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Valerie Lambiase, a nurse living in small-town Colorado, had just enrolled two daughters in college when she set her sights on fighting an infectious disease across the Intermountain West.

But she needed a master's degree to do it.

After researching online, Lambiase enrolled in Western Governors University, the Utah-based online program that grew from one lonely student in 1998 to its current student body of 59,000 nationwide.

On Saturday, about 13,000 graduates will be honored at a Salt Lake City commencement.

Saturday's ceremony comes roughly 20 years after western governors — including then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt — first talked about revolutionizing higher education by offering classes over the Internet. Now, even traditional higher education institutions have picked up on the trend.

"For somebody who's got a strong intrinsic motivation," the school is a good choice, said Lambiase, who graduated in 2012 with a master's in nursing. She believes the degree was key in landing her current job in infection prevention at Salt Lake City's Veterans Affairs medical center.

"I don't need a lot of people telling me, 'You have to do this now and you have to do that now,'" said Lambiase, who sailed through digital assessments, earning course credit for what she had learned in years of rotations in a prior career at Primary Children's Hospital before moving to Estes Park, Colo. "It was a perfect match for me."

Lambiase, 55, is representative of the nontraditional student market that Western Governors has had overwhelming success in tapping since its conception two decades ago. The average WGU student is 38 years old. Many are working and have children. Some live in rural areas, far from any brick-and-mortar campus.

For several WGU students, a higher degree is needed for a promotion at a current job. For others, it's the key to a new career. Still more students without a prior dimploma are picking up long-abandoned studies in a bachelor's degree program.

And they generally don't have to take out another mortgage to do it.

The school's tuition is roughly $6,000 a year, less than the U.'s $7,130 but more than Salt Lake Community College's roughly $1,780. For undergraduate, online students, the University of Phoenix charges about $10,000 a year.

Unlike traditional schools, Western Governors' tuition has stayed mostly flat since 2008, though it charges more for nursing and business programs, notes President Robert Mendenhall.

"We don't plan to raise it in the next five years," Mendenhall said.

And besides being affordable, the nonprofit institution has largely escaped the vitriol aimed at its proprietary counterparts, including recently shuttered Corinthian Colleges.

The Obama administration is leading a push to stop students from taking out more student loans than they can handle. Education Secretary Arne Duncan this summer has called out for-profit universities for taking advantage of students by leaving them with too much debt, relatively little training and few job prospects.

For its part, WGU is not without critics. Many maintain that it takes years for students to transform into critical thinkers. And graduates have reported prospective employers refusing to recognize the online degree.

Some students, including one Facebook user who recently posted to the school's Web page, note that there are limits to how much prior coursework at other institutions will help propel them to graduation from WGU. Some credits from more than five years ago do not apply.

Still, the school is accredited by the same board as the state's flagship University of Utah and Provo's private Brigham Young University.

At Western Governors, students are permitted to inch through at a minimum of 12 "competency units" a semester for a bachelor's degree — a pace that could take as long as five years and $30,000 to complete the required 120 credits.

Others zip through. Lambiase, who finished in a year in a half, often met with a friend pursuing the same master of science in nursing to have a glass of wine and plugged away on a laptop. Now, Lambiase is entering the U.'s Doctor of Nursing Practice program to get the degree she believes she will need to move up at the VA. No such program is offered at WGU.

Stories such as Lambiase's have caught the attention of Utah legislators and higher education leaders, not just prospective students.

Salt Lake Community College this year kicked off its own "competency-based" initiative at its School of Applied Technology.

And lawmakers in several states, including Washington and Texas, have endorsed WGU in legislative resolutions or executive orders from the governor.

"They've recognized it as a bona fide way of college students getting a degree," said Utah Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who would like to see Utah join the pack.

His colleagues have been less willing. A resolution failed to muster enough support in Utah's 2015 session.

The "competency-based" moniker has become a buzzword across campuses nationwide as university leaders seek to graduate more students with less debt. And WGU founders are taking credit.

The school "was always intended to be a seed that could mature and then reproduce," said Leavitt, who is credited as the school's founder. "And that's happening."

In 1995, Leavitt met with fellow executives from Western states. The group swapped concerns about the rising cost of higher education, specifically due to building and maintenance costs. In the early days of dial-up, Leavitt said, he and his counterparts believed the new technology could alleviate higher education's growing financial burden on states and students.

To put it to work, he added, governors from 19 states had to sidestep their own systems of public education.

"We felt this required a disruptive innovation," Leavitt said.

The school quickly found its first niche in offering teaching degrees.

"There were places where a 20-year-old could be trained," Leavitt said, "but there was little place for the teacher's aid who was 35 and had two children at home and needed to get her training."

Mendenhall maintains that despite the distance, the school manages to hold students accountable with a force of "mentors" with related job experience. The mentors track student progress and correspond with students in regular video conferencing sessions.

Lisa Knight, one such WGU employee in Salt Lake City, supervises students in the bachelor's in health informatics program. The specialty is designed to prepare students for careers in managing electronic health records.

Before applying for the salaried, full-time job, Knight was skeptical of the school's model.

"You wonder, 'OK. Can this really work? What are the drawbacks?'" she said. "And there are some. It's certainly not for everyone. Some people need the structure of a classroom."

Even so, most of her students know what they are undertaking, she said. Many are in their 40s. They study remotely at home, from Seattle to Texas.

"We don't have a football team," Leavitt added. "We don't host dances on Friday night. It's not the place where people will tend to meet their spouse. But it is a place where they can get an affordable, quality education that advances their career."

Twitter:@anniebknox —


P On Saturday, many of this year's 13,000 Western Governors University graduates will be honored at 9:45 a.m. in the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus.