Path to get accredited long, slow for WGU

Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2000

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Western Governors University, an online university hailed as revolutionary when first created, will have to wait six more months to be considered for accreditation.

Representatives from four regional accrediting associations have delayed action on WGU's application, saying there's still no way to assess the Internet institution, which is set to grant its first degree next month.

''They're basically making it up as they go along because they never had to do this before,'' said Kevin Kinser, an assistant professor of higher education at Louisiana State University who wrote a doctoral dissertation on WGU. ''As much as they don't want to, by definition, they are setting precedent.''

The committee decided two years ago that the university is eligible for accreditation. But WGU has been waiting since then to become an actual candidate, the second stage of the process.

University President Bob Mendenhall said waiting is always expected with a new institution. But committee members say WGU's nontraditional format of classes taught over the Internet poses an unusual problem.

''This is a very new kind of circumstance and people wanted to feel comfortable they had all the important information before making that kind of decision,'' said Steve Crow, executive director of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the organizations assessing the virtual college.

Western governors predicted the online university would revolutionize education when it was launched in 1997. But the school has struggled to find enrollment. Mendenhall said last week that 230 students have signed up.

''It's seen as not having done hardly anything given the hype about it,'' Kinser said.

Degrees from accredited schools mean more to potential employers than do those from unaccredited schools. WGU's first potential graduate, an Alaska woman who should get an associate degree in July, will not have the benefit of accreditation, nor will others in the near future.

''It's not a waste of their time, although it is something students have to consider right now,'' said Amy Terjal, WGU director for university affairs.

Meantime, the university is trying to legitimize its status by offering financial aid, signing agreements with five colleges and bringing companies such as Microsoft on board.

The university is supported by 19 states and 20 corporations and foundations, which have combined to pump millions of dollars into WGU.

''They kind of covered the bases as well as they could, primarily through the political clout of the governors that were involved,'' Kinser said.

Last month, the Western Governors Association urged the committee to speed up the accreditation process.

The panel doesn't know how to ''think outside the box,'' Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer said last week at the association's annual meeting. ''They don't want to be pioneers.''

But Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, the driving force behind WGU along with former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, said accreditation will certainly come.

''We realize that it will take time for the traditional accreditation agencies to feel comfortable with this kind of innovation,'' Leavitt said. ''But the market is demanding it and it will happen.''

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