Bipartisan Lawmakers Propose Western Governors University Affiliate

By John Celock

A bipartisan duo of Kansas lawmakers have proposed creating an affiliate for Western Governors University in the state.

Reps. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) and Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) introduced legislation Wednesday that would direct the state Board of Regents to take the steps of creating a Western Governors University – Kansas affiliate. Both say it would allow more educational options for Kansas college students to receive financial aid. while creating “another tool in the toolbox” for economic development.

“WGU Kansas will offer flat rate tuition and competency-based education that adds an additional higher education option to meet our workforce needs,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “By partnering with WGU, Kansas will offer multiple degree programs online that can be earned at reasonable prices and will be compatible with our state schools.”

The bill directs the state Board of Regents and the Advisory Commission on Private and Out-of-State Postsecondary Educational Institutions to start the process of recognizing a Kansas affiliate of WGU. This would include offering Kansas financial aid programs for state students at WGU and allow for the transfer of credits between WGU and other colleges in Kansas.

The bill would also “recognize, endorse and work to support online, competency based education of high quality” as part of the state’s higher education system. WGU offers a competency based online curriculum. The university describes their curriculum as measuring a student’s performance in a subject matter through a variety of assessments following a self-study period, versus time spent in a classroom.

The bill also has state higher education officials working with WGU to integrate WGU’s programs into state higher education policy.

Whipple said the online nature of WGU and the educational format offered by the school makes it an alternative for those seeking to obtain a college degree while working. He noted it will also be an alternative for those in rural areas of the state without a nearby college.

“Since it is primarily online it will allow higher education that may not have a college nearby,” Whipple said. “They utilize a unique format in education.”

WGU’s website describes the competency based curriculum as working on a different time frame. The university says that students can pass through credits if they demonstrate competency through assessments prior to learning. The student would then work with an advisor to determine a timeline for study in curriculum areas before completing the assessment. The WGU site says that assessments vary between classes with some being traditional tests while others could be reports or in the case of students studying for education degrees would develop a model curriculum.

Both Whipple and Claeys touted the bill as an economic development boon for the state. They said that creating a more educated workforce will make Kansas attractive to companies.

“The more people we have access to degrees is a direct part of our economic development to attract jobs and advance what we have here,” Whipple told The Celock Report. “Education is a variable that helps people become employed. It attracts businesses.”

Claeys noted that the bill would make “education more accessible and affordable” which will benefit the state’s economy. He noted that with the creation of a WGU affiliate in Kansas, students would be able to utilize Kansas financial aid programs to study at WGU.

Whipple said that Kansas has historically been selective in which online schools are recognized.

WGU was first proposed by then Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) at a 1995 meeting of the Western Governors Association and formed in 1996 by WGA members, including then Kansas Gov. Bill Graves (R). WGU, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City, opened in 1997.

Since 2010, five states – Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Washington – have formed state based affiliates. In four of the states the process was initiated by gubernatorial executive order. Washington State’s campus was created in 2011 through legislation signed by then Gov. Christie Gregoire (D).

The state affiliates help with financial aid along with transfer credits. WGU notes that student enrollment is not limited to western states and that students hail from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. WGU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

A WGU spokeswoman said she was unaware of the bill and declined to comment at the present time.

Whipple, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said the bipartisan effort was born from conversations he and Claeys were having on higher education policy and economic development. Both are members of the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee. He said as the two were talking about options and the work of WGU the idea of having a Kansas affiliate became clear.

Both are optimistic for the chances of the bill passing and trumpeted that each of them hails from a different party.

“I think this is a great bill that improves access and affordability,” Claeys said. “It is bipartisan right off the bat.”