999 with about 20,000 students nationwide, announced Aug. 29 that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had awarded the grant in support of the university’s newest statewide programs.

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WGU’s first subsidiary, WGU Indiana, was made available in early 2010 to any qualified Indiana resident interested in the school’s four colleges: business, information technology, health professions, and teachers college.

The Gates Foundation, known for its prolific grants to K-12 schools and college initiatives, selected WGU’s subsidiary programs largely because students there can advance toward a degree by demonstrating knowledge and skills, rather than taking redundant credit hours, said Hilary Pennington, the foundation’s director of postsecondary success.

“College students have changed, and it’s time higher education made some changes to keep up with them,” said Pennington, adding that the foundation awarded the grant to WGU “because they have a strong track record of providing a high-quality, affordable, and flexible college experience that meets the needs of today’s students.”

Students enrolled in WGU Indiana classes pay about $6,000 a year, according to the university. Shortly after WGU Indiana’s launch, a legislator in Washington state called for an identical online model there, and lawmakers in other states expressed interest.

Boosting financial support for nontraditional colleges and universities while the economy remains mired in high unemployment, Pennington said, should be a priority for any organization looking to help people earn an education.

“In these tough economic times, it is more important than ever to support students who are juggling jobs and families while trying to make a better life for themselves,” she said.

A partnership with the nationally-accredited WGU would mean the state’s students could transfer course credits from the university to other state institutions.

Students attending WGU subsidiaries also could use state-issued grants and scholarships at the school if lawmakers agree to team up with WGU.

WGU’s online offerings have also been lauded for its flexibility.

WGU students can enroll at the start of any month—not just the start of a semester in August or January—and enroll in any number of courses for the six-months terms.

That has translated to an accelerated education for many WGU Indiana students, who graduate from the institution in two and a half years, according to the school’s website.

WGU Indiana’s enrollment has grown from around 300 when the school opened in June 2010 to more than 1,300 last May. The university employs more than 100 Indiana residents.

Washington Sen. Jim Kastama, a Democrat, said in January that teaming up with WGU would be a way for Washington to meet its “huge unmet need for higher education,” especially during the nation’s economic downturn, when millions have gone back to college to attain extra education while they’re unemployed or underemployed.

“This would add capacity at a time when our schools have no choice but to turn away working men and women who desperately need to be educated for new jobs in new fields,” Kastama said. “The need for such an institution can’t be understated. … It makes sense to make it more accessible to our many students who want a college education but can’t find a seat in a classroom at our overcrowded schools.”

Nearly seven in 10 Washington jobs will require some postsecondary education by 2018, and between 2011-18, jobs requiring some college experience will increase by 250,000, Washington state lawmakers said in a proclamation issued after forming the state’s WGU program.

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