While many of us are focused on getting the kids back to school right now, Ray Martinez is looking at those adults in Texas who either dropped out of college or never went.Martinez is the new chancellor of Western Governors University Texas, the only nonprofit online university in the state.“Here in Texas there are 3.5 million who have some college but no degree,” he said. “The Commission on Higher Education has reported that for the jobs of the future, the majority will require college education. It becomes imperative that we have an educated workforce.”Martinez is a well-known figure in higher education in Texas, serving in positions that have included director of the Texas Senate’s higher education committee. He said WGU Texas recently passed its two-year anniversary.The school is a subsidiary of Utah-based Western Governors University, which was started 15 years ago by 19 governors of Western states to provide accessible, affordable higher education for working adults. The Texas affiliate, established with an executive order by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 with bipartisan support in the Legislature, now boasts more than 4,000 students. Those include almost 400 in Tarrant County and more than 1,000 in the Metroplex. There are 919 graduates so far, Martine said.The online university is becoming an educational force in the state, offering 50 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in everything from nursing and teaching to business and information technology. “We focus on the high-demand occupations,” Martinez said. “We expect to expand across the state to a population not being served by other educational means.” The school is fully accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, as well as four other bodies that oversee education for nurses, teachers, health information managers and specialists in information security and assurance.Martinez said the school was designed to offer flexibility to its students, who can start coursework any month and can earn credits based on experience and previous education. The model — called competency-based education — measures learning through a variety of assessments that enable the student to move to the next course. Classwork is done online so students can work from home or during breaks in their workweek on desktops, iPads and iPhones.“We keep learning constant and let time vary,” he said. “At most other educational institutions time is constant, but learning will vary.”Another big draw for WGU Texas is the price tag. Tuition is a flat rate per six-month term, and $2,890 for most degree programs. During that time students take a minimum of 12 units, but if they finish early they can add more. Learning resources and textbooks, all available online, also have a reasonable price tag — a flat fee of $145 per semester.Martinez said the school’s nonprofit status enables it to keep prices low.“Our focus is on ensuring the success of our students, not on making a profit,” he said. “The average age of our students is 37, and they have a full-time job and usually family obligations. We try to be flexible to their needs and offer an affordable solution.”The school was a good fit for Kate Smoot, a full-time working parent in Fort Worth who is getting her bachelor’s degree in business management at WGU Texas.“I started out at another online university, but found I had issues with their scheduling,” she said. “A set schedule at a certain time made it difficult to work around. WGU allows you a lot of freedom with your schedule, and you can accelerate your degree if you work a little bit more.”Smoot said her four-year degree will be finished in under three years because she has taken more than the required 12 credits each semester. She plans to graduate in February and then begin her master’s degree in business administration through WGU Texas.Tuition rates are substantially cheaper at WGU than her previous online school, Smoot said.For example, WGU’s website shows that an MBA from the school costs around $13,000. It says it would cost twice that at the University of Phoenix or Kaplan, and three times that at Devry. Similarly, a registered nurse can get a bachelor’s in nursing for $13,000 at WGU Texas, while a master’s in educational leadership costs $11,560 — both substantially cheaper than other online competition.Martinez said federal financial aid is available to WGU Texas students and that the state is looking into creating a financial aid program for online schools. “An amendment was passed in this last session to ask the Education Coordinating Board to put together stakeholders to look at the idea of creating state financial aid to serve online universities with accreditation and competency-based education.” WGU Texas is also partnering with hospitals, companies, community colleges, public universities and other groups around the state to further its reach, Martinez said. Locally, the school is partnered with Tarrant Community College.Mike Coffey, president of the Fort Worth Human Resources Management Association, another WGU Texas partner, said the school is a good resource for his membership.“They’ve got a novel concept going to make it easier for adults who have to work,” he said. “It’s a great way for people who are truly motivated to go to school without having to sacrifice their family’s needs.”Coffey said the job market for human resource professionals was squeezed during the recession and that additional skills from an undergraduate or graduate program are necessary for promotion or even retention of their current job.Smoot, who works in an after-school program, said when she finishes her degrees she plans to open an outreach facility for families in need.But her main reason for going back to school was a little closer to home.“My big motivation for getting my degree is for my kids,” she said.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net