TACOMA, Wash. (AP) - Thousands of Washington residents are turning to the state's first nonprofit, online university to earn college degrees on their own schedule.
Since the Washington Legislature officially recognized Western Governors University in 2011, the number of students enrolling from this state has increased more than five-fold, The News Tribune reported.
About 5,300 state residents are currently enrolled in the online university. By partnering with WGU to create WGU Washington, the state Legislature ensured that the online school would be treated essentially as a Washington-based college, even though it is based in Salt Lake City.
Supporters say the program opens up more diverse learning opportunities for students, including displaced workers. Some worry that directing students to WGU widens the gap between them and students who can afford traditional college.
Jennifer Amato, 35, a mom from Puyallup, managed to find time between work and raising three kids on her own to earn a bachelor's degree in marketing this year. It took her just 17 months.
"I got home from work on Friday and loaded up on Red Bull," Amato told the newspaper. "My mom took my kids for three-day weekends and I knocked it out."
The school offers bachelor's or master's degrees in four areas, including business, information technology, health care and teaching. The university takes a competency-based approach to education. A student must achieve "competency" in a subject before earning credit.
There are no grades. The school says employers, who might wonder how to judge what a B or C student from other schools actually knows, can be confident that WGU graduates have mastered the skills they need for their fields.
WGU also is distinct from other schools because it awards credit without regard to time spent taking a class. Students pay by the six-month term, not by the credit hour, and can pack as many credits as they are able into a term.
Amato spent her final six-month term juggling a whopping 83 credits, far more than the 15 credits that typical University of Washington students take each quarter.
WGU doesn't get state funding. But lawmakers' endorsement was key to the nonprofit's surge in Washington enrollment, the News Tribune reported.
It also allows WGU to target advertising. The ads can play up the school's local connections, touting WGU Washington as a state-endorsed school.
And this year, lawmakers ensured that state financial aid could be used for WGU, just as it is for private schools.
Bill Lyne, president of United Faculty of Washington State, said that by advancing WGU, lawmakers are creating the "illusion" the state is producing more degrees even though they have slashed public funding for higher education.
"They are presenting it as a legitimate alternative to real college, as a way I think to further privatize higher education," Lyne told the newspaper.
Jean Floten, chancellor of WGU Washington, said the school breaks down barriers by giving a new opportunity to people who would never have attended college.
Robert Mendenhall, WGU's president, said the school's growth "hasn't resulted in decreased enrollments in the four-year public universities."
The school still requires the kind of hands-on training in teaching and nursing that brick-and-mortar schools do. But some school districts report that WGU graduates have additional hurdles to becoming student teachers.
"We've found sometimes the people who come out of online don't have as much hands-on experience," said Krista Carlson, spokeswoman for the Bethel School District in Spanaway, Wash. "With those folks, usually it requires an additional recommendation from a principal."
WGU costs $5,780 a year for a typical program, compared to about $12,397 at the University of Washington and $8,415 at The Evergreen State College.
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