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It's estimated that 37 million Americans have some college credit, but no degree. Getting adult students to finish college is a chief aim of Western Governors University. It's an online school that challenges many traditional ideas about higher education. NPR's Larry Abramson reports that after 15 years, the school is catching on. Enrollment is growing, but the cost of tuition isn't.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Sherrie Shackleford lives outside of Bloomington, Indiana, in a small condo with her 9-year-old daughters, Aubrey and Alissa. Aubrey says she was glad when her mom decided to go back to college.
AUBREY SHACKLEFORD: It's kind of exciting, 'cause then she gets to go like, go to school again and she - like, and I'm like, proud of her.
ABRAMSON: Shackleford worked for years as a medical transcriber, but foreign competition has driven wages for that job way down. She knew she needed to go back to school. But as a single parent, she needed more flexibility than a traditional college could provide.
SHERRIE SHACKLEFORD: WG was made for somebody like me.
ABRAMSON: The school was founded by 19 governors concerned about providing affordable education for students like Sherrie. At 38 years old, Sherrie is close to the typical age for the school. Also typical is that she did not want to start at square one.
SHERRIE SHACKLEFORD: I have life experience. I have – I already have self-discipline. I had worked from home for years, so I even knew how to do things at home, as far as that can be a struggle for a lot of people.
ABRAMSON: Her dad told her about Western Governors, which operates nationally but has special visibility in Indiana.
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GOV. MITCH DANIELS: Many Hoosiers have put in a lot of hard work pursuing a college degree, only to be interrupted by the demands of life. But you don't have to throw away what you already know...
ABRAMSON: Governor Mitch Daniels helps trumpet the fact that Hoosiers can use state grants at Western Governors, something they can't do in other states. The effort has paid off. The state has over 2,000 WGU students, and that's helped push the school's national total over 30,000.
SHERRIE SHACKLEFORD: This is, you know, the WGU homepage that I sign into...
ABRAMSON: Sherrie Shackleford shows me her home computer set-up. The school has stripped the higher-education machine down to its parts. WGU does not develop its own curriculum. The material Sherrie studies to become a high school biology teacher comes from outside providers. Innovations like this help keep tuition low, around $6,000 per year for this not-for-profit institution.
Sherrie can also keep her costs down by finishing her coursework early, as she's done with one class.
SHERRIE SHACKLEFORD: It was a testing course on how to give proper assessments and tests, avoid bias - all that neat stuff.
ABRAMSON: But the truly unusual thing about this computer-driven system is that it provides a lot of one-on-one attention. Throughout her career at this school, Sherrie will have her own, personal mentor - a combination guidance counselor, career coach and best buddy.
Sherrie has never met her student mentor in the flesh even though she lives just 90 minutes away, just north of Indianapolis. She also works out of her own home office, in a house filled with kids and pets.
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STORMI BRAKE: Hi, Larry.
ABRAMSON: Hi, there.
BRAKE: Come on, boys. I'm actually on a call.
ABRAMSON: Stormi Brake is her name. She was wearing a headset, talking on the phone with one of her 90 students when I showed up.
BRAKE: (Talking on phone) Good. Well, that's good then. You were able to get - that stuff was all pretty obvious to you - and able to get that back in. And then,what about that natural-science experiment?
ABRAMSON: As a student mentor, Stormi Brake makes sure that students don't fall through the cracks. She tracks their progress on a computer dashboard that the school uses.
BRAKE: Each student has a progress bar up at the top, with stars that tell them how many assessments they've already passed this term, and if they're on track for their term. So the bar will be green when they're on track; red if they're not on track.
ABRAMSON: Stormi has a strong background in science and teaching, but her main job is to make sure her students get their degree. Students with questions about course content turn to another kind of mentor, a course mentor.
All this support helps students understand when they're ready to show that they've mastered a subject, according to university president Bob Mendenhall.
DR. BOB MENDENHALL: For each degree, we define what we expect a graduate to know and be able to do. We develop the assessments to measure that. When they can demonstrate they've mastered all the competencies, they graduate.
ABRAMSON: This is an ambitious effort to reach adult students, who often struggle to finish school. But right now, WGU is only filling a niche. It offers degrees in just four fields: information technology, teaching, business and health care. Bob Mendenhall says his school cannot replace traditional colleges.
MENDENHALL: We don't pretend to be a research university. We're not providing a residential experience to students.
ABRAMSON: Based on student and employer feedback, graduates are doing well, getting jobs and promotions based on their degrees from WGU. But the school is still new, and it will take time to develop better numbers on how students are doing. In the meantime, WGU has kept one important number in check - tuition has not gone up in five years.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.