Improving Public Higher Education

I have taught in a regional comprehensive public university since 2005. In that time there have been tremendous changes in the external environment. However, there has not been much change internally (the same is true for most regional public universities). That outcome is not favorable for serving students or for the long-term survival of the institution. Here are some thoughts on how regional public universities can better serve their stakeholders and prosper in the future.

  • Replace the “bigger is better,” “more is better,” and “spend money” leadership mindset with “thinking is better,” “less is more (and better),” and “spend Ideas.”
  • Replace the tiresome enrollment growth imperative with an administrative and academic  process improvement imperative.
  • Replace “world-class,” “excellence,” or “exceptional” with “serve the community.”

In addition, such universities have no need for NCAA programs, but they should be highly engaged in improving student’s health and wellness and achieve a high rate of participation in physical activity and intramural sports. Athletics program funds should be re-directed and people re-deployed to support these new ares of focus, as well as academic programs. Alternatively, license the university name, logo, mascot, etc., to an entrepreneur and let them run NCAA sports programs as a private enterprise without state subsidies.

Acknowledging the reality that regional public universities are regional, the question becomes: What can regional public universities do to better serve their communities (typically, within a 60 mile radius)? A simple strategy for prosperity for regional public universities and their local communities could be as follows:

  • The foundation is the Lean University. Improve administrative and academic processes for the benefit of students, payers, and regional employers. It is the human-centered way to improve the value of educational services and reduce costs.
  • Simplify degree requirements and grading. Where possible, give students (adults) more ability to determine the balance of education (knowing) and training (doing) that is right for them. Eliminate minors (secondary fields of study) for undergraduates.
  • Create a 3-year undergraduate degree option (trimester system, 15 credits per trimester), consisting of classroom, hybrid, and online delivery of selected courses (possibly from other universities). This would eliminate one year of tuition and fees, and improve throughput.
  • Alternate approach: Instead of full-time undergraduate students taking six courses concurrently in a semester, take two courses every four weeks (3 credit course = 40 contact hours over a four week period). This format will allow students to focus more closely on the subject matter and could lead to improved learning outcomes. Faculty would teach two courses a month (September, October, November/December; January, February, March; April, May, June), plus the other elements of faculty work (research, advising, committee work, etc.). More rapid cycling of courses should improve graduation rates.
  • Develop courses and programs that serve the needs of employers, particularly small and mid-sized businesses; e.g. economic clusters, healthcare, construction, non-profit, retail, manufacturing, public services, arts, hospitality, etc. Not all academic programs would serve this narrow interest.
  • Convert to a non-residential campus to achieve an immediate 50 percent cost reduction for students. Work with mass transit to provide low-cost transportation to students who need it. Re-purpose dorms as study areas, low-cost office/lab space for not-for-profit and for-profit business, etc. These businesses would hire students part-time or full-time.
  • Eliminate expensive and time-consuming searches for administrators, and instead promote from within. Or, use LinkedIn to find candidates instead of expensive search firms.

Rather than spend resources competing against peer institutions (in typical zero-sum fashion – e.g. poach students from surrounding states to reap higher out-of-state tuition dollars), regional public universities can do a far better job of serving the community by doing these things.

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