The announcement of a new online university for Texas, Western Governors University Texas, has united members of the higher education community who have recently found themselves at odds over the future of the state's colleges and universities.
Western Governors University is an online university that was created by governors of 19 states, including Texas, in 1997, and has grown steadily over time. Currently, about 1,600 Texans — out of about 25,000 students nationally — are enrolled in the university.
For some perspective, that's slightly less than the total enrollment at Texas A&M University at Galveston, one of the state's smallest public four-year universities.
As noted in the press release announcing the initiative, WGU primarily serves working adults whose schedules demand flexibility. By taking courses at their own pace and advancing based on proven competency — as opposed to logging a requisite number of hours — WGU lets them earn bachelor's and master's degrees in areas like business, information technology, education and health professions. Tuition is about $5,780 per year, which means that, while relatively cheap, it won't likely satisfy Perry's challenge for a $10,000 degree including books.
While its reach may currently be limited and it doesn't address all concerns about higher ed, politicians and policymakers issued statements expressing their excitement about a new option for degree seekers and what it might mean for the state's workforce.
"Texas needs legions of new, sharp, credentialed minds to succeed in a knowledge-based economy," said House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.
Along with Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Branch co-chairs the new Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, which was created in response to the actions of Perry-appointed regents and was viewed by some conservatives as an affront to the governor.
Zaffirini has been particularly critical of Perry but supports the new online initiative. "Working Texans who cannot pursue their higher education goals on college campuses certainly should reap the benefits of WGU Texas' online, competency-based model," she said.
WGU Texas, which will not receive state funding, is being created by an executive order that calls on state agencies such as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Workforce Commission to step up their coordination, data sharing and involvement in WGU. It also establishes an advisory board that the governor will appoint.
Shortly after the announcement from Perry's office, the Texas Association of Community Colleges issued a release saying it was working with Perry's office and WGU to craft an agreement that will allow community college students to transfer seamlessly into WGU Texas.
WGU Texas will help fill a gap in providing higher education opportunities, helping thousands of adult Texans attain the college degrees they've wanted and needed, on their schedule, and at an affordable cost," said Rey Garcia, president of the community college association.