Western Governors University, which was founded just over 10 years ago, has reached enrollment of 10,000 students.
Skeptics of the nonprofit, online university founded by 19 U.S. governors, didn't believe the day of high numbers would come, let alone that the school would survive without state financing and in competition with similar, for-profit online schools.
"Our success thus far is primarily because of our intense focus on the student learning experience," WGU President Robert Mendenhall said in a statement. He expects significant enrollment growth to continue, despite the lack of state support.
Students pay approximately $5,800 per year for most undergraduate and graduate programs offered at WGU.
"A key part of our mission is to expand access to higher education," Mendenhall said. "A great education doesn't have to be expensive and saddle our graduates with a heavy burden of student loans."
The school's 10,000 students are scattered across 50 states. They range in age from 16 to 72 and come from all walks of life to pursue degrees or certificates in business, education, information technology and health professions. WGU's primary audience consists of adults with full-time jobs and families. About 70 percent of the WGU student body falls into one of four traditionally underserved groups in higher education: low income, minority, first-generation college or rural.
The University of Phoenix, which offers online courses with similar emphasis but operates as a business, boasts nearly 300,000 students in North America. It is 15 years older than WGU and has 204 campuses, and Phoenix has faced much criticism over the years, including from its own alumni.
WGU is not free from controversy, but support from 20 governors including Utah's Jon Huntsman Jr. helps the school address any issues.
Mendenhall said WGU's unique approach to learning helps the nontraditional student succeed, as learning at WGU is personalized and study is self-directed. The school provides mentors, instead of instructors, who work with students to stay on track even with distance between them.
"We emphasize competency because we want our graduates to be highly successful in their careers," he said. "We use a mentoring approach because we want students to succeed at WGU."WGU overcame struggles to earn accreditation early on, and received full regional accreditation in 2003. The status allows them to award degrees based on competency. The university has renewed accreditation and received multiple awards for its approach in teacher education and distance learning.