A Republican governor and a Democratic governor in 1996 teamed up to convince the leaders of 17 states to create the all-online, competency-based Western Governors University. It was as bipartisan a venture as one could hope to find in politics.
“It was the liberal governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, and the conservative governor of Utah, Michael Levitt, who joined forces to create this new university,” said Russ Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. “It grew out of a joint frustration of the existing public systems in their states to meet the needs of their growing populaces and to be innovative.”
At the time, few outside of those states paid much attention to the young university and the bipartisan effort that produced it. Nearly 20 years later, WGU is now a fully accredited institution with 40,000 students – and online education as a whole is receiving more political attention than ever before.
But many of today’s politicians, observers said, may be approaching the issue along more predictably partisan lines than lawmakers in the 1990s and early 2000s.
It’s not that either of the two major parties have more appreciation for online learning than the other, Poulin said. Rather, they tend to support different forms of online learning for political reasons.
“The party divide has tended to be more along the line of higher education sectors,” Poulin said. “There are those who conflate this with a divide in the use of online because they think that online courses are offered only by for-profits institutions.”
When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, campaigned for president in 2012, he frequently praised the for-profit Full Sail University.
The university’s CEO, Bill Heavener, gave the maximum $2,500 to Romney’s campaign and another $45,000 to the super PAC that supported Romney for president.
Full Sail offers 25 fully-online master’s and bachelor’s programs. As funding for public higher education continues to dramatically decrease, for-profit online programs are an attractive option for conservative politicians.