- State lawmakers in Ohio are considering legislation that would prevent students enrolled in the Western Governors University affiliate in that state (WGU Ohio) from receiving state financial aid, including need-based grants, The Associated Press reported.
- The legislation is part of a budget bill that the House of Representatives passed last week with strong bipartisan support. It now heads for the Senate.
- State Rep. Jay Edwards, a Republican who put forth the change, told the Associated Press that recognizing WGU Ohio would cut into the market for the state's own higher education system, which includes online programs and is a major employer. Edwards' district includes the public Ohio University.
As passed by the House, Ohio's proposed budget bill removes language in the existing law that allows students in competency-based education programs at colleges and universities to receive state financial aid.
And it comes about a year after WGU Ohio became the nonprofit online university's eighth affiliate, with offices in the state capital of Columbus. Like its parent institution, it offers accredited self-paced, competency-based (CBE) bachelor's and master's degrees in business, K-12 education, information technology and health care fields such as nursing.
WGU Ohio enrolls more than 3,100 students from 88 counties in the state. The institution itself does not receive state funding or other subsidies, and is not seeking them, deriving its revenue instead entirely from tuition.
"We really are very, very baffled by the motivation behind this," WGU Ohio Chancellor Rebecca Watts told Education Dive in an interview. She said 23% of the affiliate's students claim some form of state-based aid affected by this legislation, the "vast majority" of which is through the Ohio College Opportunity Grant.
She argues the state should not reduce options for postsecondary education. WGU Ohio's CBE model, she added, "is a viable and maybe the only viable pathway for many folks that find themselves in need of additional postsecondary education to continue to move themselves forward." The average age of students at WGU Ohio is 38, Watts said.
It's not the first time Western Governors has faced resistance from government officials. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid office rejected an earlier recommendation by the Department's Office of Inspector General that the university must pay back $713 million in Title IV funds following a review of a 2017 audit that found it was out of compliance with federal standards for online education. OIG signed off on FSA's findings.
The change in course was viewed by many as a test of the Ed Department's support of alternative education models such as CBE at a time when it was seeking to rewrite key rules governing online learning.
WGU is perhaps the largest and best-known institution that uses CBE, though a few others have adopted the model. However, more interest may be building.
In a recent report from the American Institutes for Research and Eduventures, 430 of 501 surveyed institutions said they were interested in CBE or already in the process of adopting the model. Of that group, just over half said they were still in the planning stages. But of those underway with programs, most were doing so at the course level and not the program level.
The Ed Department has approved around two-dozen institutions as CBE experimental sites.
Watts said WGU Ohio has an articulation agreement with the Ohio Association of Community Colleges that allows all credits earned toward an associate degree at the state's 23 community colleges to transfer to a WGU bachelor's degree. It also provides those students a 5% tuition discount.
The proposed legislation also removes language recognizing articulation and transfer policies and reporting requirements for the institution. Edwards has said the changes would be made gradually, if adopted.