Providing New Pathway to Higher Education in Ohio

What do iTunes, Amazon and Paypal all have in common? They entered longstanding industries –music, retail and banking — and used technology to lower prices, expand consumer choices and fundamentally transform the user interface. Consumers quickly embraced these changes, and others in the industry were challenged by the innovations.

Imagine a world today without the ability to listen to any song ever written at the touch of a button, have any product imaginable delivered to your front door in two days or pay your sister for your share of your mom’s birthday gift with just a few touches of your phone.

The convenience and ease that technology can bring frees us up to do more — and to do it with more creativity and power.

Certainly, higher education has not been immune from the changing power of technology. Today people earn degrees from colleges and universities by accessing their learning interface through their home computers. The ability for the Internet to tear down walls and expand access to higher education is perhaps one of its most worthwhile uses. As the chancellor of WGU Ohio, Ohio’s newest university, I firmly believe so.

The historic model of graduating from high school, spending four years away at a college, earning a bachelor’s degree and then getting a job, has never been one that worked for every student. Those who didn’t fit this mold were forced to put their dreams on hold — or abandon them altogether. Employers were left out also, because they were denied desperately-needed workers with advanced skills and training.

The growth of postsecondary online programs is breathing new life into the dreams of Americans, as well as boosting our workforce. But, the advantage of WGU Ohio’s model goes far beyond an online interface to truly bring disruptive innovation to higher education.

WGU was created 22 years ago by a group of governors as a nonprofit, online university with the mission of meeting people where they are through a highly innovative competency-based model that prepares students for in-demand careers. At WGU, students gain and demonstrate what they have learned through an asynchronous, online, competency-based model.

It is rigorous and challenging, but it makes it possible for students to earn industry-valued credentials while working full-time, raising families, and contributing to their communities. WGU students earn credit by showing that they have mastered the competencies required in each course, and they can accelerate through the program in doing so. They can take as many courses in a semester as they can complete — all for the same price: about $3,500 per six-month undergraduate term. New students begin every month, all year, and each student gets intensive one-on-one support from faculty. Importantly, each month, students graduate as well, moving forward in their careers, armed with a new credential of value in the workforce.

Degree requirements at WGU are developed in constant collaboration with industry experts to assure that students are gaining the current, relevant skills for in-demand jobs in the 21st century. WGU Ohio is honored to collaborate Ohio’s 23 community colleges so that community college graduates’ academic credits transfer seamlessly to WGU and apply to the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

Last year, the state of Ohio authorized WGU, which offers programs in nursing, business, education and information technology, making it the eighth state to partner with WGU. This also made Ohioans eligible for the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, which helps students cover tuitions costs according to their financial need.  The average WGU Ohio student is 37 years old and three-quarters have full-time jobs.

All this means more students are getting chances that once seemed out of reach and more employers are getting the workers they need to succeed.

Like industries whose boats were initially rocked by technological change, this tide of change in higher education is lifting all boats. College and university leaders across the country are actively and thoughtfully undergoing an exciting transformation. At its core, higher education is about discovering and transferring knowledge for the good of all people, and disruptive innovation through models like WGU further that mission.

Fortunately, policymakers understand this and have been steadfast supporters of WGU and other student-obsessed higher education options.

That’s good news for thousands of Ohioans looking to make their dreams come true, and it’s good news for the thousands of employers large and small seeking to find and retain the talented workforce they need to grow and expand. It’s good for Ohio.

Dr. Rebecca L. Watts is chancellor of Western Governors University-Ohio.

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