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Mark Milliron: The TT Interview

The first chancellor of WGU Texas — the state’s new nonprofit, online university — on his new position, how WGU Texas is different from the national Western Governors University, and the future of online education.

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In August, Gov. Rick Perry announced the creation of WGU Texas, the state’s new nonprofit, online university. Last week, the institution named Mark Milliron its first chancellor.

WGU Texas is a state-centered offshoot of the national Western Governors University, founded in 1997 by the governors of 19 states, including Texas. Nationally, Western Governors University serves approximately 25,000 students, of whom roughly 1,600 are Texans.

For slightly less than $6,000 per year, the school offers students the opportunity to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, education, information technology and health care professions. A distinctive aspect of the model is that students are allowed to progress at their own pace rather than studying in a traditional semester-based system.

Milliron has experience with higher education in Texas and innovation in higher education. He received his doctorate in educational administration from the University of Texas at Austin, where he also served as a senior lecturer. Before joining WGU Texas, he was the deputy director of post-secondary improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Policymakers in Texas have high hopes for Milliron and WGU Texas. There has been a push for cheaper degrees with Perry calling for bachelor's degrees that cost no more than $10,000. Additionally, the state has been striving to meet its goals for participation and success rates in higher education by 2015. Because the plan is supposed to bring Texas up to par with other comparable states, it is known as Closing the Gaps. The Texas Association of Community Colleges has also bought in, signing an agreement with WGU Texas to allow seamless transfers between it and colleges around the state.

Milliron recently talked with the Tribune about his new position, how WGU Texas is different from Western Governors University, and the future of online education. The following is an edited, condensed transcript and full audio.

Audio: Mark Milliron

TT: Why did you take the job? What did you see in it? What attracted you to it?

Milliron: I’ve been a fan of Western Governors University for a long time. I was on their board for about five or six years. When I joined their board, they had just achieved regional accreditation with four major accreditors. In the time I was there, they went from about 1,000 students to about 25,000 students. Saw really kind of smart, organic growth serving students in really innovative and high quality ways.

So when the opportunity to be anchored in Austin and the ability to add this mode of education to the family of higher education institutions in the state of Texas came along, it was pretty interesting. I’m pretty excited to cause some good trouble and make a good difference for a lot of folks in the state.

There’s just a huge need in this state for this kind of model. I’m just hoping we don’t get into arguments about which way’s better. I think this is just one of those powerful additions to the model of education that’s out there, especially for working adults.

TT: Can you explain what the position is? What does the chancellor of an online organization do?

Milliron: So part of what this model is about is bringing the power of the national footprint of Western Governors University in a more directed way into the state.

So there are a couple of really key things, I think. One, in particular, is making sure we tune to the local economies, working with regional employers, working with government agencies, working even with community organizations to making sure that education programs we provide really meet the needs of a given region.

I actually think if you look at an education sector, you’re always better off not looking institution by institution but actually looking at how the regional ecosystem of education is put together across K-20 and what are the options for students as they move from kindergarten through to some secondary credential. And what is nice about this model is it adds another opportunity for a regional ecosystem for those students who need a different kind of model to be able to succeed to have that option.

This position will be about making sure we bring the best of Western Governors University writ large into the state in a really thoughtful way. So, working in particular with the information technology industry, the health care industry, the business community, the education community, to make sure what we do in the Valley, what we do in Metro Dallas, Metro Austin, Metro Houston, El Paso and the rest really does meet the needs.

Part of that is working with the local community colleges to make sure the statewide articulation agreement we just signed can be put in place in a way where students can see smooth clear pathways to a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree.

And they realize they now have a nonprofit, competency-based model to do that. They don’t have to go to a for-profit or move themselves across the state to go to a traditional university.

TT: Obviously Western Governors University already existed as an option for students in Texas. How is WGU Texas different from what was previously offered?

Milliron: When you’re operating nationally like Western Governors across 50 states and actually around the world because of the military folks we’re working with, it’s hard to tune to a regional ecosystem. So at the state level, I’ll be able to work in particular with the local community college folks and the local business and industry folks and others to make sure what we’re doing with Western Governors writ large is really thoughtfully applied within the state.

Also, to bring it down a level, is to say, can we build student communities where the alumni of Western Governors University Texas can actually help and support each other within the state. I think what you’re seeing now is more and more the localization of online education, getting it more hybrid where they actually have some face-to-face experiences and they have more regional and local connections helps them be more successful.

TT: I think there’s a lot about online education that people who haven’t done it have a hard time understanding. So there is a student community? It’s not just isolated?

Milliron: Western Governors University in particular is pretty strong on the notion of personal connection. Unlike most online education, which is really traditional education put online, Western Governors University is a personal student mentor, course mentors, faculty mentors working directly with the students and tuning their education based on their capabilities and target goals.

We participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement and get really high scores compared to on-ground universities where people live in dorms. Part of that is because these students spend a lot of time with their student mentors being guided by the educational process. If we can add a localization element to that, it takes it even a step further where they really do feel like a part of a local group of students going through the process together and they can help and support each other.

I do think it’s a combination of tuning to the local and economic needs of a region and then going down a level and saying can you get those communities together in a way where they can support each other.

Because we all get that. When you go through traditional education, part of the beauty of it are the student connections and the faculty connections that give you the ability to get the tenacity needed to be able to succeed.

TT: You have a lot of experience with higher education in Texas. What are the more interesting and timely efforts in Texas and what does the state need moving forward?

Milliron: The state is, just because of the economy combined with a lot of focused effort, has really gone after the Closing the Gaps goals. We’re seeing big increases in participation. We’re seeing good increased in success.

The goal right now should be to continue to add opportunities for students, especially as the economy turns back around. One of the things that’s nice about Western Governors University is, for working adults in particular, having an option that’s more flexible so they don’t have to stop their lives and go for 16-week time-based semesters. It really adds a really powerful opportunity folks to be able to succeed.

The new normal student in higher education is a working adult. They are the modal group of students going through higher education. There clearly is an 18- to-22-year old cohort that is not going away. You still need to serve them incredibly well. No doubt about it. They are often well served by traditional universities.

But a 36-year-old with a job in the IT community often is not served well by having to stop their life and go through a semester-based program, in particular if they already know a lot of stuff because of their industry certifications. That’s where Western Governors really comes in and adds to the mix.

So for Texas, I think this opportunity is perfectly timed because hopefully the economy begins to turn back around, people are able to go back around, and we’re able to continue to make progress toward the Closing the Gaps goals of the state to ensure that we’re getting greater participation, greater success, high levels of excellence within the state.

TT: So, WGU Texas has competency-based advancement?

Milliron: Exactly. The thing that’s interesting about Western Governors University is not that it’s online. There are a lot of folks that are online. It’s the fact that the way they do it is deep personal connections with high quality competency based progression.

A combination of academic faculty and industry councils defining the clear competencies that someone needs to know, allowing another group that does really hardcore assessment construction to say, “How do we know they know those things?” Then, relying as often as possible on industry certifications, licensure exams and the rest. Then allowing that faculty and student to go on a journey over the timeline.

The average student at WGU finishes in about 30 months as opposed to 60 months. So, they can get through in about half the time because many of them already have significant experience in their field and they can test out on competencies. They’d have to sit through classes that they could be teaching, which is often the challenge with adult learners.

TT: So is that where savings would come in? Because the tuition isn’t much lower than average tuition around the state.

Milliron: I think so. I think there are way you can make it more efficient. One way to make tuition more efficient is you can reduce the time. One thing Western Governors does is it doesn’t waste time. It doesn’t make time a fixed commodity. You don’t have to sit through 16 weeks to punch a card. Once you know the material, you can move on.

And, by the way, if you need to take longer, you can take longer. There are probably some students who have to sit with math a bit longer, for example.

But the idea here is that you really help a student get motivated and move at the pace that makes sense for them. It’s really kind of an optimization approach, and really allows you to tune to the student instead of making everyone go through a factory.

One of my favorite lines is, “I think a lot of education is an industrial factory model on an agrarian calendar trying to meet the needs of the information age.” Western Governors breaks that up.

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