Chloe Smallwood, left, who is a grad student at WGU, and her mother, Kim Slaughter, program mentor for WGU University, work from home in Dunlap.

Tennessee's state-backed online university, WGU Tennessee, is quietly building momentum using clicks instead of bricks.

About 4,000 Tennesseans are currently enrolled in WGU, which is short for the Utah-based Western Governors University. Tuition — about $6,500 a year — is significantly lower than many traditional four-year universities, and students complete their competency-based assignments at home.

some text
Chloe Smallwood is a grad student at WGU University.

WGU aids local students

* Since launching in 2013, WGU Tennessee has conferred more than 25 nursing degrees to employees at Erlanger hospitals in the Chattanooga area.

* During the same span, WGU has awarded more than 25 degrees to school teachers in Bradley and Hamilton counties.

* WGU has awarded more than $185,000 in scholarships to students in Bradley and Hamilton counties.

* WGU has established partnerships with several Chattanooga-area businesses including Chattanooga State Community College, Erlanger hospital, PlayCore and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Source: WGU Tennessee

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 not for first-time college enrollees, however.

"The average age is 31, and 81 percent of our students are working," explains Dr. Kimberly Estep, chancellor of WGU Tennessee. "They are moms and dads. They have jobs, mortgages, community responsibilities."

A 2016 Harris poll showed that 87 percent of WGU graduates were at work in their chosen career fields, and 98 percent of employers say they would hire another WGU graduate.

"WGU Tennessee is playing a role in [Tennessee's] success because of its innovative approach to higher education," Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam says. "It's called competency-based learning, and it allows busy adults to learn on their schedules with one-on-one faculty support and advance through courses as soon as they demonstrate mastery of the subject matter."

Chancellor Estep says most WGU enrollees have attended four or five colleges and/or universities before they settle on WGU.

Chattanooga-area businesses are increasingly turning to WGU to help workers advance by earning undergraduate or graduate degrees. An analysis of WGU enrollment in two of Southeast Tennessee's most populous counties — Hamilton and Bradley — shows a 524-percent increase in enrollment over the past five years.

The raw numbers are modest. With about 362 WGU Tennessee students, enrollment in the two counties is still only about the size of a small elementary school. But the growth curve suggest that the sky is the limit.

About 25 nurses at Erlanger hospitals have WGU degrees and about the same number of local school teachers in Bradley and Hamilton counties have degrees from the online university. It is an especially good deal for active teachers, who can earn post-graduate degrees while continuing to work in the classroom.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee announced in June that it would endow $10,000 in scholarship funds toward the WGU nursing program. WGU Tennessee has pledged to match the donation to create $2,000 scholarships for 10 new students.

"We see the scholarship as a way to make sure more Tennessee nurses have the opportunity to benefit from a great education," says Karen Ward, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

PlayCore, a Chattanooga-based manufacturer, has partnered with WGU to provide discounted access to the online university for its employees. Qualified PlayCore employees get a 5 percent tuition discount for up to two years.

"PlayCore is excited about the partnership and is looking forward to helping employees improve their current job performance, as well as prepare them for advancement to other positions within PlayCore and its family of brands," Lynnette Smith, manager of Employee Services at PlayCore, said in an announcement of the tuition assistance.

WGU is also a pillar of the state's "Drive to 55" initiative which 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.

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 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.

some text
Kim Slaughter, left, program mentor for WGU University, and her daughter, Chloe Smallwood, who is a grad student at WGU, work from home in Dunlap.