Why Leave a "Real" School for an Online One? Jean Floten Explains Herself

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Jean Floten, president of Bellevue College (formerly Bellevue Community College, a name she helped change), is jumping to a gig as chancellor at Western Governors University, an institution that, unusually, is both online and nonprofit. We caught up with her over the phone to find out why.

Seattle Weekly: Why did you take this job?

Jean Floten: I see [the mission of WGU] as an extension of my life's work, which has been to provide education access to groups of people that aren't very well served by existing institutions. It's what got me into community colleges in the first place. We need more opportunities for people to complete bachelor's degrees. In our state right now, we're experiencing a shortage [of college-educated workers], so we're importing more people into our state. It creates congestion, taxes infrastructure, and doesn't provide family-supporting jobs to our citizens.

You're going from a community college to an online university. Many people view these types of schools as not being their first choice for education. What attracts you to such underdogs?

I guess I would disagree with the question. Community colleges are first-choice institutions for more than half the students enrolled in them in the United States. They're located in neighborhoods that allow people to work and go to school, and they offer programs that are geared to a wide range of people at various phases in their lives: people entering the job market, people who are upskilling and transitioning, people that always wanted to know about history but never had a chance.

WGU was started by 19 governors, it is nonpartisan, not-for-profit, and is recognized by the state of Washington as its first online-education provider. It has a model that is high-touch, high-tech, and competency-based. It offers education in a format different from traditional education that makes it a lot more accessible.

What about those who say that online education is inherently inferior to in-person learning?

Online education is the quickest-growing aspect of education. More and more people are opting to take some or all of their classes online. I'm in a land-based institution, but 2,800 of our full-time students--22 percent of our student body--are taking classes online.

[But online educations] are not for everyone. An adult that started college somewhere else and didn't get a chance to finish and is really motivated to do what they can to get their degree is very different from an 18-to-21-year-old looking for a traditional college experience. I wouldn't recommend [online schooling] for the student that wants the full university experience and has the means to pay for it.

For-profit universities account for the majority of online education. Would you ever consider working for a for-profit school?

I don't like to categorically say no, but that's not who I think I am. I'm a proponent of education that is open and affordable. I'm very comfortable in the situations that I've chosen [throughout my career].

So you are not comfortable with for-profit higher education?

That is not who I am. I'm not looking at education purely as a business. I'm looking at education to serve students.

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