In a surprise move, longtime Bellevue College President Jean Floten will become Washington chancellor of a private, nonprofit online school with a modest state enrollment but big plans.

Share story

In a surprise move, longtime Bellevue College President Jean Floten will become Washington chancellor of a private, nonprofit online school with a modest state enrollment but big plans.

Floten, who has led the state’s largest community college for 23 years, will become chancellor in August of the newly formed Washington branch of Western Governors University.

WGU, based in Salt Lake City, has 984 students in Washington, but a new law signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in April will create a partnership with the school, allowing it to be included in agreements for the transfer of college credits among Washington institutions. The school will not receive state money.

WGU this week will sign a memorandum of understanding with the state’s community colleges that will make it easier for graduates to seek bachelor’s degrees there, and give them a 5 percent tuition discount if they enroll, said Bob Mendenhall, president of WGU. The school also will begin marketing itself more actively in Washington, especially among community-college students.

WGU was founded in 1997 by the governors of 19 Western states, including Washington. The school has 20,000 students nationwide and offers more than 50 bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in subjects such as business, health, information technology and teacher education.

Mendenhall said the hiring of Floten, who has served on national community-college boards and committees, will help boost the school’s visibility. “We feel really fortunate that she wanted to come,” he said. “Everyone tells us we couldn’t have made a better choice.”

Floten, 64, has battled — not always successfully — to persuade the state to allow more four-year degrees to be offered at community colleges, arguing the state does not have enough capacity in its four-year schools to help everyone who wants to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Under her leadership, Bellevue College — which has an enrollment of about 39,000 students, including 2,800 full-time-equivalent students who take classes online — began offering bachelor’s degrees in some subjects, and dropped the word “community” from its name. She lobbied for the Legislature to grant Bellevue College permission to offer more traditional four-year degrees in liberal arts, sciences and education, but that plan ran into opposition from the University of Washington.

Floten said she believes WGU represents a way to quickly increase the number of bachelor’s degrees in Washington, and called it “the best of the breed” among online universities.

“To make progress in the private sector, there are not a lot of barriers,” Floten said. “If you can think it, you can begin to put it into play.”

A state report released last month said Washington’s community-college students are transferring to four-year colleges and universities in record numbers but they increasingly are turning to private, for-profit schools to earn bachelor’s degrees.

The trend is a concern because, according to the U.S. Department of Education, about one-quarter of students at for-profit institutions default on student loans within three years of starting to pay them — a number that suggests students at these schools pay a high price for an education that does not prepare them adequately for a career.

WGU offers “a much, much better alternative” than a for-profit, said Sam Smith, former Washington State University president and a member of WGU’s board of trustees.

WGU charged $5,870 in tuition and fees for the 2010-11 school year, about one-third less than most for-profit schools. The state’s four-year public schools charge about $6,000 to $9,000 a year.

Online instruction fills a growing niche because its flexibility accommodates working adults, Mendenhall said. The average WGU student is 36 and works full time. The school also awards students credit for demonstrating skills mastered on the job, also known as competency-based learning.

Vijay Vashee, president of the Bellevue College board of trustees, praised Floten, calling her an innovative leader. He said trustees were surprised by her decision and will take their time picking a replacement.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.