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Gates Foundation grant supports launch of WGU Texas, Perry-backed online university

Western Governors University, the nonprofit online school launching a Texas-specific subsidiary with Gov. Rick Perry’s support, will receive a $4.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand its partnerships with state governments.

The award, announced Monday, will help WGU increase its presence in Indiana, Washington and Texas. A release from the school was short on details of the grant, but said in Texas, the money would “help support development and outreach for WGU’s new subsidiary.”

Perry created WGU Texas with an executive order on August 3, and as the Texas Independent reported at the time the school has a unique approach.

While WGU President Robert Mendenhall is paid more than his counterparts at all but a few of Texas’ public universities, he’s also presided over years of explosive growth for the school, as a recent Washington Monthly story recounts. In the last few years, WGU has become the country’s top source urban math and science teachers, and has seen huge expansion in its nursing and information technology programs.

While Perry encouraged the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Education Agency and Texas Workforce Commission to collaborate with WGU as a result of the deal, he vowed no state money would be spent on the partnership.

Instead, the Gates Foundation will help pay for WGU’s newest state endeavor — as it has with a series of previous grants to WGU.

In an interview with the Texas Independent, WGU’s external affairs director Scott Jenkins explained just how the state-branded university would be different from what’s already in place for the school’s 2,000 students in Texas today.

Since WGU is Utah-based, Texas students won’t be allowed to put state-funded college grants toward the cost of admission. Instead, he said, the biggest change will be an increased focus on recruiting students and hiring mentors and faculty from within the state.

A new advisory board and chancellor will be charged with cementing WGU’s place in Texas, and Jenkins said the school is still finalizing its list of candidates. Jenkins said a key to WGU’s assessment methods is working with the school officials and the business community, to learn about the skills employers want in potential hires.

“Our biggest hurdle to get over is no one’s heard of us,” Jenkins said. “Having that kind of exposure to those kind of folks, and having a role in shaping the organization, is very important.”

WGU is working with Perry’s office on those decisions, and Jenkins said they expect to officially launch the school later this month in Austin. “We’re getting close on that,” he said.

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