University Administrators: We’re All in This Together

Ingram's 2016 Higher Education Industry Outlook


By Jack Cashill



Ingram’s 2016 Higher Education Industry Outlook Assembly

If there was any one message that emerged from Ingram’s 2016 Higher Education Industry Outlook Assembly on June 28, it was that, together, the area’s various educational institutions would assure that student needs would always be met.

“One of the strengths higher education had 20 years ago, 10 years ago, today, and 20 years from now,” said Park University President Greg Gunderson, “is that we all share a belief that we transform lives, and we do it best in conjunction with each other.”

Although there may be a certain level of competition among colleges and universities, their basic values, Gunderson explained, are not in conflict. If anything, that competition assures that each institution will respond in its own way to shifting student needs.

Park University was gracious to host and sponsor Ingram’s 2016 Education Industry Outlook at its historic campus in Parkville, Mo., and Gunderson served as chair.

Challenges and Opportunities

As an introductory question, participants were asked to cite what they considered their institution’s most distinctive challenge or opportunity.

“One of the biggest issues here on the academic side, on the student side, is affordability,” said Kathrine Swanson, vice president for success and engagement at Metropolitan Community College. “I really worry about at what point are we pricing ourselves out of the range for our population.”

MCC has held tuition level for the last three years, but fees have inevitably risen for some of the workforce development programs. “We’re low cost,” said Swanson, “when I think about institutions that have higher tuition rates, I don’t know how families can do that if costs continue to go up.”

Affordability was a major concern as well for Carlos Graham, director of campus and community relations at Lincoln University. Roughly 80 percent of Lincoln students are on some form of financial aid. Keeping costs down is essential.

As a historically black college, Lincoln has open admissions, and many of the students come from impoverished areas. “We’ve been working with the governor to try to keep tuition flat,” said Graham, “but I’m concerned that at some point we’re going to price ourselves out of the market.”

“The key word for me is value,” said Anne Dema, provost at William Jewell College. Students, Dema argued, have a difficult time deciding what is the best value for them given the diversity of choices not only among institutions but within the one chosen. “If I were the student, “ said Dema, “I might be really confused in today’s market about what it is I should do, why should I do it, and where is that going to get me?”

Doug Fiore, provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Park University, believes that the most enduring challenge for any institution is making learning relevant. Fiore believes Park will prosper by staying true to its liberal-arts roots and complementing those roots by “rethinking what a course is, what a credit hour is.”

Barbara Larson, executive vice president for finance and administrative services at Johnson County Community College, also addressed the issue of relevancy. “Community colleges pride themselves on being agile and flexible,” said Larson, “and yet, even now, the pace of external change is challenging our systems, our traditions.”

As a public institution, UMKC has to deal with state legislators, observed Kevin Truman, vice provost and dean of computing and engineering at UMKC. “We have to change their perception of higher education,” said Truman. “They clearly don’t have a sense of whether we’re doing the right things for our students.”

As Truman noted, legislators focus on jobs and employment. The question from his perspective was whether “we can convince people that a broad education with real depth is why you go to school, not just for a career.”

The University of Kansas faces a similar challenge, although from a different Legislature. “Our most immediate pressing issue is our public funding,” said Susan Scholz, associate dean at KU’s School of Business. Scholz sees that as a short-term issue. The “happy” long-term problem is managing growth at the school.

Greg Haddock, associate provost of graduate studies and special programs  at Northwest Missouri State University, saw the need to balance what industry wants from students with student expectations. “We have to remember what is that students want, or what they think they want,” said Haddock, “and we have to sell the story both ways.”

Steve Minnis, president of Benedictine College, raised a larger concern, one that all institutions face, namely that the United States is in year two of a 10-year decrease in student-age population. That decrease will affect the Midwest. “As an institution, we have to broaden our base and try to go outside of our comfort zone to try to get students from the states that are growing,” said Minnis.

Minnis raised a corollary concern. For every 100 college degrees men receive every year, women receive 150. “We’re excited about women receiving more degrees,” said Minnis, “but we’re worried there is not more balance in the U.S.”

Cynthia Bice, dean of the School of Education at Lindenwood University, spoke to the changing nature of student expectations. “They demand respect,” said Bice of incoming students. “They want to learn. They want you to teach them, but they want it to be fun. That’s a balancing act.”

“I would add to the mix something a little different,” said Greg Gunderson, “and that is our for-profit competitors.” Their success does not worry him, but their failure does. The performance of these institutions, he believes, “has led to a public perception issue, a crisis of concern about what a higher education experience delivers.”

Costs

Gunderson noted that 80 percent of the expenses at Park are people-driven, specifically salaries and benefits. He asked what kind of initiatives his colleagues were undertaking to use personnel more efficiently and to manage the growth of benefit costs.

At UMKC, personnel costs are at least that high, and given its place within the larger MU system, the school has minimal control over benefits. To compensate, said Kevin Truman, UMKC has had to increase the student-faculty ratio, work a little harder on the research side, and tighten up the hiring policy. “We’ve really buckled down on that,” said Truman of hiring. “We have committees that scrutinize every hire. That’s the only way we could control it.”

As Barbara Larson noted, JCCC received a grant from the Gates Foundation to begin modeling traditional activity-based costing. She noted that the health-care industry had been way out ahead of higher education in refining costs. “We’re looking at what’s the cost of having a classroom that sits empty,” said Larson. Her goal is to discern how to invest in those activities that help students be the most successful.

Like UMKC and most other institutions, MCC has to balance the full-time faculty with the part-time ones. “The more we rely on adjuncts,” said Kathrine Swanson, “the fewer full-timers we have who are concentrating on the really important work the faculty do outside of teaching their classes.” She referred specifically to curriculum development and making sure that education is relevant.

“We have to think of adjunct faculty and full-time faculty differently,” said Doug Fiore. He wondered why research and curriculum development had to be the sole province of full-time faculty. “It’s really time for all of us to just sort of figure out how to redefine all of this.”

Kevin Truman laid some of the responsibility for academic inertia on the accrediting agencies. “Many of those are constraining us,” said Truman. They do this by telling institutions what courses they must teach and what faculty must teach them. “We’re trying very had to convince them to stop that,” he added, “but it’s not easy.”

“We want to be accredited to show that we’ve got relevance and standards and quality programs,” said Cynthia Bice of Lindenwood, “and yet, it’s costing us money, not just the dollars to be a member, but to hire the faculty they require.”

Revenue

Greg Gunderson noted that controlling costs is only half the equation. The other half is generating revenue. Beyond raising tuition, he wondered what his colleagues were doing to rally their various audiences to support the school’s mission.

The KU School of Business has one answer to that problem, Susan Scholz volunteered, namely having a dean in Neeli Bendapudi who is “a remarkable fund-raiser.” The dean’s success is due in no small part to her ability to reach out to alumni with new programs and certifications. This engages them once again in the learning process. This strategy, said Scholz, “is growing revenue, and it is also growing donor enthusiasm at the same time.”

“You have to have a mission that people will embrace in order for you to get those dollars,” Steve Minnis said of the competition for donor money. “The uniqueness of your product is what’s going to get people excited.”

Anne Dema agreed with Minnis. She argued that donors are attracted to specific opportunities for giving. “They are about enabling students to reach their dreams,” said Dema. “I’ve never run into a donor who wants to pay the light bill.”

Lincoln University has made headway by inviting businesses and corporations into the classroom to be a part of the teaching process. “I think that has been one of our biggest assets,” said Carlos Graham. Lincoln partners with successful alumni, and among those alums in Kansas City is Ollie Gates of Gates Bar-B-Q fame.

Kevin Truman noted that it is important to show potential donors they are “adding value,” whether it be to the community, the profession, or some other tangible asset. “They’re not going to fund a building if it doesn’t have a purpose,” said Truman, “and they’re not going to fund a program if it doesn’t have a purpose or strike a chord with someone.”

“You have to look at peoples’ passion,” said Susan Scholz. “If they have a passion about it, they’re more likely to donate.” The problem with this approach, however, is that people may have a passion for something that does the university little good. If, however, would-be donors trust the leadership of the school to invest wisely, everyone wins.

A complication to that approach, argued Doug Fiore, is that “nobody gives to need anymore. People give to a vision. People give to an idea that they can rally around that they think will make a difference.” Many academic leaders, however, have no background in creating a vision.

Greg Gunderson affirmed Fiore’s point that institutions are often not skilled in making their own case. “I can drive down the road and see billboards,” said Gunderson, “and if you put a piece of tape over the name of the institution, I couldn’t tell you who they are.”

The challenge, as Gunderson sees it, is to develop a clarity of message that can be transmitted to consumers. “We have to be prepared to fly the freak flag proudly,” he said, “and say this is what makes us different.”

At-Risk Students

Greg Gunderson addressed the demographic shift in America and questioned his colleagues about strategies they have developed to deal with the challenge of keeping students on track through graduation.

As Kathrine Swanson observed, many community colleges have been facing this issue for some time. MCC’s ambition is to use technology to identify at-risk students early in the downward cycle and, once identified, to provide them with the kind of “intrusive advising” that can rescue their academic careers.

In a similar vein, William Jewell has been trying to identify the point at which a student becomes at-risk. Said Anne Dema, “I believe it’s the moment in class when a student isn’t achieving the success they thought they were going to achieve.” The task for the college then is to persuade the student to take advantage of the counseling that is available.

“They’re very resilient in the midst of a very complicated world,” said Dema of William Jewell students, “but when their grades fail, their worlds come crashing in on them.”

Doug Fiore believes that colleges and universities unwittingly create some of the risk by the way they define academic programs. “We provide the tutoring when students fail,” said Fiore, “but we assume too much thinking that the students will lay out a schedule in a way that actually doesn’t contribute to failure.” He thinks that a more thorough analysis of data can help limit student failure.

Corporate Needs

Greg Gunderson asked his colleagues what they hear most often from business leaders about the quality of students that are graduating today.

“Lack of communication skills,” said Steve Minnis. “Students are not used to speaking in sentences or writing in sentences that can be clearly understood. That’s what I hear.” Minnis believes this is a generational issue that will not easily be overcome.

“I always thought it was just business-school students,” joked Susan Scholz, “so I’m glad to hear it’s more widespread.” The KU School of Business has responded to the problem by creating an in-house communications center staffed by people who understand the difference between writing a business report and writing poetry.

Anne Dema agreed that students need to write, but schools need faculty who can discern good writing and comment on the work being produced in a timely fashion. “I do think some of the tools in adaptive learning can be a solution,” said Dema, “but it’s hard for faculty to pick resources to support their curriculum.”

Greg Haddock hears from employers that they would like to see better writing, better speaking, an ability to work in teams, an ability to work on one’s own when needed, time management skills, and leadership potential as well. Faculty advisers need to understand how essential these skills are.

STEM programs

A much-used acronym in educational circles, STEM translates to “science, technology, engineering and math.” Greg Gunderson asked how his colleagues were addressing the increasing need for STEM programs on their campuses.

“I think the future of the country lies in strong STEM programs and colleges,” said Steve Minnis. Benedictine started its engineering program six years ago with four students. Today, it has more than 180. Some 75 percent of the students come from out of state, but 50 percent of them stay in this area after they graduate. “It’s really helping the Midwest,” said Minnis.

UMKC partners with Rochurst, Park and other local universities on a dual-degree program. “Three years at your school, two with us, you get two degrees, a B.A. and a B.S.,” said Kevin Truman. “It makes for a well-rounded engineer.”

William Jewell, which has been historically strong in the sciences, has found it necessary to hire science faculty who are more interdisciplinary. “It’s important,” said Anne Dema, “having faculty members who are willing to bridge some disciplines and introduce new courses that might grow into new majors.”

“The problem I think we’ve got with STEM education,” said Doug Fiore, “is we don’t require enough STEM education of teachers, period.” He believes that too many K-12 teachers are afraid of science and math. “That,” he argued, “is a cultural piece that can’t just be changed by adding a couple of classes in the curriculum.”

Greg Gunderson observed that the cost of entry for a STEM-field program is exponentially higher than it might have been 20 years ago. Park University, for instance, spent $7 million just on the technology for a nursing lab.

Student Debt

Gunderson noted that interest rates have stayed at historic lows since 2008. He wondered what concerns his colleagues might have when rates return to historic norms.

“I think we are all worried about student debt,” said Steve Minnis. That said, he cautioned that the fears often outpace the true numbers. The median for debt for private college today, Minnis noted, is about $25,000, or about the price of a 2016 Chevy Malibu. The median debt in 1980 was roughly the price of a 1980 Chevy Malibu.

“So the debt has not changed much as time has gone on,” said Minnis. He argued too that a college education was a dramatically better investment than a Chevy Malibu or any other car.

One reason debt has stayed relatively constant, Greg Haddock argued, is that students today are working more hours on outside jobs to make up the difference, in some cases, 40 hours a week or more. The “good news,” as Haddock sees it, is that students who are willing to work that hard are more likely to appreciate the value of a college education.

“At the same time, state support is dropping,” Susan Scholz added. “It used to be a subsidized tuition. Now it’s a much smaller portion.”

The Future

Greg Gunderson explained how at Park, which has pioneered on-line education, the face of the average student is changing. Those students tend to be 28-31 years of age, a worker first and a student second. They take fewer classes in a given semester, commit to a longer time frame, and accrue more debt than traditional students ages 18-22. “The older you are,” said Gunderson, “the bigger challenge education is.” He believes that the fallout from the implosion of the for-profit market will cause students to choose their on-line options more carefully.

Greg Haddock believes that on-line students are reassured when a real brick-and-mortar campus offers these programs, even if the students never visit that campus. “The value is there,” said Haddock, “but is that going to be the case 10 or 20 years from now. That’s what we’re going to be grappling with going forward.”

“We’re still not educating as many folks as need to be educated when we compare ourselves to other industrialized countries,” said Barbara Larson. Whether through traditional learning or on-line learning or something yet imagined, “There’s a need there,” said Larson. “So it’s how do we supply that, how do we provide that good, because the demand is there.”

To meet that demand, said Gunderson in conclusion, “We have to do our best within our skill set and our niche,” and he complimented his colleagues for doing just that.