Controversial online college on its way to North Carolina?

By: - May 21, 2015 9:37 am


A controversial online university that credits students for their existing skills and knowledge could soon have a larger role in North Carolina, with a funding stream carved out in the state House’s version of the budget.

The Utah-based Western Governors University, which tends to compete with for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix and Strayer University, is a non-profit that was founded in 1995 by a bipartisan group of governors from the western part of the country.

It prides itself on offering a low-cost educational option to older adults (a six-month term costs $3,000 and the average age of its students is 37) through a competency model where students can take as many courses as wanted in a six-month period of time. Students also get credit for knowledge they already possess by taking assessment exams.

“It measures students’ learning rather than the time they spent in class,” said Joan Mitchell, a WGU spokeswoman.

The accredited online university, which has a national enrollment of 57,000, already has North Carolina residents enrolled in its programs, but a proposal currently in the House’s version of the budget would offer funding from state coffers for the first time.

Though WGU is not named directly in the budget, a reference deep in the 317-page proposed budget (pages 86 and 87) written by House Republicans would allow a private online school that uses the competency model of education to receive some of the nearly $90 million slated for need-based scholarships the state provides to low-income students attending private colleges and universities in the state.

The budget language would also require Gov. Pat McCrory to issue an executive order defining the requirements of the competency-based online education.

The proposal is far from being a reality, with the House slated to vote on the budget today. The Senate, which is also under Republican leadership, will come up with their own budget proposal, and the two sides of the legislature will work in coming months on a compromise.

The proposal to offer WGU a potential funding stream in North Carolina comes as the state’s public higher education system are both working to reach the pool of students traditionally sought after by WGU, adults who had some college learning but left their studies behind to pursue work or family obligations.

The University of North Carolina system has continued to grow its online offerings, including an announcement yesterday by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that it was launching an online undergraduate program for active-duty military. The 58-campus community college system is also exploring how it can weave more competency-based education into its programs, according to Megen Hoenk, a spokeswoman from the N.C. Community College System.

WGU is unusual in that it’s found supporters in political circles that rarely overlap, with former Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry as well as President Barack Obama’s Democratic administration both backing the school’s model of instruction.

In North Carolina, the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think-tank funded by former state budget director Art Pope’s family foundation, has pushed to bring WGU to the state. N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, serves on the Pope Center board.

“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,’” Jenna Robinson, the Pope Center director, wrote in a February article in support of bringing WGU to North Carolina.

But not everyone is a fan of WGU.

Critics say WGU’s model, which uses classes developed by third-party vendors and has less faculty involvement than that of traditional community college or university classes, delivers a subpar education at costs not all that different from what some public university and community colleges can offer.

WGU charges approximately $3,000 for a six-month semester, about $6,000 for a year’s worth of instruction.

In-state tuition and fees at North Carolina’s public universities range from $4,655 a year at Elizabeth City State University to $8,407 at N.C. State University for the 2015-16 school year.

In Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Haslam backed a proposal to give WGU $5 million to come to that state in 2013, private colleges in the state remain skeptical of WGU, said Claude Pressnell, the president of the Tennessee’s Independent Colleges and Universities Association.

Many of the state’s private colleges and universities were already serving non-traditional students well, he said.

The online school is also quick to accept students’ previous college credits, but once students began taking classes at WGU, it can be difficult to get those classes recognized outside the online university, Pressnell said.

“I’ve dubbed them the Hotel California of higher education,” he said. “You can check in but you can never check out.”

Johann Neem, a professor at Western Washington University who has also been critical of WGU, says the model is especially troubling for its on focus low-income and working-class students. He fears that students with financial pressures at home will increasingly be steered to the WGU’s online model of learning and miss out on more robust offerings in traditional public universities.

“Well-off students will attend universities where they have access to professors and the liberal arts and sciences,” Neem, who is traveling out of the country, wrote in an email to N.C. Policy Watch. “Others will receive vocational training and at schools like WGU that have no faculty.

“If liberal education and access to real professors becomes a luxury for the rich, this has significant race and class implications,” Neem wrote.

WGU’s six-year completion or graduation rate is only about 38 percent, a number that WGU hopes to raise to over 60 percent in coming years, said Mitchell, the spokeswoman for the Utah-based online university.

That’s a drop from the University of North Carolina system, where 41.2 percent of students who start as freshman in 2010 earned their degrees within four years. The six-year graduation rate in the UNC system is 63.1 percent.

Eric Guckian, McCrory’s education advisor, said he and McCrory have been in talks with WGU for several months, and are interested in bringing the online campus to North Carolina.

More than 1.5 million North Carolinians have had some college education, but didn’t obtain degrees, Guckian said. Using an alternative model like WGU could help reach some of those people in the state, at a cost that’s more affordable for both the state and student, he said.

“We think it’s a conversation worth having about increasing the numbers of students that can benefit from the model,” Guckian said.

Note: This article has changed from the original to reflect the precise six-year graduation rate of 38 percent at Western Governors University.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.