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Bill Haslam

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says the new online "competency-based" university he's launching with a nonprofit higher education facility will help boost working Tennesseans' access to low-cost college.

The governor joined with Western Governors University President Robert Mendenhall and signed a memorandum of understanding that creates WGU Tennessee.

"We think this is a significant day in the state of Tennessee," Haslam said at a news conference.

Some 800,000 adult Tennesseans have completed some college but have no degrees, Haslam said, and WGU Tennessee will be there to offer lower-cost, high-quality education.

Western Governors University was created in 1997 as a nonprofit entity by governors in several Western states. The program has grown to about 35,000 students nationwide, including 700 in Tennessee.

Haslam persuaded fellow Republicans in the General Assembly last session to set aside $5 million to boost the WGU operations in Tennessee. Some lawmakers weren't happy and still aren't.

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JoAnne Favors

"I would have liked to have seen those $5 million allocated to our public institutions," said Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga. "I once taught at Chattanooga State, and $5 million would have done a lot there to expand the health sciences programs there and the other schools, too."

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said while he hopes the venture is successful, he still questions why the online university wasn't put up for bid by Haslam, allowing the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents systems to come up with their own programs.

Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said "we never looked at it that way [competition]. We've worked with WGU over the years -- they were actually under our authority as an out-of-state online university. So, we feel very good about them. They're legitimate, and this will be a very new dimension for us."

He said he has "no reservations at all."

Haslam said he wanted to move quickly, and Western Governors University already is accredited.

The online operations will give adult students with some college credits an opportunity to "earn a degree," Haslam said. "Today in Tennessee, only 32 percent of our citizens have a two-year degree or higher, and our goal is to raise that number to 55 percent by 2025."

WGU Tennessee offers accredited degree programs in business, K-12 teacher education, information technology and health professions, including nursing.

Students learn through interactive online courses. The university uses a competency-based model in which students receive credit for skills they learn instead of the number of hours spent in a classroom.

The program uses faculty members who serve as student mentors, course mentors who serve as subject matter experts and independent evaluators who objectively grade student work.

Average tuition will be about $3,000 per semester and $6,000 per year.

Mendenhall said the university expects to have about a $30 million budget -- which includes the state's $5 million and a $750,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

After the initial startup, WGU Tennessee is expected to be self-sustaining with no ongoing funding from the state.

Dr. Kimberly Estep will serve as WGU Tennessee's first chancellor. Until recently, she served as vice president for academic affairs and student services at Nashville State Community College.

Haslam is appointing senior business, community and higher education leaders to a 10-member WGU Tennessee advisory board. Among them is Karen Ward, a senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree or 615-255-0550.