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Western Governors U. gets warm welcome in Missouri - mostly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: After Gov. Jay Nixon announced the introduction of Western Governors University Missouri, WGU president Robert Mendenhall met with representatives of other colleges and universities in the state at last month’s meeting of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

He said he knew that other schools might be skeptical.

“With one more player,” Mendenhall said, “there are always some concerns. Our response is there are 750,000 Missourians in the workforce with some college and no degree. And frankly, for the most part they are in lower-paying jobs, which will go away in the next 10 years.

“If we’re successful in Missouri over a long period of time, we might be serving 10 percent of those students. We need everybody on hand to serve the other 90 percent.”

That attitude seems to have taken hold. David Russell, commissioner of higher education, told the Beacon in an email that the school’s emphasis on so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – plus its outreach to adults who have some college but want to complete their degree make it a good fit for Missouri’s overall push in higher education.

“WGU performance and student satisfaction scores are very high,” he noted, adding that its model to award credit for demonstrated competency, not just how long a student has sat in a class, will help increase the number of adults who have a college degree.

“I don’t view WGU as a threat to existing institutions or programs,” Russell said. “Indeed, there is the chance that some of these students will eventually work their way into other colleges to earn advanced credentials.”

At the University of Missouri system, spokeswoman Liz McCune had a similar reaction. She noted that online learning has been a big growth area for the university in recent years, with a 28 percent increase in enrollment last year alone.

“Today,” she said in an email, “one in three of our students is taking at least one 100 percent online class.”

She added:

“As President Tim Wolfe has been sharing on his statewide speaking tour, Show Me Value, anytime you can increase access to higher education, that’s a good thing — for individuals, for communities and for our state.”

Scott Holste, spokesman for Nixon, said that he knows of no pushback from other public colleges and universities in the state from the introduction of WGU Missouri. As far as the possibility that student aid to those enrolled at the school might reduce the amount of money available to other Missouri students, he said in an email:

“The number of students in contention for financial aid from the state from year to year is going to be affected by several factors, primarily the demographics of students in certain age groups that traditionally enter college. WGU Missouri likely would have a negligible impact.”

With its emphasis on adult students with some college, WGU might be seen as the most direct competitor with community colleges. But Zora Mulligan, executive director of the Missouri Community College Association, said she looks forward to establishing transfer agreements with the school to help ease students’ route to a degree.

“Western Governors has been very proactive in working with community colleges to work out ways we can partner together to make sure Missouri’s educational needs are met,” she told the Beacon. “Their experience in other states shows they are not taking students away from other schools but are serving students who are different from the ones who would be attending existing colleges and universities.

“I think the facts being presented to us are very, very positive, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they unfold.”

Carole Basile, the dean of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis,  was a holdout in praise for WGU. She said teacher education is under scrutiny these days, and an online program isn’t what the industry needs.

“They’re saying get online, take courses, go do student teaching and be a teacher,” Basile said. “That doesn’t feel like it’s helping when we’re trying to produce better teachers.”

Judith Walker de Felix, associate provost at UMSL, said WGU appears to be looking for students who want “a quick way to change careers and become a teacher.” That route, she said, is not what UMSL is looking to provide.

“I think it will appeal to very few people,” she said. “It is an awful lot of work. If they have to prove they have prior experience to meet the required outcomes, they have to present a lot of evidence. I don’t expect it will be very popular here.”

Two satisfied customers

That outlook doesn’t match the experience of two local students who have WGU experience – students whose information was provided by the school.

Monica Costa, 24, who lives in south St. Louis County and graduated from Lindbergh High School, attended St. Louis Community College at Meramec for a few years, but she decided to take a couple of years off because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.

When she decided to go back to school, she went online to do research, and “WGU was one of the first schools to pop up. It got good reviews, so I figured I would call them, and I liked what I found. I liked the way you could learn at your own pace.”

Because she works as a tutor in the Lindbergh district, Costa said she can’t attend traditional daytime classes, but at WGU, “without having to go to classes, I can learn at my own pace.”

“They’re very helpful in setting stuff up,” she added. “I love it because I have a mentor who calls every week to check on me and see how things are going. She’s always there to email me and for me to contact. And there also are other people I can talk to at any time. If I need them, I can call them. It’s more personalized that way.”

To Eriona Krapja, 25, a native of Albania who has been in the U.S. for 11 years and lives in St. Louis, WGU provided a schedule that made it easy for her to stay at home with her son and work on her own time.

“It’s a little challenging in the beginning,” she said, “to fully understand what you have to do and how to schedule your way around it. But once you get through the first part, it gets easier and easier. If you want to push, you can move on really quickly.”

Without lectures, she said, “it may be a letter harder because you have to memorize everything by the book. You’re on your own. You have to push yourself. Whatever you read is what you get.”

Because you need a lot of self-discipline, Costa said WGU probably isn’t a good fit for someone straight out of high school.

“I would recommend having a little college experience before you start,” she said. “You have to be dedicated to doing it. When I first started, it was hard to sit down at the computer and do homework. You think of homework as opening a textbook and taking notes So somebody straight from high school would have a harder time adapting to that.

“You’re dependent on yourself. You don’t have anyone else to say they didn’t do their homework, so I won’t do mine.”

Despite that adjustment, Costa said she is totally satisfied with her WGU experience.

“I haven’t found one bad thing about it yet,” she said. “I know it’s hard to believe. I went into it not trying to find something wrong but wanting to see if it’s really true, being able to take courses online and get my bachelor’s degree, and everything has been like they said. They have been helpful and trustworthy about giving me advice on stuff.”

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