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We have all heard the apocryphal story of the youngster who ran away to join the circus. For Valerie Velez-Hall, the story became real after she walked away from a full scholarship at New Jersey's Rutgers University to audition for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

Against her wildest expectations, Ringling accepted her. She dropped out of real college to learn the fine arts of improv, stilt walking and pie throwing, then went pro with the Greatest Show on Earth. Velez-Hall figured that the Rutgers scholarship would be waiting for her when she was done clowning.

But plans changed. She met her husband, had three kids, moved to Utah and started a clown business.

On Saturday, the 35-year-old Taylorsville woman completed an unlikely journey to a bachelor's degree when her name was announced at Western Governors University's commencement in Salt Lake City. She had returned to higher education three years ago through the private nonprofit Utah-based school to study special education.

"I am a clown, and now I'm going to be licensed teacher. I know, not much of a change," said Velez-Hall, one of the four graduates to address the commencement in the University of Utah's Huntsman Center.

This term's 3,235 graduates are making history by proving WGU's "competency-based" model can deliver quality, affordable education to working adults, according to former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, who delivered Saturday's keynote.

Western Governors' signature innovation is separating academic credit from the time students spend in class. Students study at their own pace and advance when they demonstrate a required competency. The school has minimal overhead and about half its 1,800 employees work from home. The $6,000 tuition has hardly budged in the last several years.

"We have since been vindicated by 15 years of soaring tuition and student debt [at traditional schools], and a conga line of states struggling to limit access," said Leavitt, one of the school's 19 founding governors. He was joined at the podium by two other founding governors, Wyoming's James Geringer and Colorado's Roy Romer, as well as former Secretary of Education Rod Page. All extolled the potential for the competency-based model to transform higher education.

Since WGU achieved regional accreditation in 2003, enrollment has climbed 30 to 40 percent a year and it is expected to reach 40,000 this year. It has graduated 16,000. Average age of WGU students at graduation is 38.

The school has become the darling of education reformers and has drawn praise from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others who want to harness the "disruptive" power of digital technologies to broaden access to higher education.

"Even with the improvements in online learning platforms and resources, the majority of online education is simply classroom education delivered through the Internet, instructor-led and time-based. As a result, most online higher education is no more affordable than traditional education," WGU President Robert Mendenhall recently told a Senate committee. "In contrast, WGU actually uses technology to provide interactive instruction that allows students to learn at their own pace."

Velez-Hall praised this aspect of the university.

"I accelerated at certain points, but life happens. When I had a death in the family I could go at my own time. You can't do that at most schools," she said. She intends to continue at Western Governors for a master's degree, with the aim of becoming a school administrator.

In the last two years, Indiana, Washington and Texas have asked WGU to operate as a state university inside their borders. But the online school's arrival in these states has been met with skepticism from faculty at traditional schools.

Johann Neem, an associate professor of history at Western Washington University, offered a typical critique in an op-ed published in The Seattle Times.

"A college education is about going through a process that leaves students transformed," Neem wrote. "That's why it takes time. Learning is hard — brain research demonstrates that real learning requires students to struggle with difficult material under the consistent guidance of good teachers."

These opportunities do not exist at Western Governors, Neem alleged.

"Its advertisements pander to prospective students by offering them credit for what they already know rather than promising to teach them something new," he wrote. "Whatever WGU is, it is not a college education."

Mendenhall noted that traditional college is not an option for most of the 36 million Americans who — like Velez-Hall — have attended college but left without graduating and are now saddled with lots of obligations.

"That's 22 percent of the workforce," he said. "If we do well we might get 1 percent of them. Western Washington can have the other 99 percent."

In his keynote, Leavitt recalled high jumper Dick Fosbury who was ridiculed for his then-strange leaping style, head first with his back to the bar, which one wag called "an airborne seizure." Then the Oregon youth started winning meets, setting records and claimed gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Four years later at the Munich Games, half the high jumpers were soaring over the bar using the Fosbury Flop. Leavitt believes the competency model can do for higher education what Fosbury did for high jumping — move the bar up to another level.

About WGU

R The online Utah-based college graduated 3,235 students Saturday during ceremonies at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. The private nonprofit school awards bachelor's and master's degrees in business, health professions, education and information technology. A consortium of 19 governors, led by Utah's Michael Leavitt, launched the school in 1997, and its enrollment has expanded to 33,000 students, mostly working adults.