Challenges for Regional Undergraduate Universities in “the Middle”

... in the "Middle."

December 16, 2014

Matt Read posted in the Dean Dad blog about the colleges in “The Middle”: community colleges and the public universities that are predominantly undergraduate, caught between concern about rising tuition costs and constrained state resources for higher education (and pretty much everything else). Where others see mostly crisis – including Goldie Blumenstyk, whose book American Higher Education in Crisis was the prompt for the post – Matt sees opportunity for these institutions: If they allow themselves to be commoditized…then I foresee an ugly race to the bottom.  But with more middle and even upper middle class students feeling compelled by economics to look more closely at public options, there’s a real opportunity…”.

I think Matt is on the right track in suggesting that public colleges and universities may have a new opportunity to increase their contribution to learning in their regions, through reaching out to students that may not have given them full consideration when concerns about the ROI on tuition were less of an issue. But it’s going to be hard to get your faculty really engaged if you are perceived as recommending that your institution will compete on price! That also may not appeal so much to prospective students, or to parents picking up some of the tab, if they are sensitive to the reputational capital of the institutional choices available to them. So while the “cost” component of the cost/benefit ratio may be shifting in favor of teaching-focused public colleges and universities, you should also be thinking about how to upgrade the “benefits” component of your perceived value proposition.

From our experience (in five different public higher ed systems), regional teaching-focused institutions may particularly struggle to take advantage of these potential opportunities. If your institution has traditionally relied on the immediate area for a critical mass of students, other local students won’t suddenly put you top-of-mind as an alternative to a more expensive residential college experience. You may also have the greatest need to expand your reach, if your institution is located in a rural or remote area where the demographics indicate an ongoing decline in the high school population.

If your institution is in a secondary city or a bland suburb rather than the archetypal small college town, you will need to offer more than an attractive price to become a destination campus. (This also can be an issue in retaining local students, if they can transfer to a “bright lights of the big city” campus after a couple of years.) If your government is looking to upgrade the research flagship to move up in the much-publicized international rankings, you need to get some of their attention as a ‘crown jewel’ in teaching and learning ‒ otherwise your institution and your students may come up short in the next state budget.

How Can a Regional Undergraduate Institution Really Stand Out for Teaching and Learning?

One approach to stand out for teaching and learning is to present data on your student outcomes, perhaps an Aspen Prize for community college excellence or a high rating on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s Outcomes-Based Funding Formula. But the new cohort that Matt suggests could be coming your way is less interested in the benefits you might offer in retention and completion, partly because these students will expect to be successful anyway and partly because comparing apples-to-oranges with higher-priced selective institutions may still not show you in the best light.

For similar reasons, you probably won’t gain much advantage from emerging efforts to measure the generic competencies that students acquire or to specify shared outcomes in the major. It will still be hard to stand out from the crowd when everyone is claiming to do the same things well, and a focus on these outcomes may downplay in subtle ways what you do really well: many of the advantages we like to talk about at teaching-focused institutions – small classes, close relationships with caring faculty – pay off more in helping students to make meaning and identity in college and may only show up indirectly in the more cognitive learning outcomes that could be tracked in shared measures with other institutions.

Other posts in this blog have described new models for structuring undergraduate education and innovations in online learning, but none of them has features where regional universities have an innate advantage (although they can certainly apply these new options along with other types of institutions). You might also focus on degree programs with a distinctive “applied” flavor – but that is not the target area for Matt’s proposed new opportunity.  

How then can your regional undergraduate institution begin to develop a compelling quality proposition to attract and retain students who might not previously have considered getting their degree with you  (without falling into the “striving” trap by trying to move up an implicit research prestige ladder while the competition above is working to do the same!). There aren’t many models yet for how to approach this: here are some ways to move forward that some regional institutions have begun to explore.

  1. Focus on distinctive outcomes, not methods: Excellence in a special teaching method, like ‘inquiry-based teaching’ or ‘learning communities’ may mean a lot to academics, but it doesn’t strike a chord to those your message needs to reach. Rather than emphasizing excellence in co-op education, your institutional promise would be more outcomes-oriented with a focus on excelling in students’ capability “to apply knowledge effectively in the workplace” through co-op and other means (e.g., to appeal to students aiming for medicine, where science co-op terms can delay the professional goal).
  2. Identify emerging outcomes: You still want to achieve high quality in generic competencies and outcomes in the major, but good “choose how to win” strategy suggests you need to go further by developing special strengths in emerging outcomes that other institutions haven’t yet begun to highlight. You might look for research areas where new insights can be adapted to shape your strategy, e.g., new research about emerging knowledge practices in the workplace can help you understand challenges your students face in applying in their initial career positions what they have learned in your classes.
  3. Leverage your strengths: Rich interactions between faculty and students are a top priority for you. So you will want to focus on student outcomes that your faculty can model in these interactions. Remember Parker Palmer’s insight in The Courage to Teach: “how we teach is a key part of what we teach”. The way faculty engage with knowledge to advance teaching and learning can become a model for students’ own engagement with knowledge, in their current roles as learners and in their future careers (as well as in their roles as community members and global citizens).

    I’m not suggesting that every faculty member will want to – or need to – move in this direction, or that every course students take will contribute in this way. An informal target might be to provide opportunities for all students to engage in every term with at least one course where the faculty member models these emerging knowledge practices in teaching, with a course structure that develops, demonstrates and documents your special institutional capabilities of excellence.
  4. Select a theme that serves your regional context: a regional institution has a particular commitment to serve the needs of the local employment market (although not exclusively). Your chosen area of outcomes excellence should align with the needs of local employers, so that your ‘special sauce’ works for them as well. E.g., if your institution is located in a remote region with significant costs for travel to professional meetings and continuing education events, your faculty and students could develop distinctive expertise in online professional learning and knowledge building with online networks. That’s a capability that both your own institution and your regional partners need.

    If your institution is in a suburb of a large metropolitan area and utilizes many part-time faculty engaged in professional practice, developing distinctive excellence in integrating and mobilizing knowledge to improve practice would make sense. If you are building up relationships with local companies and agencies for partnerships to build and mobilize knowledge, that could be a special area of excellence within the emerging emphasis around Students as Partners.
  5. Build the culture, not just the curriculum: you want to work towards a culture of teaching and learning in which your distinctive excellence is embedded. Research universities do this very well, by giving a special status to research knowledge and engaging students early on through undergrad research projects. Think about what it would mean to your students if their  four years on campus were an immersion in a high-performance organization excelling at integrating knowledge to improve practice in teaching (e.g., by scholarly work in teaching and learning) or at partnerships to build and mobilize knowledge in teaching (such as partnerships around ‘course ecosystems’).
  6. Network with Others for Strategically Exemplary Teaching and Learning:  the sample themes listed above may seem narrow in scope, but they are broad in application when you think about building up an organizational culture that undergirds this promise to students. Fostering this innovation within the institution will require effort in both innovation and scaling up, including developing the capability in these emerging knowledge practices for faculty (and other educators).  For strategic excellence it is better to do a few things really well than to spread your resources too thinly.

    At the state system or multi-state network level, different undergraduate institutions can develop leadership roles in particular capabilities for teaching and learning, which can then be shared across institutions to raise the bar across the system.  You can see an example of this for competency-based education in the University of Texas system, where the UT Rio Grande Valley campus is taking the lead with the expectation that other campuses will be tracking UTGRV’s progress and will scale up the results into their own contexts. This cooperative approach also means that institutions don’t get to rest on their laurels: if you are serving as an exemplar for sibling institutions, you have to keep surpassing your previous levels of success in order to continue to lead the way. 

Thomas Carey is a Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Institute for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada.


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