Kim Estep

Kim Estep, Phd., Chancellor of WGU Tennessee.

Western Governors University Tennessee Chancellor Kim Estep, Phd., visited Rhea County on Wednesday and spoke with teachers at Rhea County High School as part of a continuing education program.

She also sat down with The Herald-News to speak about the opportunities for local citizens through the online university.

Western Governor’s University, a non-profit school, was started in 1997 as a way for students in rural areas of western states to get a college degree online. State affiliated WGU schools started in 2010, and the Tennessee branch opened in January 2013 as part of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative to have 55 percent of adults in Tennessee hold a college degree.

According to Estep, WGU has students in all 50 states already, and she feels the program is a good fit for adult Rhea Countians.

“I think the idea of having a state-based WGU is that the programs are the same. We have been hiring a lot of Tennessee faculty, but faculty can live anywhere because they work with a student by phone, by Skype and by webinar, so we are not geographically limited, but we are in the process of hiring more faculty to create more of a presence in Tennessee,” Estep said.

She said the typical WGU student works and goes to school full time.

“We are a different type of institute for working adults. We see ourselves as a narrow purpose school for working adults, mainly,” Estep said, adding that approximately 81 percent of students are working adults.

Estep said that currently enrollment in Tennessee WGU is at about 1,000 students, and she hopes to see it grow quickly.

“We have 700 to 800 graduates in the state. We look at greatly increasing that number. We currently have about 1,000 students and hope to increase to 5,000 in the first five years of operation,” Estep said.

She added that the main limitation for growth is getting faculty trained and in place.

The length of the program for a student varies as the program is based on a competency model where a student shows mastery of knowledge or a skill.

“The institute has defined a test or a performance instrument that students have to do for every single competency in the program throughout the whole university,” Estep said. “A student can move as quickly through the program as they can show mastery of those competencies. Most colleges are designed for the traditional-age students with classes set up as if the person knows nothing about the subject.”

She added that if someone had worked in the field they are trying to get a degree in, they could possibly quickly move through some competencies in the program.

While all classes are online, there is interaction with real people.

She said that for some classes there will be a help desk set up for several hours during the week for students to call in and get help.

“Everyone of our students is assigned a student mentor, which is a faculty member that sticks with that student the entire time they are in the program,” Estep said. “The student mentor will call you each week and do a strategy session to ascertain where the student is and what they need to study this week.

For more information, visit www.tennessee.wgu.edu or www.driveto55.org.