The EvoLLLution | Public Higher Education: Keeping America’s Greatest Asset Relevant and Accessible
Public higher education is one of America’s great assets, but it’s critical that institutional leaders ensure their offerings are accessible, flexible and relevant in the face of stiff challenges to maintain its value for future generations.

A public college or university has an imperative to serve its population. This mandate is comprised of improving quality of place, representing a knowledgeable resource, and partnering with the community in advancing society. Included within that directive is the expectation to help prepare the graduates for life after the formal academic experience concludes. Public institutions are well suited for fulfilling this obligation as they have the great ability to provide access and flexibility considering the students’ varied demographics. Tuition is generally lower and campuses are usually accessible to outlying areas. A factor that is often not considered, however, is that supporting labor markets is rooted in their history.

Many regional institutions have a heritage of career-readiness preparation as they were formerly normal schools, agricultural centers, or even seminaries. Their missions were to prepare professionals to serve local communities upon graduation. These graduates contributed to local culture and economic development, inspiring others to eventually pursue higher education, thus perpetuating a cycle of renewal that continues today.

However, the diverse number of careers and professional pursuits has increased significantly over the past century and continues to accelerate. Public higher education, too, is much more complex. How can public colleges and universities continue to adequately prepare professionals for current and future labor markets?

Though generations have come and gone, expectations of professional conduct have remained the same. Highly skilled job candidates will exhibit characteristics such as critical thinking skills, self-starting abilities, acceptance and delivery of constructive criticism, leadership, timeliness, courtesy, integrity, the ability to learn new information and skills quickly, conduct in-depth research, and communicate well. For many years, it has been assumed that these outcomes were embedded in the general education curricula, were found in certain courses within the degree plan, or were deeply embedded into the fabric of the college experience. However, it has been well noted that these characteristics are not as prominent in many college graduates today. With the changing culture of each generation, it is incumbent upon public higher education to adapt to these changes while remaining committed to the values of the academy and professional.

Higher education is addressing the community’s need for a prepared workforce in several ways, beginning in the freshman year. First-year experience courses are including instruction in career planning and expectations. They are encouraged (even required in some cases) to attend career fairs on campus. The use of meta-majors, overarching academic directions determined usually by the mathematics needed by a set of degrees, is helping students to consider post-graduate employment at earlier stages in their academic careers. Certifications in soft skills and leadership are developed to demonstrate to potential employers that students have enhanced their interpersonal repertoire.

Continuous curriculum revision is another method by which universities are ensuring their relevance in the community. Many institutions are reorganizing their degrees to include salient embedded certificates so if a student needed to stop out for a time, they could still carry a credential with them. Accelerated degree programs that shorten the time to a graduate degree are a popular way for students to advance quickly in a chosen field. The general education menus now include courses in leadership, diversity, and interpersonal communication. Degree programs have been created or revised to keep pace with the ever-changing landscape of the “real world.”

All of these activities are evidence that public higher education is responding to market demands. While institutions wrestle internally with the philosophy and the implementation of these changes, external factors can also significantly limit the needed agility and flexibility to meet society’s needs.

Compliance with accreditation and governmental regulation in many ways slows response times and adds cost to much needed change. While dedicated to providing quality learning through oversight, efficacy is often compromised. A balance must be struck between regulations and outcomes.

Waning local, state and federal fiscal support for public education has also caused many institutions to lose resources dedicated to curricular and service innovation. Higher education’s essence is based upon creativity and innovation. Without them, education is reduced to rote and condemned to antiquity.

For the benefit of present and coming generations, institutions of public higher education, the business community and regulatory agencies must continuously collaborate. Great successes have been achieved through inclusionary efforts with the business community such as in internships, shadowing opportunities, advisory boards and joint strategic planning efforts. Representatives from higher education serving on community boards, participating in civic initiatives, and engaging in collaborative applied research has provided increased avenues for discussion and insight. Only a strong set of partnerships between these vested institutions will produce the professional of tomorrow.

Public higher education institutions must commit themselves to mission-driven introspection to ensure currency and relevancy in their offerings. This commitment must be ubiquitous, reaching all levels of the institution: administration, faculty, staff and students. It should be guided by the previously mentioned partnerships and reliable predictive analytics to assure present and future quality. It must adhere to best practices in pedagogy, technology incorporation and learning venues that bridge generational gaps.

This quality does not necessarily equate to larger enrollments. As referenced in many articles, the current fiscal model of public higher education, which is based continuous enrollment increases, is reaching unsustainable levels. Increased competition for students coupled with slowed population growth has shifted attention to retention and graduation efforts. Quality program offerings are often cited as the primary reason students will choose a college. They will also be the reasons students will stay and graduate. These programs will require adaptive venues guaranteeing accessibility by each generation of learners. Many public institutions have greatly expanded to blended, online, hybrid, experiential, service, and work-related offerings to provide a inclusive palette of educational access.

Higher education in the United States is one of its greatest assets and exports. It is still very precious to those who seek it. All efforts must be made to keep it accessible and flexible for our present and future societies.

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