Published on 2016/08/15
The EvoLLLution | Three Ways R3's Stand Out From the Crowd
To stay competitive and to continue creating an engaging environment for students, R3 institutions need to focus on their mission, faculty engagement and continued innovation.

The world of higher education is evolving rapidly.

The demographics and characteristics of students are changing from fewer traditional 18- to 24-year-olds to an increasing enrollment for non-traditional students returning to school or working while advancing their careers. Competition has accelerated with the growth of online institutions that meet the needs of these students rather than force them to come to a campus to take classes. The majority of students are place bound and higher education must meet them where they are rather than force them to accommodate the institution.

This fact along with the changing financial model of decreasing state allocations and more reliance on tuition revenue has placed institutions on life support for those unable to quickly respond or anticipate these changes. This is truer of the smaller, R3 (moderate research) institutions compared the R1 (highest research) institutions that may have the luxury of accepting only a fraction of students that apply.

There is certainly great glamour associated with an R1 university. The high profile sports teams, research breakthroughs and famous scholars are all headline grabbers that allow them to be very selective in their student acceptance. However, as with everything in life, there are tradeoffs for students and faculty at these institutions compared to the smaller R3 institutions like Valdosta State University.

While there are many topics on which a conversation could be centered considering differences between the two types of institutions, I have chosen a few below that are essential for the R3 institutions to not only remain relevant but to thrive:

1. Teaching

Faculty must be dedicated to being the best teachers possible and have a passion for student success. While they still do research and service for tenure and promotion, it is teaching that goes to the heart of faculty at R3 schools. With no teaching assistants, as is the case for most R1 institutions, faculty come to know the students in their classes—not just their names but often their situations. Caring, knowledgeable and skilled teaching (in both online and face-to-face modalities) must be the foundation on which all else builds.

R1 institutions are able to accept some of the best and brightest—exceptional students who are able to afford the sometimes high cost of admission. This is not necessarily the case for most R3 schools. A large percentage of our students are first-generation college attendees and Pell Grant eligible. The support system many have at home and the knowledge of how to navigate and be successful in the university environment is weak. Many of our students are not in the top 15 percent of their high school graduating class but they can still be excellent students.

R3 schools should take pride in knowing they are critical in addressing the financial equity gap that exists in this country by fulfilling the dreams and aspirations of a large number of first generation students to attend college, receive a degree, and acquire a well paying job.

2. Innovation

An R3 institution like Valdosta State University does not have the luxury of a waiting list of students. We must be creative and innovative in how we do business, setting us apart from others. This not only helps us attract students but also makes us operate with increased efficiency. For example, we’ve started competency-based programs, established the core liberal arts curriculum online and in an eight-week format, reducing or eliminating textbook costs by using open education resources, and explored a tuition subscription model rather than a pay-by-credit-hour model. We will solidify these operations and expand them to other areas across the curriculum.

These ideas are not necessarily unique as higher education has had them on the radar for some time. However, what makes the R3 institutions the leaders in these innovations is that their very survival depends on turning ideas into actions. They do not have the luxury of endless talk about whether something must be done because every year they wait is another year of increased competition and students choosing to go to institutions that do accommodate their situations. We can increase our enrollments temporarily by throwing money at recruitment but it will not be sustained if the act of teaching and learning does not differentiate itself compared to other institutions.

The choices are too many for students and simple economics tells us that if your product on the shelf is not as appealing as another, your market share will diminish.

3. Mission Statement

A mission statement is used to covey the purpose of the institution. It serves as a guide to the actions and direction of the university. The styles, lengths and wording of mission statements vary widely. However, if you could distill the sum of the mission statements between R1 and R3 institutions you will find a fundamental difference. R1 institutions describe the discovery of new knowledge through research while R3 institutions describe the application of research knowledge for the betterment of the human condition around them.

It is this applied knowledge and demonstration of competence and skill that is a fundamental difference between the research levels of institutions. However, there is nothing wrong with institutions being different in this regard nor does it indicate one level of institution is better or should be more highly regarded than another. These differences between institutions and missions make up the strong fabric of higher education in the United States. It is these very differences that provide options for people so that everyone can have access and find their place to further their education.

Higher education is no longer something only the privileged few can attain but in the growing knowledge economy it is imperative that the vast majority obtain some form of postsecondary knowledge to be an active participant in the new economy. R3 institutions play a major role in providing access and affordability to a large number of people and therefore have a substantial impact on the economic trajectory of our nation.

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