Perry-backed WGU Texas to bring online college degrees shaped by business leaders
Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 12:04 pm
Later this month, officials with Western Governors University will announce new details about the nonprofit online college’s Texas chapter, a sub-university created in August with a wave of Gov. Rick Perry’s pen.
Tuition is rising, state funding for public universities is getting cut, and Texas has hard deadlines approaching for increasing its access to college degrees. With self-paced degree programs that let students earn credits as fast as they can for under $6,000 a year, WGU’s expansion in Texas could help boost those stats — especially since its target students are adults walking around with some college credits but no degree.
But what does a Texas branch of an online, Utah-based university look like? Not much yet, said director of external affairs Scott Jenkins in an interview, but it’s coming together quickly.
In a few weeks, Jenkins said, the school will announce its new presence with a ceremony around the State Capitol. It’ll boast some small office space, probably in Austin, and eventually, an expanded roster of Texas-based student advisers hired to help coach the 10,000 students it expects from this state within three years.
What the partnerships mean
It’s the same growth WGU is expecting in Indiana and Washington, whose partnerships with the university began in June 2010 and earlier this year, respectively. Together, all three are starting up with $4.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Jenkins is well acquainted with how the partnership began in Indiana — where Gov. Mitch Daniels created the school with an executive order like Perry’s — because he helped arrange the deal from Daniels’ office before jumping to WGU a few months ago.
There, the state chapter opened the door for state scholarship money to pay for a WGU education. That won’t be the case in Texas, Jenkins said, because state law requires Texas’ public grants to be spent at Texas-based schools, nor does he foresee attempts to change the law.
Instead, the partnership will focus on growing a market that includes 2,000 WGU students from Texas today. WGU spent $9.2 million on marketing in 2010, tax records show, between a Google ad campaign and services from a Utah-based firm called Datamark. State partnerships mean free recruiting for WGU, and a new pipeline of workers in fields they need. “By and large, this partnership is mostly about getting the word out about WGU Texas,” Jenkins said.
While Perry said in his announcement that no state money will be spent on the state chapter, he encouraged state agencies to look at working with WGU. Jenkins said that will include talking to the Texas Education Agency about student teaching opportunities for WGU students — nearly half the WGU students in Texas are in its education program — and the Texas Workforce Commission about the school’s programs to train veterans for a new career.
In Indiana, the governor’s blessing for a closer friendship turned into a half-million dollar deal for WGU to offer nursing training. The state paid the school in 2010, out of federal Trade Adjustments Assistance funding, to develop the program that will begin enrolling students this November.
“We’re going to be going full-force in with them,” said Indiana Workforce Development spokesman Joe Frank. He said the nursing program was a direct result of the state WGU chapter, and “looking into what programs fit with them.”
Texas actually had a similar arrangement with WGU in 2010, one that predated the announcement from Perry — a half-million dollar Texas Workforce Commission program that trained 64 students in nursing and related fields. According to Workforce Commission spokesman Mark Lavergne, the state paid WGU to develop the Multi-state Approach for Preparation of Registered Nurses program, which includes online education and live training in Dallas, Houston, Brownsville and El Paso. Lavergne said the deal ended September 2010, with students going on to take the state nursing board exams.
Degrees shaped by business leaders
Along with state agencies recruiting new students and paying for development of new programs, state partnership with WGU also comes with a new chancellor and advisory board in the state. In Texas, Jenkins said, they’re nearly through the selection process, which involves input from Perry’s office. “We’re getting close on that,” Jenkins said.
While Perry has faced charges of favoritism in his choices of Texas’ public university regents, appointing donors or business friends with little experience in academia, Jenkins said credibility in the business world is exactly what WGU is looking for in its Texas officials.
“Our biggest hurdle to get over is no one’s heard of us, so having that kind of exposure to those kind of folks, their having a role in shaping the organization is very important,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins and WGU prefer to describe the school’s education style as “competency-based” rather than “vocational,” but its degree programs — its biggest are in teaching, nursing, business and information technology — are about arming students with the specific set of skills they’ll need for a job. Jenkins said partnerships in the Texas business community will help tailor their degrees to the state’s hiring needs.
To shape their degree programs, “we go out to business and industry in the field. If you’re getting a bachelor’s degree in IT security, what do you need to be able to do?” Jenkins said. “We work with those experts and walk that backwards thru the degree program.”
The model has drawn some criticism from advocates of traditional college education — Western Washington University professor Johann Neem argued against that state’s partnership with WGU earlier this year, saying college is about struggling with critical thought, rather than ticking off a list of “technical competencies” — but WGU points to its national and regional accreditation as proof of its rigor.
‘An institutional degree’
Defenders of Texas’ public research universities like state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education — a group that normally argues against the factory-line approach to education — praised the announcement of WGU Texas, it’s easy to see the appeal to Perry and groups pushing business-world reforms.
Jenkins said he doesn’t see WGU Texas as anything that “disrupts the model” of higher education in the state, simply “another tool that Texas can put in its higher ed tool belt.”
But he also said that what WGU offers is a more transparent degree than traditional universities, a clear sign that a student has mastered a particular skill set, not just taken some classes from an unspecified assortment of faculty.
“That’s how traditional higher education works. It’s a general contractor for a bunch of faculty members who work for those departments. The brand is an institutional brand that’s placed on a completely decentralized quality,” Jenkins said. “When you get a teacher prep degree at WGU, it’s an institutional degree.”
At WGU, Jenkins said, the faculty’s main role, outside of mentoring students, is fine-tuning the ways students are graded. From that standpoint, including graduates from other online schools like the University of Phoenix or Capella University among its top faculty makes a lot of sense.
“We don’t really look at it as a vocational mindset,” Jenkins said. “We look at it as a differentiator of what the current higher education mindset looks like, and what it could look like in the future.”
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