WGU Tennessee enhances state’s online higher education

Gov. Bill Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam

We have taken a couple of significant steps regarding higher education recently that we believe will improve workforce readiness.

One is the establishment of an online university for the state, geared toward helping those with some college credit who want to go back and earn a degree. Another is an endowment that will provide need-based grants for more people to afford attending a community college.

The online Western Governors University Tennessee is an important step for us. Many Tennesseans have received some amount of college education but had to leave school for one reason or another. Many would like to go back and finish their course work, but some of the same situations that forced them to leave college may still exist. Or they might find going back to college difficult for different reasons now.
Regardless of what caused some people to leave higher education, we want to give them every opportunity to complete a degree, and we have formed a new alliance with WGU that will help many of those Tennesseans do just that.

WGU Tennessee, an accredited, online, competency-based post-secondary school, will help many Tennesseans reach their goals. The Tennessee General Assembly approved legislation this year that allows us to establish this option for people to finish college.

The university uses a model called competency-based education. Instead of earning credit based on time spent in class, students are required to demonstrate competency in the subject matter. They write papers, complete assignments and pass tests that show their knowledge of the subject. Students are guided by faculty mentors. The process is designed to allow students to schedule their studies around work and family obligations. It’s also affordable, with tuition about $6,000 per year for most programs.

WGU President Robert W. Mendenhall and I formally signed a memorandum of understanding at an event this month in Nashville to establish the school. WGU offers accredited bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in business, K-12 teacher education, information technology and health professions, including nursing.
Western Governors University has similar partnerships with Indiana, Washington, Texas and Missouri. WGU Tennessee is open to all qualified Tennessee residents

The first chancellor of WGU Tennessee is Dr. Kimberly Estep, who previously served as vice president for academic affairs and student services at Nashville State Community College. She has more than 25 years of experience in higher education as a professor and administrator. The school will have an advisory board of senior business, community and higher education leaders, including board chairman John Ingram, who is chairman and CEO of Ingram Industries in Nashville.

WGU Tennessee is set up with a one-time appropriation from the state of $5 million and a $750,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After the initial startup of the university, WGU Tennessee will be self-sustaining.

Meanwhile, I formally signed legislation this month that allows us to establish an endowment through the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation of at least $35 million to produce need-based grants. The grants, designed for community college students, would go directly to the institutions the students would attend. This is a way to directly address the cost of post-secondary education, which can be a barrier to many students and their families. We need to make it affordable for students to further their education.

These steps are part of our ‘Drive to 55’ initiative. The goal is for Tennessee to have 55% of its adult citizens with some type of college degree by 2025. We have a long way to go, because we are currently at only 32%. Reaching our goal will require several different approaches, and we’re excited that WGU Tennessee and the grants for community college can be among them.

Since I’ve been governor, we have constantly heard from employers that they will need more highly trained Tennesseans if we are to meet the workforce needs of the future. We are determined to do all we can to meet those demands. WGU Tennessee and need-based grants are excellent ways for many Tennesseans to get degrees that were out of their reach before. It will be a boost for them and their families, and it will be a big boost for Tennessee.