An agreement between the state’s community colleges and the nonprofit Western Governors University Washington will help make it easier for students who earned a bachelor’s degree at a two-year school to get a graduate degree at the online university.

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Students who earn an applied bachelor’s degree from a community college often find it hard to earn a graduate degree because many of their courses don’t count toward a master’s or Ph.D. But a new agreement with an online university could make it easier.

The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has signed an agreement with Western Governors University Washington, a not-for-profit university that offers competency-based courses for a flat fee.

The agreement gives students a 5 percent discount on the costs of earning a master’s, and the community colleges agree to list WGU WA on its lists of transfer schools, among other things.

Many Washington community colleges offer applied baccalaureates, which prepare students for a specific profession and complement a two-year degree in a technical field. As with a two-year technical degree, many of the credits earned may not count toward entry into most master’s degree programs.

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Richard Cummins, who this spring became chancellor of Western Governors University Washington, saw the problem firsthand when he previously served aspresident of Columbia Basin College in Richland. At Columbia Basin, he’d known a number of students with applied baccalaureates who couldn’t get into master’s degree programs at four-year institutions.

“For students, just a few short years ago, an associate-of-applied-science degree was kind of a dead end,” Cummins said. With a 2007 decision to create applied baccalaureate degrees, he said, the community colleges “blew the top off that.”

Cummins hopes this new agreement will do the same for graduate degrees.

It’s not impossible to go from an applied baccalaureate to a master’s degree program, but four-year colleges often have additional prerequisites or other requirements a student must first fulfill to be considered, he said.

Western Governors University Washington, however, does not, with a few exceptions, and the new agreement allows students to easily move from their applied baccalaureates into one of WGU WA’s master’s programs.

“It’s really about getting the word out,” Cummins said.

Some community-college students have already used WGU WA as a steppingstone to a master’s.

Marie Brown of Seattle earned an applied baccalaureate in hospitality at South Seattle College, and wanted to get a master’s in business administration so she could start her own business. But she knew some of her community-college work wouldn’t count toward entry into a master’s degree program at a four-year college or university.

Instead, she earned the master’s degree through WGU WA. The program took 18 months, and cost her less than $10,000.

Brown got help from WGU WA mentors who helped her stay on track and provided assistance whenever she ran into an issue. And, she said, “I did it all on my laptop.” Much of the course material was taught through interactive videos and articles. Brown said she wrote more than 30 papers on her way to earning the degree.

WGU is a private nonprofit, but it has a legislatively-approved partnership with the state of Washington for all of its programs. It offers competency-based learning, giving students credit for what they already know.

Cummins said most of the community colleges’ applied baccalaureate programs satisfy the bachelor’s degree requirement for admission into WGU WA’s master’s degree programs, with the exception of the Master of Science in Nursing. Because nursing is a specialized career field, there’s a requirement that a master’s degree candidate has received a bachelor’s degree in nursing.