On April 16, graduates of Western Governors University Washington will file into Key Arena in Seattle to accept their diplomas. The commencement ceremony may be the only activity that resembles traditional college.
WGU Washington was begun five years ago, and enrollment has grown to nearly 8,900. The mission was to provide an alternative learning experience, especially for midcareer workers in underserved populations, such as rural residents, minorities and first-generation college students. It now has students in all 39 counties.
This isn’t a high-tuition, for-profit institution, such as University of Phoenix or Corinthian Colleges. It’s a nonprofit that is endorsed by the state but receives no tax dollars. WGU Washington has received extensive accreditation and offers more than 50 undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, information technology, teacher education and health professions.
The cost of tuition is about $6,000 a year, and students are eligible for state need grants and other aid, such as the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.
Students can start when they want and can graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a lot less time than at a traditional university. A master’s in business administration can be had for $12,000. Students are tested for competency to determine their starting point, and they proceed at a pace they can handle. No waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.
Though students log in from remote locales, they are not left alone. As soon as they tap the keyboard, they’re being monitored. Mentors, who have at least a master’s degree, check in at least once a week and help set goals. They are held accountable for student progress.
The system works well for motivated students for whom time is precious. They must attend full-time, but 82 percent of them still hold down jobs. WGU Washington makes sure its teaching translates to the real world by consulting with businesses about what their workers need to know. Students are assessed accordingly.
The school has graduated more than 5,500 students into fields such as information technology, nursing and teaching, all areas of high demand. WGU Washington is the leading producer of STEM educators.
A fourth of all graduates choose to continue their education, and 92 percent of them are employed. Surveys of graduates reveal high satisfaction. They’ve found higher-paying jobs and earned promotions.
WGU Washington has established a competency-based, results-oriented educational system. “We measure everything,” Chancellor Jean Floten said. She was initially skeptical of online learning, having spent more than 20 years directing Bellevue College. But she’s now a convert.
Online learning isn’t for everyone, but it fits the targeted demographic well. The average age of a student is 38. They need to learn, and learn fast.
Brick-and-mortar universities are expensive, pricing out many students. Plus, they move too slowly for people in need of a midcareer change.
WGU Washington started with the promise of delivering an accessible, practical alternative. It’s not only making the grade, it could teach traditional universities a few lessons.
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