Updated at 10:37 a.m. to clarify that WGU costs $6,500 a year.
Tennessee's state-backed online university, WGU, is quietly building momentum.
About 4,000 Tennesseans are currently enrolled in WGU, which is short for the Utah-based Western Governors University.
It's a convenient, lower-cost alternative to traditional colleges for people who have some previous higher-ed credits and want to return to school to complete a degree.
It's also a pillar of the state's "Drive to 55" initiative that aims to boost the share of Tennesseans who have a college degree or professional certificate to 55 percent by 2025.
One Chattanooga-area family has gone all-in on WGU.
Kim Slaughter, a former Sequatchie County elementary school teacher, has begun a second career as a WGU program mentor, essentially a coach who helps WGU students get onboard and stay on track.
Meanwhile, Slaughter's daughter, Chloe Smallwood, is pursuing a WGU master's degree in business marketing, a skill she uses in her job in youth ministry at Dallas Bay Church in Hixson.
While they arrived at WGU from different directions — Slaughter as an employee, Smallwood as a student — both found that the online university dovetailed with their lifestyles.
For Slaughter, it offered mid-career employment that allowed her to work from home and to home-school her two younger children.
"I had invested in other people's children [as a schoolteacher], but I wanted to pour myself into my two younger children," she said.
Slaughter said she ran into a friend at Walmart in 2015 who told her about employment opportunities at WGU. Almost immediately, Slaughter decided to apply for a position, and within a few days she was offered a job.
Although she is working with adults now, Slaughter said she still has the sort of personal interactions with students that originally drew her to teaching.
"I feel like I know them," she said. "I'm very close to my students."
Smallwood, meanwhile, had started down the traditional higher-ed route at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., before casting her lot with WGU. She said she enjoyed the social connections of a traditional college, but found that campus life included a lot of downtime that could have been put to better use.
In one six-month time block with WGU — which costs $6,500 a year — she was able to log 54 credit hours, she says. Plus, she said credits through WGU are aptitude- based, so you never have to worry that you might not have fully learned the material, she said.
"If I have a two-hour hole in my schedule, I'll grab my laptop [and do classwork]," she explained.
Smallwood's biggest fear, she said, was that she wouldn't be able to learn by herself. But she soon found that help was always just an email away. Once, she asked for help with a paper and got a response within 15 minutes, she said. Tutoring is included in the tuition price.
Dr. Kimberly Estep, chancellor of WGU Tennessee, says the program is flourishing in Southeast Tennessee. Hamilton County now has 302 enrollees and Bradley County has 60, she said. Moreover, WGU has awarded some $180,000 in scholarship funding to students in Hamilton and Bradley counties, she said.
A 2016 Harris poll showed that 87 percent of WGU graduates are at work in their chosen career fields, and 98 percent of employers say they would hire another WGU graduate.
Quite simply, WGU Tennessee is one of the state's biggest success stories and a true feather in the cap of Tennessee's Gov. Bill Haslam.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.