Let’s bring Western Governors University to North Carolina

North Carolina, now the tenth largest state in the nation, is suffering growing pains. As demographic trends change and the economy adapts, our colleges and universities are struggling to meet the emerging needs of the state.

Specifically, North Carolina is facing a critical shortage in “qualified math, science, and special education teachers.”

North Carolina faces a similar problem in nursing. Many North Carolina hospitals now require education beyond the minimum associate’s degree. And the state’s existing nursing programs are already full. Meanwhile, North Carolina attracts more people every day.

North Carolina should consider supplementing its current schools with a new model: Western Governors University.

It’s easy to do. Five states have already brought in Western Governors University to make sure that the state has a low-cost online university that provides academic quality. WGU offers majors in just four areas: nursing, education, information technology, and business. 

In 2010 former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels established WGU-Indiana by executive order. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Washington State legislature established their own state WGU institutions in 2011. Tennessee and Missouri followed in 2013.

In Indiana and Texas, the governor instructed agencies and officials of the state to “work cooperatively” with Western Governors to establish the school and to eliminate any barriers to its success. They also specified that WGU would receive no state funding, although in Indiana, Washington, and Tennessee, WGU students are eligible for state financial aid.

These state institutions use WGU’s academic model—known as competency-based—but have chancellors and personnel in the state. In particular, community representatives for WGU work locally to recruit potential students and help WGU graduates find jobs.

WGU was founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors to help working adults. Its model differs dramatically from that of “brick and mortar” schools. Instead of focusing on seat time, students at WGU schools demonstrate their skills and knowledge in required subject areas at a pace that suits them. As WGU’s website puts it, “Already have experience? Great! You can use it to complete assessments as soon as you’re ready.”

The concept is simple: WGU students start with the end-of-course assessment. If they earn a B or better on the test, then they don’t have to take that class but they get credit for it anyway. Students can pass as many courses as they want during each six-month term. And since WGU students are mostly adult learners—the average WGU-Indiana student is 37 years old—many have experience that they can apply. The average time to graduation is less than three years.

WGU national president Bob Mendenhall told the Pope Center that adult learners in North Carolina could benefit as well. “North Carolina has 1.5 million adults with some college and no degree. They need additional education to get good jobs that will allow them to provide better for their families,” he said. 

WGU’s model would be particularly helpful for North Carolina’s 750,000 veterans, many of whom have on-the-job training, but no academic credentials. 

The competency-based system makes WGU’s already-low tuition even more attractive. Since 2008, WGU has kept its charges at $2,890 per term in tuition and just $145 in fees—about the same amount as in-state tuition and fees at East Carolina University. But WGU’s tuition also includes all of a student’s reading materials (a value of around $1,100 dollars per year).

And although the state programs are still new, positive outcomes are already taking shape. WGU’s website shows that as of June 2014, just four years after WGU Indiana  opened, it had already graduated 1,400 students. Given its initial enrollment of just 300, that’s impressive. Even better, according to a presentation given by WGU Indiana Chancellor Allison Barber in 2014, 99% of the university’s employer partners say that they want more WGU Indiana graduates.

WGU institutions in all four other states are also reporting early success, according to their websites and other news sources. In the National Survey of Student Engagement, students at all WGU schools praised their experiences in several important areas—including quality of interactions with faculty and academic support. And the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently ranked WGU’s secondary math education program first in the nation, citing its quality, accessibility and outstanding student teaching experiences.

Of course, WGU does not offer many of the amenities found on a traditional campus. WGU students don’t have access to student centers, on-campus dining, intramural athletics, campus events, or study abroad opportunities. Neither will there be storied athletics rivalries or favorite campus haunts. And so far, there are no rock star faculty members or powerful alumni networks. 

While WGU may be viewed as a competitor to other campuses in the state, the competition does not seem to be extreme. Enrollment is not, in fact, all that high—Texas graduated 557 students in the 2012-13 academic year—and the older average age of students suggests that it does not take many traditional students from existing universities.

Instead, WGU offers a program that complements the many educational opportunities that already exist in North Carolina. On his blog, UT-Austin president Bill Powers described WGU as “a good addition to the mosaic of higher education options in America.” Something innovative and different that ultimately attracts a different type of student.

For North Carolina, it would be a welcome alternative to traditional credit-hour programs, particularly for adult learners who want job training and a degree—not a four-year “experience.”