Former McCrory aide to lead online university launched with $2 million from state

Two years after receiving a $2 million commitment from the state legislature, an online university formally launched its partnership with North Carolina government last week with an event headlined by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

The 2015 state budget included a $2 million allocation to Western Governors University, or WGU, even though it already had enrolled students in North Carolina. Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican, told WRAL at the time that the money would help forge relationships with other schools and hospitals to allow students to do practical learning and internships.

The grant required WGU to raise $5 million in private funds in order to receive the $2 million. Donors included the Golden LEAF Foundation – which administers the state’s share of tobacco settlement funds – as well as Strada Education Network and Utah developer Dell Loy Hansen. WGU North Carolina’s leader will be Catherine Truitt, who served as Gov. Pat McCrory’s education adviser before joining the UNC system’s general administration as an associate vice president. McCrory was involved in the 2015 grant.

Catherine Truitt
Catherine Truitt

Forest was joined by N.C. Chamber President Lew Ebert at a launch event Thursday at the state Capitol. “WGU North Carolina complements our existing higher education institutions and will provide another pathway for many of our working adults who want to further their education,” Forest said in a news release.

Because WGU is an online university, its only physical presence in North Carolina will be an office staffed by Truitt and others. It uses what's called a “competency-based” approach to education, where students progress through course material at their own pace and can advance as soon as they show they’ve mastered the subject through writing papers, making presentations and taking tests.

WGU North Carolina’s launch comes only a few weeks after WGU got a scathing audit from the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education. The audit found that WGU “did not comply with the institutional eligibility requirement that limits the percentage of regular students who may enroll in correspondence courses,” and it calls on the university to return $713 million of federal student aid.

At issue is whether the university’s model provides enough interaction between students and their instructors. The audit found that instructors don’t hold weekly meetings with students, and much of the instruction is provided through recorded videos. WGU leaders dispute the audit findings, saying on the university’s website that “students benefit from interactions with WGU faculty that are exceptionally ‘regular and substantive,’ resulting in a remarkable level of student success and satisfaction.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will decide if her agency will act on the audit’s recommendations and revoke WGU’s federal aid. If she does so, the university would likely be forced to shut down.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education told Inside Higher Ed last month that the agency is reviewing the audit findings, but that “it is important to note that the innovative student-first model used by this school and others like it has garnered bipartisan support over the last decade.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter