Western Governors University

Students across the state are trekking to college campuses for the first day of school. But opening a laptop and logging into class is fast becoming a popular alternative.

Western Governors University is a national nonprofit online college. The school was founded in 1997 by a group of U.S. governors, including former Washington governor Mike Lowry, who set out to tailor a lower-cost education to students restricted by busy lives. The Washington affiliate, established in 2011 by the state legislature, already has more than 12,000 graduates. More than 10,000 are enrolled for this year including 294 students in Whatcom County.

Lindsay McDevitt is a current student at WGU Washington working on her master’s in nursing. McDevitt enrolled in WGU Washington about a year-and-a-half ago, after transferring from an alternate online university.

As a nurse at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, a self-employed legal consultant, and a mother, McDevitt says she needed the flexibility an online university provided.

“It’s a lot of juggling, but that’s why the online model is so valuable to people like me,” McDevitt says. “I do it when I have the time – an hour here, an hour there. I can’t sign up for a class that meets every day at a certain time because I already have a set work schedule.”

This spring, the school named Tonya Drake the new chancellor of WGU Washington. She is a former vice president at Edmonds Community College. People with families and careers need flexibility to advance their degrees, Drake says, so the school runs on a competency-based model. This means as soon as a student proves they know the material, they can move on. This design earned the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided grants to WGU, including in 2013 when it granted $1.2 million to launch an associate-degree program in information technology.

WGU Washington recently celebrated its largest graduating class of more than 3,000 in April. The acceleration in student registration, while exciting, also poses challenges. “WGU has grown, and grown quickly,” Drake says. “As a result of that, we are figuring out infrastructure, we are figuring out some of those growing pains.”

In September 2017, the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education issued an audit report determining WGU (accredited by the DOE-approved Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities) wasn’t qualified for federal student-aid programs and should repay more than $700 million to the federal government. The Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) is still in progress of finishing a final audit determination and declines to comment until it’s completed, the department’s press office says in an email.

“We are still in wait-and-see mode,” Drake says, “but we expect those findings to be positive. We feel like we have been in compliance the entire time.”

The audit stated WGU’s innovative teaching model failed to provide “regular and substantive” interaction between students and faculty. Bellingham resident Rhonda Purdy, the vice president of human resources at North Coast Credit Union and graduate of WGU Washington, says the model was effective for her, particularly the mentors assigned to students.

“It’s just very encouraging to have someone to check in with you every few weeks,” Purdy says. “You’re more likely to want to get more done so you can tell them about it.”

WGU offers nursing, education, business, and information technology colleges, along with an attractive price tag. Attending WGU for one term (six months) will cost a student about $6,000.

For more content like this, check out our article on Whatcom Community College’s New Look here.

"'It’s a lot of juggling, but that’s why the online model is so valuable to people like me,' - Lindsay Mcdevitt"