A 500 percent enrollment increase — from 500 to 2,500 students — over the past year is evidence that Western Governors University, a private, nonprofit virtual university founded by 19 Western governors, is finding a niche in the higher-education family, a status report issued Thursday says.

WGU "is now widely recognized and is expanding its student base, financial support, partnerships and national influence," the report says.

Gov. Mike Leavitt, who has been an ardent supporter of online education, said it was "fulfilling to see WGU reach cruising altitude." The report shows that the university has a legitimate role in higher education, he said. He has been particularly interested in using online resources to help Utah teachers increase their knowledge in fields such as instructional technology, math and science and has promoted scholarships to achieve this purpose.

WGU's role may increase as current budget constraints squeeze students out of the traditional higher-education institutions, said Chip Johnstone, provost and academic vice president. "We think there will be a greater demand," he said. Online courses bypass the constraints of over-full classrooms. "We have the capacity for many more students." Although many WGU students are not in Utah, most states are experiencing the same challenges posed by a poor economy, he said.

Both budget and net assets are increasing at WGU. The fiscal year 2001 budget of $5.3 million is up from $3.9 million for the previous year. The university now has 40 employees and faculty members and contracts with about 60 faculty members who serve on the program and assessment councils.

The university's appeal is primarily to nontraditional students who find the flexibility of electronic courses suits their work and family needs, said President Bob Mendenhall. "The constraints on time due to work and family are access issues just as real as those imposed by geography, so the flexibility provided by WGU's online, competency-based model is very appealing to a broad spectrum of students," he said.

The average WGU student is 40 years old and more than 90 percent likely to be a full-time employee. The "student body" currently represents 46 states and nine countries.

Among 2001 milestones were recognition of the first five WGU graduates, receipt of several major grants, new partnerships and additional accreditation from a national oversight body. In June, the university was accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, a nationally recognized accrediting agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The virtual university also is a candidate for accreditation with four regional associations.

In September, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education William Hansen was in Utah to present a $10 million Star Schools grant to help WGU finance a Teachers College.

The telecommunications network provides accredited, online degrees and certificates to K-12 teachers and those working toward education degrees. School principals and superintendents are the beneficiaries of a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, which was matched by state funds to upgrade their skills in technology leadership via WGU courses.

WGU also has developed partnerships with the National Urban League, state governments and Sitting Bull College in North Dakota to serve minority populations that had been underserved.

The majority of current students, 2,050, are taking courses through WGU to supplement other educational goals. Some 450 are enrolled in degree or certificate programs that will earn credentials directly through the university, the report says. The university has eight competency-based degree programs, including associate, bachelor's and master's degrees in information technology, business and education. Its online catalog offers more than 1,000 courses. More than 1.5 million users and 30 million hits have been logged on the WGU Web site.

Twenty-three corporate and foundation sponsors support the university and its mission. They include some of the country's largest telecommunications firms.

E-mail: tvanleer@desnews.com