Wednesday, March 2, 2011

House passes bill endorsing online university operation in state

The House has passed SHB 1822, which declares the Legislature’s intent to partner with the online Western Governor’s University (WGU) as a competency-based degree-granting institution in Washington, and to recognize WGU as a Washington institution that is self-supporting and does not receive state funding.
On Tuesday, the bill was referred to the Senate Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee. A companion measure, SSB 5136, is in the Senate Rules Committee.
The substitute House bill gives the HECB the option to recognize and endorse online, competency-based education as an important component of the state’s higher education system. The HECB would be authorized to eliminate unnecessary barriers to allowing WGU to deliver its programs in Washington.
WGU is an online, private institution created in the mid-1990s by 19 U.S. governors, including former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry.
The House bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney of Seattle, told her colleagues last Saturday the bill’s purpose is to help meet the demand for educated workers by providing additional access to postsecondary education, especially for place bound workers and others who find it difficult to access traditional higher education institutions.
“WGU is not a substitute for what we have now, but rather would add another access for quality education in our state,” Gutierrez said.
One of the bill’s critics Saturday was Rep. Chris Reykdal of Tumwater. He pointed out that the term “competency-based” was not defined in the bill, and that WGU-Washington would be the only private baccalaureate institution recognized in statute. He called that “very unusual.”
In earlier public hearings on the bill, some concern was expressed about whether WGU-Washington students would receive financial aid. The concern stems partly from the fact that 22,000 State Need Grant-eligible students are not receiving the grants this year because of a shortage of funds. WGU-Washington students would not be immediately eligible for financial aid. WGU-Washington would first have to become separately accredited and then would have to apply to participate in the State Need Grant program. 
The final vote on SHB 1822 was 70 in favor, 26 against, and two not voting or absent.
The bill requires the HECB to work with WGU-Washington to create data-sharing processes to assess its performance and the extent to which it helps the state achieve Strategic Master Plan Goals in higher education.
For an earlier report on SHB 1822 and SSB 5136, click here.

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