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K.L. Allen: Innovative learning efforts are the key

Despite its decade of economic growth, Ohio enters the current recession a step behind other states. Fewer than 50 percent of Ohioans hold some sort of post-high school degree, certificate, or credential – putting Ohio two points below the national average and ranking us 31 out of 50 states. According to economists, the ideal attainment rate to best position a state for competitive, economic success is 65 percent.

Making up this ground is more important to Ohio—and Ohioans—today more than ever before. In a time of nine percent unemployment, economic downturns around the globe, and an uncertain public health future, we must give our state and ourselves every possible advantage to be competitive. That is the goal of a new action plan developed by a public-private coalition of education and workforce leaders – Complete to Compete Ohio – to increase the number of adults with a high-value credential or postsecondary degree. Helping us get there means more innovative approaches to higher education will be needed and that’s where WGU Ohio can make a difference.

Two years ago, Ohio became the eighth state to partner with Western Governors University, a nonprofit, accredited online university with an innovative learning approach and affordable tuition structure. Now, as the state’s newest university, WGU Ohio is helping address the growing need for highly skilled, credentialed workers required for today’s in-demand jobs. Already more than 4,000 Ohioans have enrolled in WGU Ohio’s programs.

The advantages of the WGU model are uniquely relevant as concerns with Covid-19 and our economy lead our priorities today because our programs are safely online, competency-based, affordable, accessible, and, job-focused.

With the large, four-year residential universities struggling with how to reopen safely with physical distancing and other requirements to protect public health, online learning could be the best option for anyone who wants an educational environment free from health worries. Whether students choose WGU Ohio or another option, I urge everyone to consider the advantages that online study provides currently.

Most of us have other responsibilities that prevent us from attending an in-person university full-time. The average age of a WGU Ohio student is 37, and more than three-quarters work full-time or have other responsibilities at home. Online programs with a flexible pace meet the reality and needs of today’s students.

Additionally, unemployed and underemployed Ohioans do not have time to wait; they need options for retraining and improving their skills now. Sitting through months of general education classes, or even advanced classes, to be taught things students already know is not a model aligned with today’s world. WGU Ohio does not work that way and instead practices competency-based education in which students move forward as fast as they can demonstrate mastery of the material. It is the approach needed today to help students quickly get the training and credentials they need.

And WGU Ohio’s online model means we are not burdened by the cost of classroom buildings, residence halls, parking garages, football teams, or recreation centers to drive up costs. Tuition is about half of other universities and students can complete as many courses as they are able for the same price. New programs begin every month, all year.

The instruction students receive includes one-on-one support from faculty, whose courses are aligned with the needs of employers. Many of our instructors are, in fact, currently working in the fields they teach. Degree requirements are developed in collaboration with employers so that students receiving training in the skills needed to excel in the jobs that employers are seeking to fill, even in a tough economy, like nursing, information technology, and others.

In an economy where education beyond a high school diploma is increasingly required to land a good-paying job, Ohio must close the skills and credential gaps and WGU Ohio’s innovative approach can help. Fortunately, our state’s leaders are well aware of the situation and have good efforts in place to address the problem. WGU Ohio’s model is tested and successful. We are glad to be a partner in this mission and are glad to bring the full benefit of our innovative approach to the needs of our state and our fellow Buckeyes.

K.L. Allen is the state director of Western Governors University Ohio