The Tennessee branch of an online university was launched Tuesday with a $30 million budget, including $5 million in state funding authorized by initially-reluctant legislators at the urging of Gov. Bill Haslam.
Western Governors University-Tennessee will target adult students seeking a new career, particularly those who have done some college classes but never graduated, Haslam said. He and WGU President Robert W. Mendenhall signed a “memorandum of understanding” to start the program at a news conference.
WGU will offer bachelor and master degrees in four areas – business, K-12 teacher education, information technology and health professions, including nursing.
Knox County School Superintendent Jim McIntyre, who serves on WGU Tennessee Advisory Board, said it offers “an opportunity for great strides in the future” by providing “a cadre of very well-prepared teachers to add to our workforce.”
During the legislative session earlier this year, some lawmakers questioned why WGU should be set up in Tennessee – it was initially started 15 years ago by governors in Western states – when they thought the University of Tennessee or Board of Regents systems could do the same thing.
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said Tuesday he still has misgivings, saying he would have preferred to see the $5 million go to state technical colleges and that the process have been open to bidding.
“It wasn’t just a walk in the park to get that done,” said Haslam of legislative passage at Tuesday’s news conference. But the bill passed by overwhelming margins after legislators became convinced that there was little overlap between WGU and existing state programs.
“The harvest is great but the workers are few,” Haslam said, using what he termed “a biblical reference” to make the point that WGU will reached groups “underserved” by traditional institutions, especially an estimated 800,000 Tennesseans who have done some college work but never graduated.
“There’s plenty of need out there,” said Rich Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, who was on hand for the event. He said THEC has a history of working with WGU, which already served around 800 Tennesseans through its operations based outside of Tennessee.
Dr. Kimberly Estep was named as WGU-Tennessee’s first chancellor. She has been serving as vice president for academic affairs and student services at Nashville State Community College.
WGU uses what it calls “competency-based education,” wherein students are required to demonstrate knowledge in subject matter by writing papers, completing assignments and passing exams rather than earning degrees based on credit hours or time spent in class.
Average tuition is projected to be $6,000 per year with the program self-sustaining after the first year.
Besides the $5 million in state funding and WGU’s investment, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is chipping in $750,000 for startup costs.