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Originally published Friday, January 14, 2011 at 3:03 PM

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Nonprofit online university could ease space crunch

A bill by Sen. Jim Kastama would open up access in higher education through a partnership with an online institution. Legislators should greet the bill with seriousness and intent.

STATE Sen. Jim Kastama offers a smart solution to higher education's space crunch.

The Puyallup Democrat identifies the problem correctly: too many college-bound students in Washington state and not enough room at our local institutions.

The solution he offers is one the Legislature ought to take seriously. It would create a partnership between the state and the Western Governors University, a nonprofit online institution. The online university estimates it could take 20,000 to 40,000 students in the next three years.

Students can choose from a variety of courses offered by schools across the country, from MIT to the California Institute of Technology. Six months of tuition through WGU would cost $2,800 for unlimited access to the institution's catalog of accredited courses. Legislators consumed by the state's budget woes should know WGU would not cost the state a dime. It would offer affordable tuition and create more space in higher education.

Compare what WGU is offering with another attempt to broaden access: the swift rise of for-profit institutions. This sector came out of nowhere and now enrolls hundreds of thousands of students. These schools are also rightly under federal scrutiny now for unscrupulous recruiting practices and questions about high tuition and poor educational outcomes.

WGU is accredited nationally and regionally, offering reliable quality benchmarks and a reassuring sign the institution takes seriously the business of education. The university is less expensive than most institutions and its online structure does not compete with traditional colleges.

Kastama, who chairs the Senate Economic Development, Trade & Innovation Committee, is right to be concerned about the state's inability to keep up with demand for college. By 2018, two-thirds of all jobs in this state will require some postsecondary education. The K-12 system is working to ensure students emerging from high school are prepared for college or the work force.

There has to be a place for these students to go and seek a quality education.

The seven-year-old WGU was created by 19 governors, including then-Washington Gov. Mike Lowry. Pass rates hover at an enviable 68 percent. Lawmakers ought to welcome this university into Washington state.

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