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Indiana Launches Western Governors University Program

Officials at Western Governors University — the nation’s only nonprofit online university headquartered in Salt Lake City — say a new partnership with Indiana will likely result in thousands of the state’s minority students obtaining a college degree.

In June, WGU — founded in the late1990s with the goal of helping adult learners earn a college degree — established a presence in Indiana. The move was petitioned by legislators looking to find creative ways to promote educational opportunities, particularly among minority adults who trail far behind their White counterparts in earning college degrees. According to state census figures, Whites in Indiana are three times more likely than Blacks to hold a college degree.

WGU is a competency-based university that caters to adult learners and rewards credit for work experience and helps cater to students who are too busy to attend traditional college classes, says WGU Indiana Chancellor Allison Barber.

“Our model is customized to really help adult learners who are from rural communities, first-generation and minorities to earn a college degree,” says Barber, who adds that students from underrepresented backgrounds account for 80 percent of WGU’s student population. “We provide a flexible and affordable option that works well with our adult learners.”

The new collaboration between Indiana and WGU allows state money to cover financial aid for Indiana residents who enroll at the university. The Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will front the dollars to support the initial costs.

“WGU Indiana is a great example of the innovative thinking that is very much needed in higher education today,” says Lumina President Jamie Merisotis. “Its online, competency-based approach to learning shows great promise as a cost effective model for delivering quality higher education.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a member of WGU’s Board of Trustees, has championed the partnership as “Indiana’s eighth state university” and says states have to think outside of the box when it comes to educating their work force.

“WGU Indiana will fill the clearest and most challenging gap remaining in our family of higher education opportunities: helping thousands of adult Hoosiers attain the college degrees they’ve always wanted and needed, on a schedule they can manage (and) at a cost they can afford,” he says.

The tuition to attend WGU Indiana will be about $3,000 over a six month period, says Barber, who adds that there is no restriction on how many credits a student can take during that period. Barber says when students enroll at the university, they are assigned a mentor who tracks their progress and most graduate within 2.5 years.

“We are confident that this model can work in other states,” says Barber, who adds that legislators across the nation are expressing interest in creating similar partnerships in their respective states.

This all makes sense to Dr. Curtis J. Bonk, a professor in the Department of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University and one of the nation’s leading experts on distance learning.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people in the state of Indiana who have some college but never finished and many of them are minorities,” says Bonk. “Western Governor’s University is providing a little niche and it makes a lot of sense to me.”

Bonk points to educator Peter Smith’s book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning, as an innovative approach to rewarding individuals for choosing jobs over finishing their degrees in a traditional four-to-five-year period.

“Many people want their degrees but they just don’t have the time capabilities,” says Bonk, adding that WGU will “provide hope and a skill set that Indiana and other states need to get so many workers out of part-time jobs and into full-time employment.”

Barber describes the response over the last few weeks to WGU Indiana as overwhelming. Hundreds of new students have inquired about the university and many others are in the process of formally applying.

The campus will be up and running in the fall and WGU courses are accredited through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. WGU has about 19,000 students and close to 7,000 students have graduated in the last two years — numbers that experts say are comparable to a large state school in Indiana. Students enroll from all across the country, but, in years past, Indiana only averaged about 200 students.

Zakiya Wright, 52, of Indianapolis says the program would be ideal for her hectic work schedule.

“I’ve been telling myself for years that I’m going back to school,” says Wright, a certified nursing assistant who dropped out of college in 1985. “If I can get the degree, I will make more money but I have never been interested in attending classes with 19- and 20-year-old kids.”

Wright says the drive has always been there to go back, but a lack of money and time have been factors in the past.

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