When Jennifer Knight was a child, she begged for a classroom desk that she could use in pretending to be a teacher. Her aunt obliged, and Knight’s playtime spelling lessons for her stuffed animals sparked a dream she now has realized with the help of Western Governors University.
Knight, of Las Vegas, received a bachelor’s degree in special education from WGU in June 2014. Days later she accepted a position offered to her on the spot as she interviewed for a job as a resource room teacher in her hometown.
“It’s still kind of surreal,” says Knight. “At a new-teacher kickoff event, I thought, ‘I’m surrounded by so many people who have degrees. And I have a degree too!’”
Knight’s story echoes that of many of WGU’s students and graduates around the nation. She aspired to get a postsecondary degree and took courses at a community college, but she never completed her degree work. She entered the professional work world, progressing as far as she could in her job without a college diploma.
She hadn’t forgotten her dream of becoming a teacher. But Knight knew that she needed the salary her full-time job provided, and she worried that an 8-to-5 workday would make it difficult for her to schedule and attend on-campus classes. She also feared that taking classes only at night would stretch out the time that it took for her to receive her degree — and add to the cost of her education.
“I thought WGU would be the only way to get my degree before I turned 40,” Knight says.
Jennifer Knight of Nevada, WGU Graduate, Shares Her Experience
In fact, WGU’s online, competency-based approach allowed her to accelerate her coursework. She received her bachelor’s degree by age 30, just two-and-a-half years after starting.
To bolster the higher education opportunities available to Nevada students, USA Funds® has provided a $2 million grant to establish WGU Nevada. That state will join Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Washington as those with WGU programs tailored specifically to students in their own states.
“We were created originally by governors to add affordable capacity to state higher education systems,” says WGU President Robert Mendenhall. “We now have governors coming to us and saying, ‘We really want you to be part of our state systems. We want to focus on our states’ needs, particularly the needs of adults.’”
In 1999, governors from 19 states created WGU as a nonprofit institution that uses competencies — instead of the traditional “seat time” model — to measure student outcomes. WGU bases its course competencies on the knowledge and skills that employers indicate that their employees must have.
Today more than 58,000 students from throughout the nation are enrolled at WGU, completing each of their courses by demonstrating competency in that subject. Assigned mentors assist them along the way.
Trish Zarlingo of Henderson, Nev., completed her bachelor's degree work through WGU in spring 2015. As a student she juggled schoolwork with a full-time job and the activities of her two daughters. And, in her 30s when she began pursuing that degree in accounting, she says she had to overcome another challenge.
“I was scared to death. Sometimes you’re your own worst enemy,” Zarlingo says. “My brain hadn’t done this kind of stuff for 20 years, but with all the resources WGU offers, it was easier than I thought it would be. I realized I could do it.”
Zarlingo accelerated her studies, as Knight did, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 15 months. She plans to pursue a master's degree in business adminstration from WGU, and continue her climb up the corporate ladder that started at the receptionist level nearly two decades ago. She is an accounts payable/accounts receivable manager — and has her sights set on one day becoming a chief financial officer.
Knight also is continuing her higher educational pursuits, now working toward a master’s degree in English language learning from WGU. She hopes that will be a stepping stone to law and doctoral degrees.
“Nevada has a lot of adult students like me who have a lot of work experience, and it also has one of the lowest percentages of adults with college degrees,” says Knight. “WGU Nevada will help more of Nevada to be able to rise higher and achieve more.”