*CORRECTION: Western Governor's University began offering degrees in 1999. An earlier version of this article misstated when the university was founded.
JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers on Tuesday were surprised to learn that students at an online-only university based in Utah would be eligible to receive in-state financial aid because of an executive order from Gov. Jay Nixon last February.
The limited amount of education funding, or the "higher education pie" as Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, put it, was a topic of discussion in Tuesday's Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on higher education.
In an executive order issued Feb. 15, 2013, Nixon committed support to Western Governors University, an online-based program geared toward continuing adult education, in establishing WGU-Missouri. Because of Nixon's executive order, higher-education funding could be even more scarce as the new university vies for state financial aid dollars.
The order directed the Missouri Department of Higher Education to "recognize, endorse, and support online competency-based education as an important component of Missouri's higher educations system" and to "eliminate any unnecessary barriers to WGU-Missouri operation and delivery of such education programs."
While WGU-Missouri does not require any direct state funds, state Department of Higher Education Commissioner David Russell said that as of last month, the university is eligible to receive state financial aid through programs like Access Missouri, a need-based program for full-time students at participating schools, though it has no brick-and-mortar classrooms in the state.
What began as a back-and-forth over line items in the budget Tuesday morning turned to intense questioning from Schaefer, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, toward Department of Higher Education Deputy Commissioner Leroy Wade. While Wade moved through other budget items, Schaefer and the rest of the committee returned to WGU-Missouri's role in the state and the governor's executive order, which no legislators indicated that they were previously aware of.
Wade said WGU-Missouri is the only non-physical institution in the state eligible for state financial aid and grants, though it has a non-learning office in St. Louis. There is no legal definition of what constitutes a university presence in the state.
WGU-Missouri did not opt into the Bright Flight program, which rewards Missouri's top high school test takers with scholarships. Wade attributes this to a differing student demographic between the nonprofit and state universities. Russell estimated 1,000 Missourians are enrolled in the nonprofit institution.
Schaefer repeatedly brought up that Missouri's public institutions have failed to address the unfilled niche of online education. He said that because so many Missourians enrolled in WGU so quickly, it must be offering something other universities are not.
WGU specializes in continuing education for working adults; the average age of its students is 36. WGU is a competency-based university, focusing on skills rather than credit hours for $6,000 a year.
"We have 13 institutions that come in every year and ask for more and more money. Then an institution like Western Governors pops in and finds a niche that large that nobody's serving," Schaefer said.
Columbia College serves more than 16,000 online students each year, according to its website. MU offers online programs for K-12, high school and college-level courses. Its program served more than 12,600 students last year, according to its website.
WGU *offered its first degrees in 1999 and was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2010. The university has institutions in four other states: Texas, Indiana, Washington and Tennessee.
Supervising editor is Stephanie Ebbs.