Western Governors University is creating an alternative path to a bachelor’s degree that works well for working adults, says Richard Cummins, who will become WGU-Washington’s president later this year.

Share story

Six years ago, Washington began partnering with a nonprofit, online university, creating a new player in the state’s higher-education landscape: Western Governors University-Washington.

Jean Floten, formerly the president of Bellevue College, has steered WGU-Washington since its inception. This year, she is retiring, and WGU-Washington has picked Columbia Basin College President Richard Cummins to be her successor.

Cummins, 59, has been president of the Pasco-based state community college since 2008. He started his career in higher education in 1982, at the University of Arizona, where he taught English classes as a graduate student. We talked to him about the new job he’ll be starting later this year.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Why did you want this job?

I’ve known about WGU since 1997, when I first went to a briefing by Mike Leavitt, the governor of Utah, and Roy Romer, the governor of Colorado. This whole idea of a distance university — private, sponsored by Western governors — I love the idea of it, I love the model and love the mission. I’ve been a big fan of it for 20 years.

I joined its advisory board in Washington in 2011 … what I really, really love about WGU is that it extends the mission of the community college in a private university setting. It’s affordable, it’s accessible and it’s about getting education to people who would have difficulty otherwise obtaining higher education, so they can enter and remain in the middle class. My whole professional life has been trying to help people raise themselves up through higher education, and in today’s knowledge economy there’s really nothing more important than getting an education past high school.

You’ve said that you can earn a bachelor’s through WGU for less than $15,000. Is that really possible?

Isn’t that amazing? My daughter was a Running Start student for two years (the state program offers free community college courses for high-school students) and that’s zero cost, and then two years at WGU would be $6,000 a year if she took two years. That’s $12,000. If you earned an associate degree (at a Washington community college) for $4,000 a year, plus $12,000 (for two years of WGU classes to earn a bachelor’s), it’s still around $20,000.

A lot of people will say (of WGU): “Well, it’s online, it can’t be very good” — and it’s just not true. The outcomes on many, many measures are equal (to a traditional college). What is missing is the social occasions of being physically present at a campus … WGU’s niche is really for adult learners. The average age at WGU is 37 — these are moms and dads and others who are pushing the table clear after the dinner dishes are done, and studying, going to college at 9 o’clock at night.

Have you taken a WGU class?

I have not taken a WGU class but I have taken distance classes. I set up our first online program at this college in 1998. I’ve studied for a master’s in social psychology (online) and I’ve taken lots of different kinds of MOOC (Massive Open Online) classes.

What is the experience like?

The online experiences I had were kind of sink or swim, in terms of figuring things out for yourself, and not a whole lot of interaction with the people teaching the course. Also I had to wait for other people to catch up, or they went too fast for me.

How is WGU different?

It creates a system of support around the student so they’re talking regularly to a course mentor, helping them navigate through the course and the program of study. (Students) are also working as much as they want, and as regularly as they want, with the person teaching the course … Your speed is your own. You don’t have to move at the speed of a cohort or a class. Let’s say a student wants to get a business degree, and they’ve been working as a bookkeeper. Guess what — they know a lot of stuff, and they can move more quickly (through course materials).

Who teaches WGU courses?

Because WGU is teaching mastery learning in a competency-based fashion … the curation and development of curriculum is one job. Then there’s the course professor. And then the mentor — the student mentors who are again Ph.D. or master-prepared in a discipline, and they support students with weekly calls. And then there’s a separate faculty member who does assessments. The assessments themselves are usually writing, performance tasks, those kinds of things, and student is judged according to performance along a rubric. The assessments are pretty rigorous. A student has to pass at a B level or better.

Where would you place WGU in the landscape of higher education?

There’s an elitism in higher education that says if you don’t do it this particular way, at this particular institution, it is somehow less than. Quantitatively, if you start comparing those numbers, it turns out those assertions really aren’t right. (That thinking) creates an elite structure that tells certain groups of people, based on their socioeconomic status, that college isn’t for you, because you can’t pick up and relocate, or you didn’t come from a family that could pay for college. That’s not what our country needs, and that’s not what middle class is. WGU is opening doors that have been closed. It’s powerful.