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Lawmakers Consider Ending Recognition of Online University

— Just a year after the online Western Governors University launched its Ohio affiliate , state lawmakers are considering eliminating recognition that lets its students benefit from certain state-funded aid, including need-based grants.

That’s part of the budget bill passed Thursday by the House. It now heads to the Senate.

The change was advocated by Republican Rep. Jay Edwards, a member of House leadership whose district includes Ohio University. He said the state’s recognition of Salt Lake City-based WGU was unfair to existing public schools in Ohio that are big employers, receive significant state funding, and already offer various online educational opportunities.

WGU Ohio has about 3,100 students.

“To allow a new university to come in and only take a portion of what these other institutions are doing, not hire the people, not have the brick-and-mortar investments … and duplicate the efforts that our institutions that we’ve been investing in are doing right now, we felt like that wasn’t being conscientious of the citizens of Ohio, of students, and it wasn’t a good, wise investment,” Edwards told The Associated Press.

WGU argues that eliminating access to that aid for adults studying in its competency-based programs — many of them first-generation college students or full-time workers — doesn’t make sense for a state pursuing a more educated workforce.

WGU Ohio Chancellor Rebecca Watts pointed out to the Senate Higher Education Committee that the accredited, nonprofit school doesn’t directly get state funding, and said the student financial aid at issue helps in WGU’s mission to provide affordable higher education. On average, it takes less than three years for WGU students to earn a bachelor’s degree and costs them $16,000, Watts said.

“For Ohio communities, this degree of affordability makes it possible for teachers, nurses, and other professionals to advance their knowledge and skills without taking on debt that would force them to leave their communities to seek higher salaries in larger markets,” Watts wrote in her prepared testimony.

Edwards said he thinks Ohio’s public universities already do a good job of providing those kinds of learning opportunities through online education, branch colleges and outreach in rural areas.

He noted that the change wouldn’t take effect immediately but would be done on a timeline that gives students months to figure out their next steps and consider whether to continue with classes at WGU or transfer to another Ohio school.

“We don’t want to cut people off,” he said. “This is a down-the-road thing that we’re trying to figure out.”

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