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Public Higher Ed: Keeping Up in a Rapidly Changing World

The EvoLLLution | Public Higher Ed: Keeping Up in a Rapidly Changing World
If public higher education institutions are to remain relevant, valuable and competitive in today’s postsecondary environment, they need to figure out a way to deliver on the seemingly disparate promises of high access and programmatic and experiential excellence. It’s not impossible.

“Change before you have to.”

Jack Welch, retired CEO of General Electric

The world around us has transformed dramatically in the last few decades: Corporate entities that were considered rock solid a decade ago do not exist today. Commerce is now conducted on a global scale. Information is available at a level not even dreamt about 30 years ago.

Technological advances have changed the way we communicate, socialize and live. Yet, by and large, higher education has remained relatively constant in its scope and ability to disseminate knowledge and enhance learning. While technology allows us to reach larger audiences and provide more information, we have not significantly increased the number of educated citizens in our world today. Over 30 million people in the world today are simply unable to attend a university, and within a decade there will be 100 million such individuals. Access is often limited by geography, increasing costs and corresponding debt.

Nationally, college enrollment rates have decreased from 70 percent in 2009 to 66 percent in 2013. The latest NCES “Condition of Education” report (2013) cites the rate of high school graduates who immediately enroll in a college from high-income families as 80 percent, compared to 49 percent from low-income families and 64 percent from middle-income families. The U.S. is facing a rapid demographic change and it is essential that we not just recognize it, but celebrate and respond to it in a thoughtful and forward-thinking way.

Despite our desire to ensure lifelong learning we still, in fact, largely define a student based on face-to-face contact hours with time in seat, or—as a nod to technology—in front of a screen, as the norm. We may have evolved from blackboards, chalk and lectures to video screens and MOOCS, but one has to wonder whether we have really changed the modality and scope of learning.

Our educational system was designed for—and worked fairly well for—the traditional student (motivated, right out of high school, with a family determined to see its son or daughter get a college education). But today, increasingly, our students do not fit that profile. They are from single parent families, often the first to go to college without experienced parents who can help them navigate the application and other processes. They are older, juggling jobs and family responsibilities themselves, and perhaps not prepared for the rigor needed for academic success. A large percentage do not follow a direct pipeline from high school to college but rather traverse pathways, often travelling concurrently on multiple paths, while still holding down full-time jobs. In addition, rapidly changing needs of the workforce have created a requirement for constant replenishment of skills.

Universities of today are still focused on the needs and circumstances of the first half of the past century, focusing on students largely bound by location and forced to follow a rigid curriculum determined (most often) by the completion of a predetermined number of hours rather than competency or knowledge gained. Today, we’re in an environment where our students are truly digital natives—able to absorb information at a fast pace and from various sources simultaneously, more drawn to learn by doing rather than merely by listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration, more focused on outcomes rather than credit hours, more interested in leveraging technology, more likely to work as a group, deeply interested in social impact.

These students are our customers, even though some of us may not want to acknowledge that fact. Perhaps we are neither addressing their needs, nor completely fulfilling the goals for an education that we ourselves set years ago, as well as we could or should.

Today’s higher ed world needs to concentrate not just on creating an educated citizenry, but also on enabling these very citizens to become part of a capable and highly skilled, workforce. Universities also need to be able to meet the requirements for rapidly changing advanced skillsets required after completion of a basic degree so that the degree-holding individual constantly keeps up with the changing requirements of the workforce. This must be done through both conventional degree-based academic programs and the provision of “knowledge in packages”—expanding the role of both executive and continuing education in areas of need. Degrees then have to be supplemented—and at times replaced—by certifications and specializations, which should in most cases be able to be aggregated into an advanced degree.

Simultaneously a shift away from a system based on passive classroom lectures alone towards interactive, collaborative learning experiences, using technology can indeed enhance modalities of learning and enable education along the continuum of life—from K to Gray. Education, or rather the active passage or transfer of knowledge, can then be released from the current constraints of time, space and location.

Such a move, inherently redefining and re-envisioning the scope of academe is essential if we are to not only meet the needs of this century but also address the realities of changing demographics and economic models while ensuring a high degree of rigor and excellence. Today, perhaps more than ever before the big ideas of the land-grant universities defined by the Morrill Act—assurance of higher education to all, sharing of knowledge to the widest level, and teaching of both the liberal arts and practical sciences—need to be cherished and nurtured, using modern technology to expand access, affordability, outreach and impact, all the while ensuring excellence. Elitism cannot, and should not, restrict the highest levels of excellence to be available only to a select few whether based on economic or social position in society, or the very highest levels of grades in high school.

Following these principles, the University of Texas at Arlington is one of the few large, urban, public research universities countering the trend of decreasing enrollment and bridging access and excellence at affordable cost. These efforts have been buoyed by a growing recognition for our academic and scientific excellence and a reputation for generating highly skilled graduates ready to both hit the ground running in the workforce and to continue on a path to greater scholarship and research. Just under 40,000 Texas-based degree-seeking students—an increase of 7.3 percent over last fall—enrolled at UTA in Fall 2016. We expect to serve close to 57,000 degree-seeking students with face-to-face and online modalities by the end of the academic year, with the second-lowest average student debt on graduation in the country, and the lowest among all U.S. public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 rankings. All this is to say: Access and excellence are possible at an affordable cost.

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