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51
By KathyWitkowsky
Indianapolis
L
ast November, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels sat
down in his office withWestern Governors University
President Robert Mendenhall; former Utah Governor
Mike Leavitt was on the phone. The purpose of the meeting
was to discuss whether Daniels might consider joining
WGU’s board of trustees. At the time, Daniels knew next to
nothing about WGU, a nonprofit, online institution founded
in 1997 by 19 governors, including Leavitt and then-Indiana
Governor Frank O’Bannon. Each of them contributed
$100,000 in state funds for startup costs. WGU now has 20
member governors, and sustains itself on tuition. Daniels had
agreed to the meeting purely out of respect for Leavitt, an old
friend and one of the key players inWGU’s inception.
“I’d never heard of WGU, let alone that Indiana had
actually put its name and money into the thing,” Daniels
said in a recent interview. Nor did he realize that there were
already nearly 250 Indiana residents enrolled inWGU,
which offers more than 50 accredited degree programs in
four high-demand areas—teaching, healthcare, information
technology and business—and claims 21,000 students from
all 50 states and the District of Columbia. But it didn’t take
long for Daniels to appreciate WGU’s “competency-based”
approach, which measures and rewards what students know,
without regard to where or when they learned it. Think of
it as digital versus analog learning—a way to focus only on
the educational gaps,
rather than having to
follow a prescribed
series of courses from
start to finish.
“We hold the
learning constant
and let the time vary,
as opposed to the
traditional approach,
which holds the time
constant and lets the
learning vary,” said
Mendenhall.
That’s particularly
appealing to working
adults, because it
means they don’t have
to waste time or money reviewing material they’ve already
mastered: WGU charges just under $2,900 tuition ($3,250 for
its nursing and M.B.A. programs) for six months enrollment;
the average time to a bachelor’s degree fromWGU is 30
months, roughly half the national average.
It was appealing to Governor Daniels, too, who saw that
December 2010
Indiana’s “Eighth University”
Western Governors University brings its “competency-based” approach to the Hoosier state
with the right kind of
marketing, the model
could help Indiana
climb out of the higher
education pit that it’s in.
The state ranks 45th in
the nation in terms of
the percentage of adults
with a bachelor’s degree
or higher, a statistic that
troubles the governor.
“Left unattended, it’ll be a
real problem for Indiana,”
Daniels said.
Historically, Indiana’s
heavy manufacturing base
provided decent incomes
even for those with only
a high school diploma.
But many of those jobs no
longer exist. The Indiana
Commission for Higher
Education says the state
will need to increase
annual production of postsecondary degrees and certificates
by more than 6,000 through the year 2025 to meet workforce
needs.
So by the end of the meeting that November, Daniels
had not only agreed to join the board of WGU, he was also
asking whether the school had ever considered re-branding
or “private labeling” itself as a state program. Thus was born
the idea for what Daniels now refers to as Indiana’s “eighth
university”: WGU Indiana, a wholly owned subsidiary of
WGU, which Daniels established by executive order in June,
without any legislative action, state funding, or substantial
political pushback.
By then, WGU Indiana had rented office space in a
downtown Indianapolis high-rise and hired a chancellor—
Allison Barber, a former teacher and native Hoosier (see page
X) with public relations and communications expertise—to
oversee its branding and marketing. To date, WGU has stuck
mainly with Internet advertising. But armed with $1.75
million in seed money from the Lumina, Lilly, and Bill &
Melinda Gates foundations, WGU Indiana has rolled out a
million dollar marketing campaign that extends well beyond
the Internet, to billboard, bus, print, radio and television
advertising. The governor appears in the school’s materials
and on its website, and was featured in its first radio and
television ads. “Indiana needs more college grads. And you
deserve the greater opportunities that a college degree can
bring,” Daniels said in the television spot, before encouraging
“WGU fits Indiana like a tailored suit,” says Governor
Mitch Daniels, who convinced Western Governors
University to consider re-branding itself as a state
program.
WGU Indiana, a wholly
owned subsidiary of
WGU, was established
by Governor Daniels
without any
legislative action,
state funding, or
substantial political
pushback.
Photos by Mary Ann Carter, Black Star, for CrossTalk