Angie Besendorfer, the Midwest regional vice president for Western Governors University, visited Iowa recently and I took her up on an invitation to sit down in person for coffee — rather than another Zoom meeting —- to learn what one of the largest online universities in the U.S. has planned for the state. Besendorfer, who has been WGU’s chancellor for Missouri the past seven years, is now responsible for expanding WGU’s reach in a nine-state region that includes Iowa. 

A week before meeting with me, Besendorfer met with Iowa’s 14 community college presidents to discuss a potential statewide articulation agreement between each community college and WGU. Last October, Des Moines Area Community College entered into an articulation agreement to streamline transfers to WGU for its students. If the community colleges decide to move forward, WGU would become an easy option for students across Iowa to transfer into after completing a two-year degree. 

The online university has nearly 120,000 students across the country taking its online degree programs, including 823 Iowa students currently. Its degree programs are based on a competency-based model in which students must master each course’s core competencies before advancing, but students don’t have to spend time studying concepts they already know. On average, working students complete their programs within 2 1/2 years.  

Based out of Salt Lake City, WGU was launched during the early dial-up days of the internet — 1997 — as a partnership of 19 founding western state governors. More than 38,000 WGU students earned degrees in business, health professions, teaching and information technology programs in 2019. 

Under a new organizational structure the university adopted in the past year and a half, WGU has established regional territories in an effort to reach more students, particularly working adults and people in underserved populations, to help people to finish their degrees and to advance into higher-paying careers. That’s where Besendorfer comes in. 

Since 2011, more than 1,300 Iowans have graduated from WGU programs, “and that number keeps growing every month” as more people graduate, Besendorfer said. Across the country, more than 6,800 new students started classes on Feb. 1, in a system that enables new students to start on the first day of any month. The university hopes to fill gaps and to continue to expand access to higher education in Iowa, she said. In addition to community college partnerships, WGU also seeks partnerships with companies and business organizations.  

“We’re part of an ecosystem of higher education, and we’ve been here for a while — although you don’t see us or think about us because we don’t have a brick-and-mortar presence,” Besendorfer said. “We’re kind of like the sleeping giant out there supporting your state.” 

One example of a workforce partnership that has worked well in other states: partnering with school districts to upskill paraprofessionals such as teacher aides to become certified teachers. In Illinois, a program to partner with districts resulted in a more than 130% increase in numbers of students enrolling in teaching programs from Illinois school districts. 

“So I hope there are similar things we can do in Iowa,” Besendorfer said.