Common Challenges & Potential Solutions

Challenges

There are many challenges facing higher education today some examples of which I provide below. 

Education as a public good is being questioned.  Federal and state governments are reducing funding.  Expectations of our educational system are changing, and external accountability and assessment is increasing.  We must clearly define the learning objectives of our institution, assess our success and show evidence of continuous quality improvement. 

The diversity of the student population is increasing.  Only 16% are now traditional 18-22 full time students.  Adult enrollments are significantly increasing as is the proportion of part time students.  By 2028 racial and ethnic minorities will constitute the majority of adults between 18 and 29 in the U.S.  We must prepare our campuses to be welcoming and supportive environments for these changing demographics. 

A high proportion of student entering our colleges and universities need remediation.  We need to partner with the K12 system to inform it of college needs and ultimately produce a K-20 integrated system.  I am currently working to encourage faculty to develop both learning outcomes and entry expectations for their courses, and have submitted grant applications and studied resources that can assist students with preparing for college.

The U.S. is now 10th among OECD countries in learning outcomes achievement.  Many other countries are investing significantly in education and creating populations with much higher proportions of college graduates.  To compete in the knowledge economy, we need to increase the number and quality of graduates.  I have worked to make education more accessible and to increase the quality of our offerings and the success of our students.

Education will become more student-centric, with students constructing customized educational programs for the jobs or promotions they want and getting the courses they need from multiple institutions.   Cooperative educational programs between universities and among other education and knowledge providers (corporate training programs etc.) will become more prevalent (The World University Network is an example of this).  I have had experience with course sharing across multiple campuses.

The world is shrinking, and national and international markets are becoming more accessible.  For institutions to thrive they must have a place in this market.  For profit companies already have a strong and growing market share within the United States and other countries, especially China, are investing heavily in this sector.  The online school of pharmacy that I helped create was designed to attract and support students located in multiple countries.

Approaching the Problems

The best way to illustrate a possible approach to many of these challenges is to tell the story of a fictitious institution which I will call Utopian University (UU).  UU embarked on a strategic planning process with a no-holds barred approach to re-inventing the enterprise. Committees were formed to look at everything from the mission to employee retention and student satisfaction. As a first step, the strategic planning steering committee conducted a survey and a series of focus groups to determine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis) facing UU. This analysis revealed the following:


Strengths

  • There is a strong sense of mission and faculty and the administration are interested in developing a national and international reputation for excellence in teaching, learning, scholarship and student success.
  • Faculty and staff are passionate about developing the whole student and creating responsible citizens who are prepared for leadership. They see each other as partners in this development and recognize that important learning and personal development occurs both within and outside of formal courses.
  • Instructors are open to new teaching and delivery methods as long as they are based on current education literature and well-tested best practices.
  • The culture of the university is characterized by:
    • Entrepreneurship - the lessons learned from failure are celebrated nearly as much as successful outcomes.  
    • Change is accepted as a foundation for maintaining a vibrant and healthy organization.  
    • There is a sense of openness and accountability about the decision making and resource allocation processes.
    • Shared governance - the faculty/staff senate is a strong and effective organization that works collaboratively with the university administration for the betterment of the institution.
  • The scholarship of teaching and learning is equally as valued as disciplinary based scholarship.
  • The university has a healthy revenues or an endowment which can be used strategically to invest in developing new or strengthening existing academic programs that are justified by good market data and business plans.

Weaknesses

  • Faculty feel there is a disconnect between daily expectations and the institutional reward system.
  • Faculty and chairs feel the tenure and promotion process forces them into a mold of faculty achievement that is based on outdated values and is too inflexible to meet the needs of the institution, the dynamically changing demands on the university, and the diversity of faculty talents and interests.
  • Instructors feel that the course evaluation process is a popularity contest and as such there is pressure to give good grades to get high ratings. Students feel the process is not helpful to them as it occurs at the end of the semester and thus does not affect their experience within the courses in which they are currently enrolled.
  • Instructors are frustrated by the range of academic preparation within the students entering their classes.
  • Students are unsure about what prior knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the courses they are about to undertake.
  • Students are unclear about what they are expected to achieve in some of their courses. Some courses do not have clearly defined learning outcomes and student success is determined by how quickly they can figure out the expectations and testing style of the instructor.
  • Students have no access prior to enrollment to documents, such as course syllabi, that explain the purpose, difficulty level, and content of the course.
  • Students see each course as a hurdle to be overcome and promptly forget most of the course material as soon as the final exam is complete. 
  • Students and faculty are unclear about the learning outcomes of some of the majors and minors and how the courses hang together into a cohesive program.
  • Course, program and departmental assessment are misunderstood processes that some faculty feel are an administrative attempt to evaluate them and their departments.
  • The general education program had been designed by an ad-hoc committee 20 years ago and since it is delivered by multiple departments, no single organization has ongoing responsibility for monitoring or maintaining it. As a result requirements are outdated and unwieldy.
  • Instructor classroom assignments are based nearly exclusively on course enrollments and do not meet the pedagogical needs of the course.
  • Teaching is still considered an activity that occurs behind closed doors with little peer observation.

Opportunities

  • The university has strong connections with regional high schools providing most of the freshman students to UU and articulation agreements with local community colleges from which most of the transfer students originate. Opportunities exist for a tighter coordination of the K through 20 pipeline.
  • The university is part of a system or collaborates with other regional universities to deliver cross listed programs. These increase the diversity of academic programs at all the campuses and provide a greater choice to the students. These institutions also share resources regionally such as books and journals within their libraries.
  • The university has strong connections with employers of its graduates, local charities and non-profit organizations. Experiential and service learning opportunities are plentiful.

 Threats

  • A national climate is developing that questions the return on investment for higher education. Liberal education in particular is under attack for not preparing students for specific careers.
  • State funding for state and state-related institutions is in significant decline.
  • Expectations of our educational system are changing and external vigilance and assessment is increasing.
  • The world is shrinking and national and international markets are becoming more accessible - including competition for U.S. student from foreign universities. For institutions to thrive they must have a place in this market. For profit companies already have a strong and growing market share within the United States and other countries, especially China, are investing heavily in this sector.

White Papers

In response to the data contained in the SWOT analysis the strategic planning steering committee developed the following series of white papers for work-groups to address and develop recommendations for action. They were designed to catalyze discussion and generate feedback and each was assigned to a multi-disciplinary committee with members from academic affairs, IT, student affairs, the student body and other stakeholders as appropriate.