In 1997 two leaders of the Western Governors’ Association, Republican Mike Leavitt of Utah and Democrat Roy Romer of Colorado, started talking about the need for more alternatives in higher education. Their goal: to help adult students who had dropped out of college before getting their degrees.
The result is Western Governors University (WGU), an online mix of course offerings in health sciences, business, information technology, and teacher education. The concept has been embraced by the six Democrats and 13 Republicans who make up the Western Governors’ Association. Now in its 15th year, the nonprofit WGU, funded entirely by $6,000 annual tuition fees, has awarded nearly 17,000 bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Current enrollment stands at a little less than 34,000. Students, who average 36 years old, are required to put in at least 20 hours a week but are given six-month “semesters” over which to spread the work. In a 2011 survey, 65 percent of WGU graduates said they received a raise, a promotion, or a new job responsibility as a result of their degrees.
Laura Huish, of Farmington, N.M., had long aspired to become a teacher but couldn’t go back to a traditional college full time because she also had to care for a young child. She discovered WGU while working as a school secretary. “It was perfect. I could work, be with my kid when I needed to, and work at the degree online,” says Huish, who enrolled in 2009. She earned her degree in three years and last year was hired as a full-time teacher at a primary school. “It’s not for everyone,” says Huish. “You have to be motivated.”
Two years ago, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels issued an executive order creating WGU Indiana, calling it Indiana’s “eighth state university.” The move allowed WGU students from Indiana to apply for loans and other aid. “Governor Daniels had said there were 750,000 Hoosiers who had started college but hadn’t finished, and this could get more of them more credentials for better jobs,” says WGU spokeswoman Joan Mitchell. Indiana has 2,600 students enrolled in WGU, a tenfold increase over just those two years. Texas and Washington have since taken similar steps.
“No one is claiming that this is the same market as Harvard and Princeton,” says Andrew Kelly, an education analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “But elected officials strapped for public money for education are looking for ways to reap a larger return in innovation, hopefully boosting the earning power of the citizenry.”