Alison Bell, chancellor for WGU Indiana

Alison Bell, chancellor for WGU Indiana, wants the northeast Indiana region to think of WGU’s students when looking for employees.

Tyler Kaufman enrolled at WGU Indiana because it seemed like the best way while working as a registered nurse at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne to achieve a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Kaufman obtained his RN license after completing an associate’s degree at Sheridan Community College in Sheridan, Wyoming, and took the Lutheran job to live closer to his girlfriend, who is attending Indiana Wesleyan University.

Medical employers increasingly prefer RNs with a bachelor’s degree, so going for one was a worthwhile career investment, he said. And, with an online program, “I would be able to still work and could go at my own pace with schooling without having to go to a classroom during the week.”

Kaufman liked the quality and flexibility of the nursing bachelor’s degree at WGU, and after comparing it with all the other online options, he said it also turned out to have the lowest tuition.

Alison Bell, chancellor for WGU Indiana, hopes executives and officials think of the nearly 380 students like Kaufman in Allen County who are enrolled with WGU when they consider how to help the region improve its workforce educational attainment levels.

She visited with Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry and Greater Fort Wayne Inc. President John Urbahns late last month as part of a community engagement tour.

Having started in her role as chancellor in March, “one of my first priorities was to get out and meet people around our state to find out what are the most pressing workforce and educational attainment and economic development needs,” she said during an interview at the mayor’s office the day of the meeting.

“We started with the mayors and the chambers of commerce in each area and the fun thing about it is every meeting has led to plans to meet with other folks in the area.”

Without having timed it that way, the meeting followed a July 24 Indiana Chamber of Commerce presentation where regional business and community leaders were told that northeast Indiana lags the state in educational attainment metrics.

Of the region’s adult population, 34.1% have at least an associate’s degree, which is 2.8 percentage points behind the state average, and 23.4% have a bachelor’s degree, which is 5 percentage points behind Indiana’s average.

Part of the reason for the disparity is individuals tend to obtain the education needed to prepare themselves for the employment opportunities that are available, and a disproportionate share of jobs requiring college degrees are concentrated in central Indiana.

Still, reducing the disparity is among the higher priorities of northeast Indiana business and community leaders. And they are attempting to improve educational attainment levels at a time when nationwide student loan debt has put the value of higher education under greater scrutiny.

“I understand the scrutiny when we’re talking about the investment in something like a college degree, the time investment, the financial investment,” Bell said. “I think it’s a valid question, ‘What is the return on this significant investment?’

“I don’t actually know the solution across the board, except I do know that it is why in this climate WGU Indiana and WGU’s enrollment continues to grow where other universities see shrinking enrollment,” she said.

“We offer quality education for less, and so it’s an investment that people are able to make, and then they get a degree that makes a difference,” she said. “Employers are highly satisfied with the employees that they hire with a degree from WGU. And so there is a return on that investment.”

A year of tuition for an undergraduate degree at WGU is about $6,500, which Bell said is a little less than half of the national average tuition rate.

Following a competency-based model, Western Governors University measures what students know without attaching time to learning, she said. It charges a flat tuition rate, and students who are able to accelerate and take more classes within any given term can earn additional credits for the same amount of money.

As an online state university in Indiana, WGU does not have the kind of investment in land and facilities that conventional universities must recover with tuition and donations, she said.

“We’re not-for-profit, so all of our money goes back to our students. We’re not concerned about shareholders; our students are our first priority always, every day,” Bell said.

“That’s also why these conversations are important to us, these conversations with mayors and employers and citizens,” she said. “We don’t put a lot of money into marketing either, so people need to find out about us from reading an article or seeing an interview on a news show or because their friend went to WGU and said it was a great experience.”

WGU was founded as a national online university a little more than 20 years ago. It has eight state affiliates, and Indiana’s was the first among them. Because it is a state university in Indiana, its students can access both federal and state financial aid.

The university has about 5,600 Indiana students enrolled in its programs. It has graduated more than 7,500 students statewide, including more than 580 in Allen County.

The average age of WGU’s student population is 36, and 86% of its students work full time. Many of the students are the primary wage earners in their households.

“If they’re trying to fit school into that, into their financial commitments that they have otherwise, and their time commitments they have otherwise, other institutions just may not be an option for them, but WGU is,” Bell said.

“Our model makes sense for certain people and I believe that a lot of our students could only go to WGU. So we’re not actually taking students away from other institutions; we’re educating people that might not earn their education another way because of our affordability, our competency-based model and flexibility,” she said.

“And so if we offer an option that will give somebody an opportunity to earn their degree when they wouldn’t otherwise, we’ll make a dent in the educational attainment in this community. We already have, but we can make a bigger splash.”

All of the university’s degree programs have been developed in alignment with workforce needs, Bell said.

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