PHOTO: On July 9, 2018, WGU Tennessee Chancellor Dr. Kimberly Estep stands next to the congressional directive which signed the Drive to 55 initiative into law, allowing for the school’s creation five years ago. / Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
On Monday evening, WGU Tennessee’s Chancellor Dr. Kimberly Estep greeted those who stopped by the school’s state headquarters in Cool Springs to celebrate five years of existence and growth.
In a photo of the first graduate class from 2014, around 25 students smile. From the 2017 commencement ceremony at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a few hundred beam from the photo frame, which also includes an image of keynote speaker Gov. Bill Haslam.
WGU Tennessee is the state’s nonprofit, online university established by Haslam as part of the Drive to 55 initiative. It’s a collaboration between the state and the nationally recognized Western Governors University.
The goal of Drive to 55 is to have 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
The online college has grown to the third-largest private, nonprofit university in the state based on full-time enrollment. Estep said just under 4,000 students are currently enrolled in the state, where business is the most popular degree.
And what Haslam has pointed out is the demographic of the school’s students; more than 40 percent of graduates are first-generation college finishers, and the average student age is 37. The average student graduates at age 40.
“You’re talking about folks who have been out of school for some time, who are working full time,” Estep said. “So they need that flexibility. I would argue we meet a need of students that are not being met by existing universities, even online.”
Instead of a time-focused, traditional learning model, the school utilizes competency-based learning to allow adults with work schedules flexibility to learn at their own pace. Faculty members even make podcasts and webinars available for students, and will call students once a week for one-on-one mentoring.
Estep said WGU is the only program in the state, aside from one program at Lipscomb University, which uses the learning model.
Students who attend can choose from more than 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in business, K-12 teacher education, IT, and health professions like nursing.
Since launching, Estep said the school’s biggest success has been their rapid growth.
The school recently released a list of top achievements since its inception.
- Conferring more than 3,000 degrees
- Employing more than 115 Tennesseans since launching
- Forming more than 50 partnerships with companies and institutions across the state, including partnerships with all 13 of Tennessee’s community colleges and Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs)
- Awarding more than $1.5 million in scholarship funding to Tennesseans
- Enrolling students in 92 of Tennessee’s 95 counties
Nine faculty members live and work in Williamson County, with 160 students in the county.
Estep said two main factors effect a person’s desire to go back to school: time and money.
Students are told to devote approximately 20 hours to the program each week. “It’s like taking on a part time job,” Estep said. “If you’re dedicated and you set your time and you use that like a job, you will finish.”
The school charges by the term, not the number of courses completed. Estep said the program is approximately $6,500 per year.
Graduate degrees are acquired in an average time of 19 months, while undergraduate degrees take 28 months on average.
But WGU isn’t like community college: no ACT or SAT scores are used, and some college experience is required. Instead, placement exams are given, and former college coursework is considered in granting entrance.
Estep’s favorite part of the job is awarding scholarships, which the school grants based on financial need and merit, from $2,000 over two years to $10,000.
Since the school’s launch over $1.5 million has been awarded to students in scholarship money.
While listening to Gov. Haslam’s speech at last year’s commencement was inspiring, Estep said the real kicker was a student who spoke about how his child’s illness convinced him to go back to school.
For many students, WGU is a second chance. “Or a third, or a fourth, or in some cases, a fifth chance,” Estep chuckled. “We get people who have lots of starts and stops along the way. But that’s common.”