STC, Western Governors University set to offer affordable pipeline to grad school

McALLEN — The opportunity to bring South Texas College graduates more affordable master’s degrees and additional certificates is in the making though a sprouting partnership with Western Governors University.

WGU Texas Chancellor Steve Johnson visited the Rio Grande Valley last week to talk with various education leaders in the region, including STC President Shirley Reed.

The conversation revolved around creating a pipeline between master’s degrees available at WGU that could complement STC’s bachelor’s programs.

“They are a good, high-quality institution and they are affordable, which is probably the most important part, because so many of these institutions with online programs are just too expensive,” Reed said. “We are especially interested in their graduate programs … and what they call specialized certificates in the field of information technologies and medical health care.”

The idea, she said, is to align the programs so that they are not necessarily duplicating what the two colleges offer.

STC offers several bachelor degrees in applied technology, including computer and informational technology, technology management and medical and health services management; as well as a bachelor of applied sciences in organizational leadership.

These degrees could be aligned with WGU’s master’s programs in informational technology, which include cybersecurity and information assurance, data analytics and informational technology management, for example.

“We really want to be a presence in the Valley,” Johnson said. “We see our role as providing another avenue for some students… We are not that much targeted to the traditional 18-year-old market. We kind of know where we fit the best, and that is with adults with some college, no degree, and already working on the field.”

WGU has about 110,000 students across the nation and close to 12,000 across the state of Texas after Gov. Rick Perry signed a memorandum of understanding in 2011 to bring the university to the state. There are only about 80 students currently enrolled from the Rio Grande Valley, Johnson said, but the hope is to begin creating more awareness in the region.

The average age of WGU students is about 35, he said, and these are mainly adults with some college education that seek further education in the field that they are currently working in. The university works on a competency-based system rather than an hourly model, allowing students to move at their own pace rather than having to sit in a class for a set amount of time.

The university offers online undergraduate degrees for about $3,200, or graduate degrees for about $3,750 for six months. Students are required to take a minimum of 12 hours per semester, but can take more classes if they choose to move through the program quickly.

“We measure learning outcomes so you can move through our materials as quickly or slowly as you need to,” Johnson said. “For financial aid purposes, they have to complete 12 hours … but you are not stuck going ‘I have this class for 16 weeks.’ You can move through it as quickly as you can.”

This model might easily fit in with what would be considered the more traditional student here in the Valley, which often holds a job or a career as they pay their way through college.

Another attractive option for STC, Reed said, is a program in which the university helps veterans transfer the skills they acquired through the military practically into college credit, so that they can find an easier transition into a degree and a civilian job.

The next step to consolidate the partnership will be to draft a memorandum of understanding with the help of the deans in charge of the departments that will be aligned with the WGU programs.

Reed said this process could take a few months, but the expectation is to have a solidified agreement and programs to offer students by the summer of 2019 or fall semesters.

If all works out, STC faculty and staff members might also have access to these programs with a discount of about 5 percent, Reed said.

She believes there will be a lot of interest from students after being pleasantly surprised to find that their graduates are seeking these opportunities to continue their education.

When the college started offering these bachelor degrees in 2014, they were already working with students who had earned an associate’s degree and had field knowledge, Reed said, so there wasn’t an expectation of them wanting to continue on to graduate school.

“We are finding that large numbers of them do want to pursue a master’s degree, so we have accomplished more than we had ever imagined,” she said. “If we can make this path to a master’s degree and more seamless, it’s just going to have a positive impact at the educational attainment level in the Valley.”

dperez-hernandez@themonitor.com