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.

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