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Online college's degree of flexibility lures veterans

SAN ANTONIO — Low tuition and the ability to set his own study pace drew Michael Cole to embark on a master's degree in information security from the online nonprofit Western Governors University — Texas.

But the school's portability took on new value when Cole left to work as a U.S. Army contractor in Afghanistan for more than a year.

“If you don't have access to brick-and-mortar schools or the time or the financial resources, it's a great affordable option,” said Cole, 34, of the university that charges between $2,890 and $4,250 per six-month term, depending on the program. Students can attempt as many courses as they want during that time.

Cole, a U.S. Air Force veteran, now lives in Abilene and works as a network security engineer.

But in 2011, soon after beginning his master's program with WGU Texas, he moved to San Antonio to a job in information security for the Air Force, then was able to finish more than 60 percent of his degree while in Afghanistan. He graduated in September.

WGU Texas Chancellor Ray Martinez said the university's typical student is 37 years old, has a full-time job, a family and previous college experience.

“They're looking for a way to have that flexibility and not have to give up the priorities that are important in their lives,” he said.

During the enrollment process, the school looks for high school graduates who have had real life experiences, rather than standardized test scores, Martinez said.

WGU Texas offers more than 50 programs, mostly bachelor's and master's degrees, in four areas — education, business, information technology and health professions.

It is a subsidiary of the accredited nonprofit Western Governors University, first proposed as a competency-based virtual school by a group of Western Governors' Association members in 1995. WGU Texas, one of several state offshoots, was launched in 2011.

Gov. Rick Perry has praised the school, though Martinez said it does not receive state funding.

The university's curriculum is based on guidance from industry leaders about which skills and knowledge they want in their employees, the chancellor said.

Students earn “competency units” rather than credits when they can show they've mastered the material, he said.

WGU Texas enrolls about 4,500 students statewide and about 10 percent hail from Bexar or nearby counties, he said.

That number could rise. The university and Alamo Colleges recently signed an agreement to allow San Antonio College registered nursing students to continue their education through WGU Texas, said Martinez and Lu Pelayo, Alamo Colleges' director of nursing and allied health programs.

Martinez said WGU Texas doesn't aim to compete with “the traditional higher education infrastructure” because its student body is different from the younger demographic of students craving a residential experience.

Not everyone is a fan of WGU's methods. Mary Aldridge Dean, the Texas Faculty Association executive director, said she believes WGU's faculty are actually administrators. She suggested that students who want to take courses online, “just take online classes at a reputable university.”

Martinez said the university's faculty includes two kinds of mentors, those who advise students and keep them on track and “course mentors,” subject matter experts who help guide students through the course material. Most have a graduate degree.

While the university doesn't offer tenure to its teachers, which provides added job security at many schools, the majority are full-time employees with benefits, Martinez said.

Though mentors were available via email or phone to help, Jason Franklin, 37, who now lives in San Antonio, said he'd often try to find the answers on his own as he worked toward his degrees through the national WGU.

“It forced me to dig a lot deeper and not be spoon-fed the information,” Franklin said. “That is where the challenge came in, and that's why I was thriving in this environment.”

A Navy Reserve ensign who also works in IT for the military as a civil servant, he earned his bachelor's in IT and master's in information security and assurance through WGU.

While working in California in 2009, Franklin's boss told him that if he wanted to keep moving up the civil service ranks, he'd need a degree. He said he'd taken classes at several conventional schools without success because he'd get distracted when he couldn't move at his own pace.

Rather than sitting in a lecture, Franklin said he preferred WGU's format, which allowed him to navigate through the learning materials, such as videos, audio records and diagrams.

Along the way, he'd take quizzes, submit assignments and complete tests at a proctored facility, completed a 160-page capstone project for his bachelor's and accrued industry certifications, he said.

A few courses into his master's degree, Franklin moved to San Antonio for work. The master's put him in the running for the more competitive position he holds now, he said.

But he said the online method isn't for everyone — “If you're not dedicated, if you're not disciplined, you will fail,” Franklin warned.

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