The North Carolina House budget proposal includes a provision that would allow students to use state need-based aid to attend private online institutions.
The provision would allow Western Governors University, an online not-for-profit private school, to become the first college to receive state scholarship funds accredited by a body besides the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
WGU offers a competency-based curriculum, organized around tests of achievement rather than credit hours.
Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union) said WGU would benefit the state by offering residents a more diverse range of affordable educational options.
WGU would introduce competition for North Carolina schools, which would be good for the quality of instruction in the state, Horn said.
“The story of this country has always been people that have developed faster, better and less expensive ways to do things,” Horn said.
“No one has the magic pill, but Western Governors, based on the data I’ve seen, is doing a really quite terrific job.”
But Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, said the expansion of state support for WGU brings issues with SACS. Pressnell has seen state-sponsored expansion of WGU in his own state.
SACS has moved slowly to accredit competency-based programs, Pressnell said.
“It is true that it will bring in some competition, but it’s not at a very level playing field because Western Governors has a program approved that would not be approved by SACSCOC at this point,” he said.
Pressnell said competency tests can be on vague skills like leadership.
He said WGU’s expansion in Tennessee pushed Lipscomb University to be the first school in the southern region accredited by SACS to offer competency-based education.
Timothy Sanford, associate director for credit programs for part-time students at the Friday Center, said online education can offer equal value to in-person teaching but questioned allowing state scholarship money to go to institutions outside North Carolina.
“The only thing I would differ on with the legislators is why they’re pushing students out of state, but I have to say, I don’t know the background behind it,” Sanford said.
Pressnell said lawmakers should consider many options for higher education’s future.
“Legislators tend to like a silver bullet, but unfortunately they’re not going to find one,” he said.