Haslam wants more workers with degrees via on-line university

Friday, April 5, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 14
By Robert Sherborne

Gov. Bill Haslam would like to see more Tennesseans with college degrees. Many more. So he has proposed spending $5 million to partner with a unique online university that allows people with some college credit to earn a degree in certain fields.

What makes the school unique is that students earn college credits for their life experiences, a practice known as competency-based education.

“Only 32 percent of Tennesseans have earned an associate degree or higher. That’s not good enough,” Haslam said in his State of the State message in January.

“Our goal is to move the needle so that Tennessee is on track to raise that number to 55 percent by 2025. Tonight, we begin our ‘Drive to 55’ – a strategic initiative to have the best-trained workforce in America.”

A proposal now before the legislature would create a new institution known as Western Governors University Tennessee. Through this online school, Tennesseans could earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees in several fields, including business, information technology, teaching and health professions.

And they could do it quickly, because part of their college credit would come from their life experiences.

So, someone who dropped out of college and went to work years ago could go back to school, online. They would earn college credit for the things they have learned on the job. This, coupled with additional course work, could earn them a degree.

The proposal is one of Haslam’s two major thrusts to increase the number of degree holders. The other would boost funding available to lower-income Tenneseans to help pay for higher education.

The online university proposal passed the Senate 26-1. A House vote is scheduled for Wednesday.

Some Democrats wonder why the governor wants to spend Tennessee tax dollars to partner with an institution based in Salt Lake City, Utah, rather than developing a similar program through a state university.

“We could do this in-house,” says state Rep. Mike Turner (D-Nashville), the Democratic caucus chairman of the House.

“Why are we sending $5 million to a university in another state?” asks state Rep. JoAnne Favors (D-Chattanooga), the House Democratic caucus vice chairman.

David Smith, the governor’s press secretary, says there are two reasons: time and cost.

Officials from the University of Tennessee have said it would take them time to develop a similar program, and it would cost more, Smith says.

“The governor wants a low-cost path to a degree,” he adds.

Many Tennessee universities currently allow students, including veterans, to earn college credits by showing their competence in certain subjects without completing the coursework. They can take exams similar to final exams.

But they must enroll in the university to do this, and the state spends about $6,500 for each enrolled student each year, in addition to tuition students pay.

Western Governors University Tennessee would be different. After a one-time, $5 million investment in the program, it would be self-sustaining, funded entirely by tuition payments, Smith says. The state would be freed from its on-going expense for facilities, faculty, etc., for each student.

Other states have shown the program can effectively increase college enrollment and the number of degree holders, Smith adds.

The charitable foundation created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates is donating $750,000 to get the program started in Tennessee.

Western Governors University was an idea that was hatched in 1995 by 19 western governors. Through a combination of course work and online evaluators it began granting degrees in 2000.

It has since graduated more than 38,000 students and is accredited by four different crediting commissions.

That accreditation is key. For instance, to get a teaching certificate in Tennessee, applicants generally must show they have a degree from an accredited university. WGU is accredited by both the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Several other states have since joined, including Indiana, Missouri and Washington.

If approved by the legislature, Western Governors University Tennessee would have a headquarters, a chancellor and a small staff in Tennessee. Tuition and books would cost about $6,000 a year.

As envisioned, it would enroll 2,000 students the first year, with enrollment climbing to 7,500 by the fifth year.

Many would be adults: the average age of a Western Governor University student nationwide is 37.

Students would be eligible for Tennessee’s financial aid programs, although they could not get HOPE scholarships funded by the state’s lottery.

If approved, enrollment would begin this fall.