Tennessee officials hope online-only university will boost the number people completing college degrees

Tennessee officials hope online-only university will boost the number people completing college degrees

August 2nd, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

State officials hope that a new online-only university will boost the number of Tennesseans completing college degrees.

Gov. Bill Haslam last month announced an effort to create a Tennessee branch of Western Governors University, an online college that advances students based on their mastery of coursework — not just credit hours.

And a new agreement between WGU Tennessee and Chattanooga State Community College should make it easier and cheaper for Chattanooga State students and staff to finish bachelor’s degrees or go on to master’s degrees. The agreement means Chattanooga State graduates and staff members will get a 5 percent discount on WGU’s annual tuition of $6,000.

“Online education is at the forefront now and we are emerging into a new market,” said Fannie Hewlett, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Chattanooga State.

Because students move through the WGU curriculum as they conquer certain concepts, they complete degrees at their own pace. The most motivated students are able to complete a degree program in a much shorter period than the traditional four-year school. And that “competency-based” model has been absent in much of higher education, said Chattanooga State President James Catanzaro.

“You can get through units of a course without having mastered it,” Catanzaro said of the traditional college model.

WGU is open to students across the country. Tennessee’s branch just means the not-for-profit, accredited university will have more visibility, said Chancellor Kimberly Estep. Currently, 700 Tennessee students are enrolled, though Estep said they expect to see thousands more come on board.

The online university will especially target working adults — the average student nationally is 39 years old — who may have already completed some college, but not finished a bachelor’s degree.

“There’s a niche of students we can reach that other universities aren’t prepared to reach,” Estep said.

And that should help in Haslam’s mission to get 55 percent of Tennesseans to complete a college degree by 2025. Only about 32 percent of state residents now have some form of college degree. Officials say that number will have to improve if the state is to meet the needs of the changing economy, which is increasingly global and technology driven.

By 2020, 58 percent of Tennessee jobs are expected to require some form of education beyond high school, according to a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study released this summer.

<em>Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at 423-757-6249 or khardy@timesfreepress.com.</em>