Office of Planning and Budgeting

Western Governor’s University: WA House Bill 1822

This is the first in a series of blog posts that presents a Washington State Legislative bill that we are tracking and provides more information about what the bill does and why it is relevant to the UW.

As the demand for higher education increases, especially among students who are place-bound or have outside commitments that prohibit them from pursuing a traditional college education, online learning has become more and more popular. While some universities use limited online classes to ease overfilled classrooms or offer introductory classes more cheaply, some students study exclusively online.

House Bill 1822, “Establishing the first nonprofit online university,” seeks to partner the state with Western Governor’s University (WGU), a non-profit, online university, creating WGU-Washington. The bill has passed out of the House, was passed by the Higher Education and Workforce Development committee in the Senate, and has been passed to the Rules committee for second reading.

The new WGU-Washington would not receive any state funds, nor would its students be eligible for state financial aid like the State Need Grant; however, supporters of the bill purport that projected increases in the demand for postsecondary education combined with future labor force requirements are such that increased degree production in the state is crucial. Proponents see a partnership with WGU as a resource for Washington citizens and employers that does not require a large investment of state funds. The bill also seeks to make it easier for students to transfer credits between WGU and the “traditional” state institutions of higher education.

While some questioned the necessity of the bill at the Senate hearing, pointing to the fact that Washington students can already enroll at WGU independently, and that the state’s community colleges may be better options for such students, others maintained that Washington’s existing  institutions are overenrolled and that WGU offered a low-cost alternative to private for-profit online universities. Other critics pointed to the lack of data available on WGU programs, processes and outcomes as an indication that a WGU education may not meet the standards of the other institutions in the state.

WGU was chartered in 1996, and endorsed by the 19 Governors of the “Member States,” including former Governor Locke. It offers bachelor’s and master’s programs in the fields of education, information technology, health professions, and business. Basic tuition for a six-month terms is $2,890, though some program fees lead to a higher total cost. The institution currently enrolls 23,000 students all over the United States. Instead of a traditional classroom where a faculty member who is a subject matter expert teaches the material, WGU students are led through a competency-based curriculum that is developed by faculty mentors (who generally hold terminal degrees) and facilitated by student mentors and course mentors, most of whom have earned a graduate degree (although WGU does not provide an exhaustive list of faculty mentors or of student and/or course mentors). WGU asserts that the vast majority of alumni and their subsequent employers are pleased with their university experience, and feel they are competitive in the workforce.

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