Dickson Post

Kimberly Estep: Expanding access to higher education for nontraditional students


Ten years ago, Gov. Bill Haslam and a bipartisan state legislature invested $5 million to launch WGU Tennessee, an accredited, online nonprofit university, to expand access to higher education across the state.

A decade later, WGU Tennessee has returned that initial investment and more: to date, the university has awarded more than $5.25 million in scholarships to Tennesseans. With nearly 10,000 alumni and more than 4,400 current students, WGU Tennessee’s competency-based model has shown that it fulfills a need for students and employers for flexible and affordable higher education in high-demand industries like IT, nursing and teaching.

The flexibility and low cost of WGU Tennessee are attractive to many working adults and low-income Tennesseans, many of whom cannot afford to attend a traditional brick-and-mortar university due to work and family commitments or the cost burden. Students facing these barriers have been traditionally ignored by our country’s higher-education system, a gap in coverage that our state has attempted to remedy with the Nontraditional HOPE Scholarship.

Expanding access to higher education to low-income adults is the goal of the Nontraditional HOPE Scholarship program. The program is designed to offer a path to economic mobility and career advancement for low-income adults left behind by traditional higher education in Tennessee and across the country. Offering a path forward to higher education by expanding HOPE access for low-income Tennesseans helps all Tennesseans by addressing the needs of our state’s workforce.

Yet only 281 Tennesseans participated in the Nontraditional HOPE program in 2021-2022 across the 55 eligible colleges and universities in Tennessee. Currently, over 600 current students at WGU Tennessee alone could qualify for the scholarship, whose lives would be changed by this aid. A new bill in the state legislature would amend the criteria and expand access to the Nontraditional HOPE program to allow students to use the money to attend WGU Tennessee.

The numbers don’t lie: almost 90 percent of WGU graduates work full-time in their degree field, and, on average, graduates increase their earnings by $26,000 within four years of graduation. The flexibility of WGU Tennessee’s competency-based, online model allows them apply real-world knowledge to their courses and finish their degrees faster — the average time to complete a WGU bachelor’s degree is 2-1/2 years.

Regardless of the aid offered, potential Nontraditional HOPE students can’t take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the scholarship at traditional higher education institutions because those models aren’t built to accommodate them. They need options beyond simply a brick-and-mortar institution, many of which have class structures built for a different kind of student at a different point in their lives.

WGU is built for nontraditional students, it’s at the core of the university’s model. The university has been expanding access to higher education for these students in our state for more than a decade by meeting them where they are – it’s time our state steps up. I call on the state legislature to support SB 112, sponsored by Senator Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga), and HB 116 sponsored by Representative Chris Hurt (R-Maury City).

Kimberly K. Estep, Ph.D. is chancellor of WGU Tennessee and regional vice president of accredited online nonprofit Western Governors University’s Southeast Region.

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