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Originally published Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Lawmakers debate proposed state partnership with online university

State lawmakers are considering a plan that would expand a nonprofit online university in Washington as a way to increase access to higher education.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are considering a plan that would expand a nonprofit online university in Washington as a way to increase access to higher education.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, would create a partnership between the state and the Western Governors University (WGU), based in Utah.

The university would establish an online school called WGU-Washington, and would work with the state in helping meet statewide higher-education goals, such as increasing the number of students earning college degrees. The school also would be included in agreements for the transfer of college credits among Washington institutions.

WGU-Washington, however, would not be considered a public university and would not receive any state money.

The proposal, SB 5136, is backed by the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, among others.

At a legislative hearing last week, some representatives of existing Washington universities expressed concerns about the state partnering with the online school.

A Western Washington University professor, for example, questioned the quality of an online education compared with that of a traditional college.

But Sen. Rodney Tom , D-Bellevue, chairman of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, said the school would provide more access to college programs without costing the state anything.

"We need more capacity [for higher education] and there's no way the state can afford the new capacity we need in the economic environment we're in," said Tom, who backs the proposal.

State lawmakers are expected to further reduce higher-education funding this legislative session as they seek to fill a multibillion-dollar hole in the state budget. The state faces an estimated $5 billion deficit from mid-2011 to mid-2013.

WGU was founded in 1997 by 19 Western governors, including former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry. Each state contributed $100,000 toward the creation of the school.

The university offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, information technology, education and health care, among others. Tuition for most programs is $2,890 per six-month term. The school is primarily aimed at students who are working and can't take time off to attend class.

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"There are people who are 30 and above who can't drop everything and go back to college," Kastama said. "They have a hunger, a thirst for higher education. And they need it because of the retraining requirements we need in our workforce right now."

Currently, about 900 Washington students are enrolled in the online school. If WGU-Washington were created, it could serve 10,000 students within five years, said WGU president Robert Mendenhall.

WGU students complete courses by passing the required assessments, such as tests or projects, on the Web at their own pace. Students can take as many or as few courses toward their degree as they want for the single six-month fee.

Mendenhall said that on average, WGU students graduate with a bachelor's degree in 30 months.

Last year, the state of Indiana partnered with WGU and established WGU-Indiana, becoming the first state to do so. The institution opened an office in the state with a chancellor, mentors and enrollment counselors.

If Kastama's proposal were to pass, Mendenhall said WGU plans to create a similar office in Washington.

Some university representatives have raised concerns about bringing the online school into the state's higher-education system.

Though testifying neither for nor against the proposal, Bill Lyne , president of the labor group United Faculty of Washington State, said that degrees from online universities like WGU are not substitutes for those from traditional universities.

"I'm one of the professors that this kind of education is trying to get rid of," Lyne, who's also a Western Washington University professor, said at a legislative hearing last week.

For students enrolled in online universities, "the only access to someone who actually knows something about the subject they're trying to study ... is a much less qualified and much lower paid person who will answer the phone for them ... ," he said. "You cut out the cost of the faculty member."

Luke Trapp, 24, from Wenatchee, is enrolled at WGU and said he's taken classes at traditional universities, too.

"I think they [are] pretty comparable as far as the knowledge you take from it," he said in an interview.

Margaret Shepherd, University of Washington director of state relations, asked at the public hearing last week about how bringing WGU to the state would impact student financial aid.

Kastama's proposal does not address financial aid, but if WGU-Washington is created, it can apply for state financial-aid eligibility down the road, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Mendenhall of WGU said that by partnering with Washington, WGU is not looking to attract students from existing schools.

"We intend to be really expanding access to higher education, not competing for students that are going to" other schools, he said.

Joanna Nolasco: 360-236-8266 or jnolasco@seattletimes.com

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