Online degree program alternative to overstuffed schools

State-endorsed nonprofit college pushed as option

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 
photoJim Stewart

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Local grad lauds WGU path

Orchards resident Jim Stewart had no intent to collect yet another college degree, he said.

But when Stewart learned of the Western Governors University online program, he was instantly intrigued. He works as the director of distance education for Western Seminary, which operates a Portland campus and two more in California.

“What caught me was the nexus between ‘education’ and ‘technology.’ If there’s anything that’s important now, it’s how we use the two to improve learning,” Stewart said. “Add the words ‘online’ and ‘affordable’ and ‘accelerated’ and you had me.”

While family circumstances slowed his path, Stewart, 59, completed his master’s degree in Education Learning and Technology through WGU to burnish his own first-hand knowledge and credentials.

“The terrain is changing so quickly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 35, 45 or going on 60, you need to be a player,” he said.

In an email, Stewart listed WGU’s program attributes he most appreciated.

n Spot-on degree focus. Stewart found his study program had immediate application and “invaluable insights” in today’s teaching field.

n Problem-solving approach. From the start, Stewart was asked for “a real educational problem I was facing,” and then was guided to produce a solution, even while picking up a degree. “In the end I had a complete, tested, faculty technology training program that we are hoping to use at our three campuses in the next year. This was not busy work; it was absolutely related to my professional goals and needs. Talk about a two-fer.”

n Competency-based design. At first annoyed to not earn a perfect score on one assignment, he came to admire the breadth and depth of instructor demands. “As professionals (educators) need to be fully competent, not just in selected areas of performance … We (should not) expect any less of ourselves,” he wrote.

n Mentoring support. This is a focus WGU stresses, with great pride. “The good thing is, I had someone at Western Governors who took interest in my succeeding,” Stewart said. That person was his mentor, Cynde Leshin, who “encouraged me, challenged me, threatened me (in a nice way) and just hung in there with me,” even when he felt like “packing it in,” he said.

Stewart traveled to Salt Lake City for a recent WGU graduation ceremony largely to meet Leshin. He came away marveling at the online learning landscape. Graduates’ average age was 38 years; the oldest present was 70, he said.

“We’re changing how education is done,” he said.

-- Howard Buck

It’s a dilemma that has the full attention of Washington’s higher education leaders.

There simply aren’t enough seats for students today at the state’s four-year state universities. There’s little hope the cash-strapped state can build more “bricks-and-mortar” capacity anytime soon.

Leaders wince as they watch students fill the coffers of the giant University of Phoenix and its for-profit brethren, an increasingly popular option.

Now comes a fresh push to direct students to a timely alternative: The state-endorsed, nonprofit Western Governors University Washington, an online program created by a coalition of Western states.

WGU allows community college graduates, or working adults with career and education experience, to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in job-ready fields with the rigor of a state university, the flexibility of online instruction and — no small thing — affordability.

That’s the pitch made by Jean Floten, recently named WGU Washington chancellor and previously 22-year president of Bellevue Community College.

Floten knows well the physical, time and money stress on adult students. She said she believes WGU can be the answer for many, while critical to Washington’s need to produce more home-grown college graduates to remain economically viable.

“This is so necessary in our state,” said Floten while visiting The Columbian during a statewide campaign pitch. “It’s accelerated, it’s affordable and it’s accessible.”

Average time to complete a degree is 30 months, she said.

WGU’s four colleges are Business, Information Technology, Teachers College and Health Professions (nursing included). It offers more than 50 accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees, many with industry-geared certifications.

Flat-rate tuition for each six-month “term” — rather than a per-credit hour charge — runs $2,890 for several business and teaching degree programs or $3,250 for nursing (bachelor’s and master’s) and MBA degrees. “Terms” begin the first of each month.

“Students can get a bachelor’s degree for under $15,000,” Floten said, while remaining at home and/or working.

It’s sharp contrast to soaring tuition rates at Washington’s public four-year universities, with a new round of price hikes in place.

Annual in-state undergraduate tuition at the University of Washington is now $10,574, up 20 percent. Annual tuition at Washington State University is $9,374 a year, up 16 percent. At Western, Central and Eastern Washington universities, tuition rose 11 to 16 percent.

It’s a dizzying trend that easily could freeze out thousands of Washington students and choke the state’s future economy.

“Everyone says we need an educated workforce,” said John White, Vancouver development consultant who has served on trustee and advisory boards for Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver. He’s now joined the WGU Washington advisory panel. “But, then (we’ve managed) to undermine” the higher ed system, he said.

“Access to education is going to become the No. 1 issue in the United States,” Floten said. She said Washington already depends on “imported talent” to fill skilled positions at Microsoft, Boeing and other such firms at natives’ expense. “We’re going to have to figure out how to get more people through our system and our pipeline to be competitive.”

Within a year, Floten wants to quickly double WGU Washington’s enrollment to 2,000 students, and hit 10,000 students in five years. At about $6,000 tuition per year, another thousand students in WGU represents a $6 million higher education investment Olympia can’t otherwise afford today, she noted.

“This is certainly not the total solution, but this is one way to address that,” she said.

The WGU program was launched 15 years ago by governors of 19 Western U.S. states that pitched in $200,000 apiece. That looks smart today, given pervasive higher education troubles, Floten said. WGU is self-supporting and receives no state funding, she added.

Focus on students

WGU offers exceptional value for students, Floten and White said. That includes an assigned mentor to keep each student on track, counseling that covers “life issues” outside of class and access to content experts in each subject.

“The emphasis is on student learning. You have (a coach) assigned to you that’s as concerned about your learning as you are,” Floten said.

Placement and progress in degree programs are competency based, rewarding adults with solid work and life experience. Online, objective testing is popular with students, Floten said.

Another big plus: E-textbooks that come free of charge, rather than typical textbook prices “that will knock your socks off,” she said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.