COLUMBUS — Ohio has more than a million people who started college but didn't finish, and many now are stuck with college debt and incomes that don't help pay it off. For those too busy to return to school to advance their careers, the governor's budget proposal has a suggestion: get a degree in a hurry by getting credit for what you already know.
"The beauty of competency-based education is that you can show what you know over time," Gov. John Kasich said. "You can, at your own speed, show your qualifications and be able to earn a credential that puts you in a position of being able to get a really good job."
Many state policymakers agree that competency-based education could help adults complete their interrupted college degrees. There's less agreement, however, about the way Kasich proposes to achieve it. His budget proposal calls for Western Governors University, a private, nonprofit online school based in Utah, to be declared part of Ohio's state university system.
While the state's community colleges support the idea, the association representing four-year state universities doesn't.
"We don't understand it," said Bruce Johnson, president of the Inter University Council. "Why does this out-of-state institution need to be an in-state institution?"
In WGU's competency-based approach, students pay a flat fee of about $3,000 per six-month semester and move through online courses at their own speed. If they already know the material and have developed skills through their life experiences, they can demonstrate it through a test or other assessment and move on to the next concept. Students are assigned mentors who stay with them through their entire time with the university.
The university was founded in 1997 by 19 governors of western states who wanted to make it easier for their residents to get college degrees. About 1,300 people in Ohio already are taking classes through WGU. Their average age is about 37.
The proposed budget language says that WGU won't receive any State Share of Instruction funds, the main channel through which the state supports universities' operations. But Johnson isn't convinced the university wouldn't seek state funds at some point. "SSI is just one line-item," he said. "I feel like everything else is open. (The budget language) in no way limits their ability to ask for state funds."
WGU's president, Scott Pulsipher, said affiliation with the state would help with WGU's marketing. "It affords us the endorsement of the state," he said. When Indiana chartered WGU as a state institution in 2010, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels appeared in ads for the university.
When asked at a recent Ohio House committee hearing why Kasich doesn't push to have Ohio colleges develop more competency-based education programs instead of turning to WGU, Higher Education Chancellor John Carey said that developing those programs takes three to five years, and that using WGU's already-established programs is smarter.
Ohio's two-year, state schools already have a relationship with WGU, said Jack Hershey, of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. Under an agreement the association signed with WGU in October, any student who receives an associate's degree from an Ohio community college can transfer seamlessly to WGU. They also receive a 5 percent tuition discount and access to university scholarships.