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Jean Floten: Disrupting higher education, one click at a time

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 1, 2017, 9:25 a.m.

I earned my higher education stripes at brick-and-mortar institutions, first teaching at a university, followed by student services and instructional administration, then as president of Bellevue College for more than two decades. Over a 45-year career, I’ve witnessed amazing innovations in postsecondary learning and been privileged to contribute during that extraordinary era.

Almost 20 years ago, while at Bellevue College, I learned that 19 U.S. governors – including then-Washington Gov. Mike Lowry – had launched the first competency-based, non-profit, online university. Together, as the Western Governors Association, they demonstrated incredible foresight by applying distance learning technologies to tackle one of the region’s most pressing problems: rapid population growth and constricting public funds for much needed educational services.

They called their new institution Western Governors University (WGU), and it was radical and revolutionary. Among the ways:

  • It was collaborative among each governor’s home jurisdiction, but was self-sustaining, rather than subsidized by tax dollars.
  • Advancement toward graduation was measured using competencies instead of seat time; every student could progress through course material at a customized pace.
  • WGU offered accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees to more people, including those classified as underserved, with a commitment to quality and affordability.

Meanwhile, Bellevue College had recently become a “brick-and-click” institution with a small offering of online programs. I held my breath with skepticism that something as transformational as WGU could truly work.

Fast forward to 2011. The model was working so well the state’s Legislature, in an effort to raise the statewide profile of the online university and enroll more Washingtonians in degree programs, partnered with Western Governors University and launched WGU Washington. Intrigued and excited, I received the opportunity to become WGU Washington’s first chancellor. I jumped on board and haven’t looked back since.

Now, after guiding WGU Washington through nearly six years of record-setting growth and seeing how the university truly impacts people’s lives, I’m retiring. That said, I will always be an unflinching advocate of WGU and its groundbreaking model.

Time and again, our students have fulfilled the vision of those pioneering governors and proven this grand venture works. What many once considered a radical experiment in educational delivery is now the disruptive innovator in higher learning in this state.

Late last year, WGU Washington’s annual enrollment topped 10,000 students, a 1,100 percent increase since 2011. More importantly, over 7,500 men and women have earned degrees from the university and added new skills and talents to the state’s workforce.

Washington is home to more WGU students than any other state. Our average student is 37 years old, has a family, and, most likely, a full-time job. They are folks willing to work hard to get their families up the economic ladder, and they are doing it every day in every county across the state. Most thought a college degree was a distant dream – that it cost too much, they couldn’t work and go to school, their family responsibilities prevented it. WGU Washington changed that and made reaching for higher aspirations a real possibility.

From day one, WGU was designed to be a game changer in the educational space – proving that an affordable degree is within reach for everyone, regardless of time, place and pace. The university has found a niche in this state, fortifying a robust portfolio of top-quality, postsecondary institutions.

The Pacific Northwest has a distinguished history of fostering innovation, for upending and disrupting old conventions and bucking trends. We embrace risk-takers and trailblazers. I’m proud that WGU Washington continues to be part of that long tradition – and energized by what lies ahead for our state.

Jean Floten retired on Tuesday as the chancellor of WGU Washington, where she was awarded the title of chancellor emeritus.

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