Online college helps adults take next step

  • Thu Apr 19th, 2012 8:23pm
  • News

Last June, Everett High School science teacher Kelly McCoy earned her master’s degree in earth science education.

Jason Colby, who lives in Lake Stevens and works in Seattle, is studying for a bachelor’s degree in information technology, with an emphasis on security.

It’s not uncommon for working adults to lead double lives as college students. But ask McCoy or Colby where they studied, you might be puzzled by the answer. Their university has no football team or fight song.

Ever heard of Western Governors University Washington? It’s been a year since the online, nonprofit university was established by the Legislature. With Gov. Chris Gregoire’s signature, the school became a reality April 22, 2011.

McCoy was a student at Western Governors University before WGU Washington was founded.

In 1997, governors of 19 states, supported by more than 20 corporations and foundations, created WGU. Among supporters are AT&T, Microsoft, the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lilly Endowment Inc. The aim is to fill the need for a well-educated workforce, and help employed adults earn college degrees.

Three states, Washington, Indiana and Texas, have established their own affiliates of the school.

On Saturday, WGU Washington will hold its first commencement ceremony. There will be 236 graduates recognized during the event at Seattle’s Bell Harbor International Conference Center, although only about 50 people are expected to walk in the ceremony.

The chancellor of WGU Washington is Jean Floten, former president of Bellevue College.

Joan Mitchell, director of public relations for WGU, which is based in Salt Lake City, said Wednesday the university has about 32,000 students nationwide, and that establishing state affiliates increases capacity. She said that WGU Washington receives no state funding.

“Washington has not had to spend any money,” she said. “It’s self-sustaining. And every state in the nation is having trouble funding higher ed.”

Mitchell said WGU provides college access to people limited by work, family and geography. The average age of students is 36, she said.

Tuition is charged at a flat rate — about $6,000 per 12-month year in most programs. Students work as quickly as they are able. They work one-on-one with faculty mentors, communicating by phone and email. Some exams are monitored by webcams, others are administered at testing centers, including at Everett Community College.

The university focuses on career fields, with more than 50 degrees in business, education, information technology and health care offered.

McCoy, 32, has been a science teacher in Everett since 2005. With an undergraduate degree from Central Michigan University, she considered other options for graduate school, including Western Washington University.

With WGU, she said she could balance work and college. “It was typically nights, weekends and summers,” McCoy said.

“Each course is a little different,” she said. “In chemistry, you can do virtual labs. You can also get on the computer and pick a lesson, a specific topic, and get extra guidance for a topic you’re struggling with.”

McCoy spent three years to get a master’s degree. With it, she earns more than $2,000 a year more than before. “Beyond that goal, it makes me a better educator. I continue to learn more so I can teach my students,” McCoy said.

Colby, 38, commutes to his information technology job in Seattle via Sound Transit. That gives him two hours study time each day. He adds an hour more in the evenings. With an associate degree from EvCC, he’s on track to earn his bachelor’s degree by early 2013.

What impressed him about WGU Washington is its accreditation through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and other organizations. It also offers Microsoft and other industry certifications.

He looked into for-profit universities. “With Western Governors, I had that feeling it was more for my interest,” he said. Mitchell said that’s the goal. “Being a nonprofit, we were established for one mission. Our goal is to expand access, and make quality higher education available to as many working adults as possible,” she said.

When WGU Washington started about a year ago, it had about 900 students. “Now there are roughly 2,600 students in the state. It’s a lot of growth,” Mitchell said. There are WGU Washington students in 38 of the state’s 39 counties.

“It’s great for working people,” Colby said. “I’m already thinking of going into the master’s program.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,