WA State Online University Hearings

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Yesterday, I testified before the Washington State Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee in support of a bill to establish a partnership with an accredited online university. (I am a former student of the institution – Western Governors University or WGU – and a big fan because they made an advanced degree possible for me five years ago when the traditional model would not work.) The bill will not cost the taxpayers a dime because WGU is a non-profit, self-supporting university.

The points I tried to make included how a partnership with an online university would add another option to the state system, especially for working adults. I do not see WGU replacing the traditional system or even in much competition because of the differing target markets. Another high point is how WGU assigns a student mentor that stays with the learner throughout enrollment. The mentor serves as part guidance counselor, part professor and part cheerleader. My mentor was tremendously experienced, kind and helpful (we still keep in touch).

I should not have been surprised at the strident, emotional argument against the initiative. Now in fairness, there were a few unnecessary comments from our side but nothing rising to the level of criticism from the traditional colleges in the state. They attacked most parts of the program as well as the concept of the bill since the state will not be putting out any money. I couldn’t help wondering if they also objected to the free market idea of WGU.

Sadly, there are plenty of statistics to show Washington ranks very low in college availability (47th) and this problem will only increase due to a liberal effort to “guarantee” a college education to young people starting in 2012. Establishing an official connection with WGU would raise the visibility of this option for all Washingtonians and should be just one of many alternatives for bachelor and master degrees.

On our way out the door, one of the traditional college staff accosted the other student and me asking how we heard about the hearings. I first asked where the individual worked before responding to her question. She was obviously looking for a figurative stick to hit us with. Very strange. As I walked away, I had to wonder, “what are you afraid of”?

Lessons on the Process

1. Stay classy – As I mentioned above, there were a few “stray” comments from those arguing in favor of the bill that did not help the tone of the session. I maintain if our position is not strong enough to argue on its merits, we should re-evaluate the initiative. I am absolutely convinced there is much to talk about on the conservative side in a visionary, positive – dare-I-say constitutional – way. There is no need to lower ourselves to petty, personal attacks even as the other side does.

2. Prepare a few notes ahead of time – Sounds obvious but a month ago, I testified before the Washington House committee for the companion bill and did not prepare notes beforehand. I am accustomed to public speaking so just organized some thoughts in my head going in. The session went OK but could have been better. I used a few notes yesterday and felt better about my short talk. (The house bill passed, by the way.)

3. Testifying before a committee can be relatively pain-free – Both committees were gracious to us and the Senate committee especially so. More importantly, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to insert myself in the public discussion. It was a matter of signing up before the session and checking the block, “I wish to testify.” Try it on a bill you feel strongly about. The committees appreciate having average citizens speak.