Its ad campaign pops up on TV and online, and its enrollment in Washington has quadrupled in 18 months.
Now, Western Governors University (WGU) has gotten a top ranking from a Kirkland publishing company, which calls it the best online school in the nation.
The No. 1 ranking comes from SR Education Group, an online publishing company started by a former Microsoft executive, which uses a combination of measures — including reputation among former students, affordability, and graduation and retention rates — to create the ranking of online higher-education institutions.
Geared mainly toward working adults, the school was founded in 1997 by the governors of 19 Western states, including Washington.
A private, nonprofit school, it's based in Utah but has a Washington tie. In 2011, the Legislature created a partnership between Washington and WGU, allowing it to be included in agreements for the transfer of college credits among Washington institutions. It does not receive any state money.
The state recognition led WGU to form WGU-Washington and hire Jean Floten, former president of Bellevue College, to be its chancellor.
Since June 2011, WGU's Washington enrollment has grown from 979 students to 4,012 today. Washington students make up about 10 percent of WGU's national enrollment of 38,479.
SR Education Group CEO Sung Rhee, a former Microsoft executive, said the schools that ranked highly on the company's list are geared to nontraditional students — students who are already in the workforce and looking to enhance their careers.
The rankings are based on about 4,000 online reviews from former students, and each one was read and approved by SR Education to make sure no one is trying to game the system, he said. The ranking also takes into account retention and graduation rates, which are culled from a federal college-data collection system.
Floten said she thinks WGU is earning a strong reputation because it provides one-on-one mentoring, the price is low — tuition is $5,780 a year — and it offers programs that are relevant to the workplace.
"It really is an amazing option for working adults," Floten said. "One of the features I love about it is it really does meet their schedule and their needs."
Although WGU did well overall on its rankings, the online reviews from students on the SR website are mixed. Some students said the program was "quite rigorous" and "a perfect fit," while other reviewers called it a "degree mill" or complained that curriculum and support were lacking. There are 101 student reviews posted for WGU, and 75 percent recommended the school.
SR Education Group has been providing the online guide since 2004. It only recently began ranking online schools for quality. No other schools with a Washington connection made the top-10 list.
Rhee said the website is free, funded by advertising, and the rankings are "completely done by us, without input from anybody."