At a time when education costs are soaring and student debt is rising, there’s one institution of higher learning that’s tuition free for most students and is saving money – lots of it.

It’s the federal Chief Human Capital Officers‘ innovative cross-government HR University, which has saved more than $17.6 million in taxpayer dollars since it was launched last year, according to the Office of Personnel Management, the council’s partner in HRU.

HR University ( is an online training resource center for the federal human resources professional. For the first time, HR specialists across the government have a “one stop shop” for courses that support career development and fill gaps in HR training.

Prior to HRU’s launch in early 2011, HR professionals who wanted training had to sort through a disorganized mish-mash of courses offered by various agencies and private training vendors.

HRU pulls together the best of the best, currently offering about 85 courses approved by the Office of Personnel Management, from across the government in a single course catalog. The idea is to create a continuous culture of learning for federal HR professionals.

HRU currently has about 13,000 registered students from 28 agencies, more than 7,000 of whom have completed courses. HRU courses are a combination of online, classroom and Web-based offerings from agencies and private training vendors.

In addition, the Catholic University of America last year began offering an HR master’s degree for feds through HRU. The university also offers single courses through HRU.

“Every course that is offered through HRU has been vetted and approved by subject matter experts within OPM’s policy offices,” said Kathryn Medina, HRU provost and executive director of the CHCO Council (pictured above).

“Basically what we do through HRU is review the courses and if they pass content-wise as far as the competency they’re addressing, they get OPM’s seal of approval. That really is the underlying value of finding something on HRU versus trying to find something on your own.

“That’s huge to the agencies,” she added. “The chief human capital officers, their HR directors and their chief learning officers want to know that they’re sending their HR professionals to training that has been OPM validated.”

The CHCO council recently received the Training Officers Consortium‘s distinguished service award for human capital management in recognition of its innovative work on HRU and its quantifiable success in advancing the government’s human capital plan and strategic mission and objectives. The Washington, D.C.-based Training Officers Consortium, founded in 1983, is a nonprofit organization of federal trainers and other professionals from industry and the academic area whose aim is to enhance the practice of human resources and training.

The idea of creating a centralized repository of courses and training resources for federal HR professionals has bounced around for about 10 years, Medina told Breaking Gov. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the council commenced a concentrated effort to build a cross-government HR training “university.”

Council officials decided unanimously it was time to develop a portal that would centralize the training that already existed across the government. They then created a working group, which developed a framework for HRU. Working with its developer, PowerTrain Inc., the council and OPM took HRU live in the first week of February 2011.

“If you think about it in government terms, standing HRU up in less than a year and how far we’ve come in 18 months is a huge accomplishment,” Medina said.

HRU realizes savings by reducing duplicative courses across the government, identifying the best training courses and by virtue of establishing a way for sharing these resources. Cost savings are calculated for courses that were developed by federal agencies and are now offered free through HRU. The cost savings figure represents the number of agencies benefitting from the course multiplied by the initially cost to the agency of developing the course.

Most “government-owned” courses are tuition free for HR professionals, while offerings from training vendors may have a cost associated with them. “When you’re talking about sharing from one agency to another you’re generally talking agencies giving up the content for free,” Medina said.

Among HRU’s key innovations is an “Expedia-like” course catalogue that lets HR professionals find courses they’re looking for easy and quickly, Medina said, referring to the Internet travel site.

“We consider our search capability to be Expedia-like so people can find exactly what they want through whatever kind of filtering,” she said. “A lot of technology is being leveraged to make HRU more user-friendly.”

The site also lets students rate courses so that other HR professionals can review the feedback. So far, the overall satisfaction rating for courses is 4.25 on a 5-point rating scale, OPM said.

Over the next few years, HRU will continue to expand course offerings and focus on bridging the approved competencies and course curriculum into a certification program for federal HR professionals. A launch date for the certification program hasn’t been determined yet, officials said.

Officials also plan to transition the governance of HRU from the CHCO Council to one of the departments within OPM by the beginning of the next fiscal year, Medina said.

“It’s a nuance. Most people won’t realize that there is any difference,” she said. “But OPM has much more resources and is really in better position to continue to grow HRU and develop its potential. We’re really just hitting the tip of the iceberg here. There is so much for potential for HRU and OPM really is the entity that’s in a position to help grow it.”

On October 1, Medina will become vice provost of HRU and will share oversight responsibility with a senior executive from OPM so that the CHCO council still retains an advisory position.

The CHCO Council “created HRU and we want to see that it remains true to its mission and that it continues to serve the federal HR professional so we’ll work hand in hand with OPM going forward,” she said.