Education for the Masses


Kevin Phelps, Pierce County deputy executive, dropped out of college 36 years ago to go into business. Last year, he went back to school, enrolling in Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, online university. He passed one course in business law in just one week because he was already familiar with most of the curriculum.

“They don’t force you to sit in a classroom to learn material you already know,” says Phelps. He expects to complete in 18 months a bachelor’s degree in business that would have taken him twice that time at a traditional university.

Phelps already has a great job. But there are some 950,000 other people in this state for whom completing college could mean much-needed work or a promotion. For these people who entered college but never finished their degrees or for those many others with skills that don’t fit employers’ needs, WGU has a compelling proposition. Founded in 1997 by governors of 19 western states, it offers online courses leading to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in high-demand specialties such as business, information technology, education and nursing.

WGU gained a local presence last year by appointing Jean Floten, president of Bellevue College, as chancellor of the newly established WGU Washington. Since then, the number of Washington residents taking courses through the system has climbed 250 percent to 2,600. Floten expects that figure to quadruple within five years.

Online universities can’t serve all needs. Ed Lazowska, chair of the department of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, says WGU students aren’t likely to find jobs at top-tier IT companies like Amazon and Google, where many of his students are hired. But he says WGU grads will find jobs at institutions like banks and retailers that have a strong demand for people with computing skills.

“Our region is badly underserved at the bachelor’s and master’s levels,” Lazowska says, “so the more educational opportunities, the better.”

Indeed, a public undergraduate education in Washington now costs $140,000 over 4.7 years (the average time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree), putting it out of reach for the vast majority of state residents. Washington also ranks 48th in the nation for enrollment in four-year public institutions. There’s a particular shortage of slots in high-demand areas such as engineering and computing.

Yet it’s difficult to persuade the state to spend more on education. And getting universities to cut costs or shift resources to create more slots in fields in which jobs are available is equally challenging.

Sam Smith, president emeritus of Washington State University and a founding member of WGU’s board of trustees, thinks WGU can be a catalyst for change. “You set up a new model, migrate resources and set up competition,” he says.

Here’s how the model works: After identifying a job specialty for which there is strong demand, WGU determines the competencies required to do that job, then develops ways to teach and test those competencies. Students are assessed, and in any areas where they receive less than a B, they are given a variety of resources, including web-based tutorials, to learn the material. Students are assigned mentors whose jobs depend on the success of their students. Mentors may advise students to take advantage of what Floten calls a “renaissance” in online education, including free courses offered by MIT and Stanford as well as many entrepreneurs.

WGU requires students to have spent some time in a post-secondary educational setting, so it’s a good fit for people who have completed two years at a community or technical college but can’t find a slot to continue at a four-year institution.

Students pay $2,890 for a six-month semester. That’s about half the cost of for-profit online universities. And students can take as many courses as they like during that period. A registered nurse received his bachelor of science in nursing degree in six months, although WGU says his was an unusual case because he had extensive experience as a nurse and could spend long hours studying since he was unemployed.

Kevin Phelps says he’s getting his business degree as part of a broader effort by Snohomish County to create a “learning organization.” With the needs of employers constantly shifting, more of us may find ourselves in the same boat—using WGU and other online resources to keep our skills up to date.

Leslie Helm

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