Enrollment at the University of Akron is declining, and revenue is down. To many prospective students, the institution is indistinguishable from the handful of other regional universities in northeast Ohio.
Top officials this year surveyed the trajectory of the college and weren’t happy with what they saw. A change was in order: a rebranding and a rethinking of mission.
Earlier this month Akron rebranded itself as “Ohio’s Polytechnic University.”
The change has been praised by many as adapting to calls for more workforce-ready graduates. But some have called the move a risk, expressing worries that the rebranding will discourage students from applying to Akron’s arts and humanities programs.
Yet Akron President Scott Scarborough says that while it’s a significant change, it’s not as risky as remaining the same.
“The most risky path is the one that we were on. The one where you are not identifying what is unique or strong about your university,” said Scarborough, who is 11 months into his tenure as Akron’s leader. He says most regional state universities are generic, an identity that will come to haunt them as more and more students seek careers in professional fields and in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
”The university was at a point in time in its history when it had to make certain changes to remain relevant… to take the university to the next level.”
Alumni and faculty members bristled amid reports that Akron would formally change its name to Ohio Polytechnic Institute, and thousands signed an online petition against a change. Akron officials say the university does not plan to change its name at this time.
“Faculty generally do not see this as the best, or the only, direction that the university could pursue…. They don't see polytechnic as an upgrade,” said John Zipp, president of Akron's chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “Whether we've changed our name or not, we're still going in a different direction. That's more a concern than the name.”
Akron is not alone in embracing a polytechnic identity. Also in May, Purdue University’s College of Technology was renamed and restructured to become its Polytechnic Institute. Officials at Washington State University Tri-Cities are considering rebranding one of its campuses as a polytechnic institute. Although polytechnic institutions remain relatively rare in the greater landscape of U.S. higher education, they are prevalent internationally.
Florida Polytechnic University was established in 2012. In the mid-2000s Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin each transformed one of their several campuses into polytechnic institutions, which still operate today. Other polytechnic institutions, like Virginia Tech, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Rochester Institute of Technology, have been around for more than 100 years.
There are about a dozen polytechnic universities in the U.S., according to a survey by Gary Bertoline, dean of Purdue’s new Polytechnic Institute.
Polytechnic colleges offer degrees that generally require classroom learning, specialized or technical training, and hands-on learning. They were first created in the 1700s and 1800s to produce graduates with skills for the emerging industrial age. Today polytechnics have a similar mission, but for the economy of a rapidly changing digital age. They have programs that range from cyberspace security, aviation, information technology and -- at Akron -- even dance.
“What we’re really talking about here is a different kind of graduate for the 21st century,” Bertoline said. “It’s a very, very recent phenomenon, but everyone is starting to see there’s a need for this.”
Lawmakers in dozens of states have called for universities to emphasize STEM education and produce graduates who are employment ready. A 2013 employer survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 86 percent of employers preferred college graduates with direct experiences in community problem solving and 78 percent wanted graduates who have applied their knowledge in real-world settings.
“There’s a focus from not only students and parents, but state policy leaders and employers as well, to create institutions with tighter links to jobs,” said Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It’s a natural response by institutions to market demands.”
Both Akron and Purdue’s College of Technology were responding to another market force: declining enrollments. At Purdue, the College of Technology’s enrollment dropped from a high of roughly 4,400 students in 2002 to a low of roughly 3,600 a decade later.
Administrators at Purdue had at one point asked the college to become smaller because they wanted to focus on Purdue’s high-performing colleges, like its engineering and computer science programs, in order to bring up the university’s ranking.
“You never want to be asked to get smaller, so something wasn’t resonating on campus,” said Bertoline, who has been dean of the college for four years.
About 30,000 students were enrolled at Akron four years ago, and last fall about 4,000 fewer students were enrolled. The university gets the majority of its revenue from tuition, so the decline in tuition dollars, coupled with years of declining or relatively flat state funding and several years of capital investments upward of $600 million, according to Scarborough, made for especially difficult financial circumstances.
“That’s a problem,” Scarborough said. “You’ve leveraged yourself, so you can’t afford to simply get smaller and be OK with that.”
Both Akron and Purdue had existing career-focused and experiential learning programs with partnerships with businesses. Scarborough says even before the rebranding, Akron -- which has a strong College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering and engineering co-op program -- was a polytechnic institution, “whether we said so or not.”
Akron plans to add to that portfolio as it rebrands itself. It's creating a Center for Experiential Learning, Entrepreneurship and Civic Engagement, which will connect students from all disciplines with internships, co-ops and service learning assignments. It's also creating a Center for Data Science and Information Technology.
Zipp believes the university needs to strengthen its STEM programs before it can become a competitive polytechnic university.
“It's not clear that we are willing to make the investment it takes to build up our STEM areas,” he said, “and if we built up our STEM areas, will that be at the expense of other areas?”
Robert Sevier, vice president for strategy at the higher education marketing group Stamats, said most colleges that are considering marketing themselves as polytechnic institutions have existing academic offerings that align with the mission change.
“You’re looking at colleges that have already been doing a lot of work in the technical or polytechnical fields, and they’re basically laying claim to an area that’s already theirs,” he said. “It’s about identifying the aspects of the college that makes you compelling.”
Becoming a polytechnic has other advantages, aside from possible enrollment increases. If done well, it can increase job placement rates. Polytechnic institutions also attract large numbers of international students and potentially help with fund-raising as relationships between universities and industry are strengthened.
Will Humanities Suffer?
For all the perceived advantages, there are drawbacks as well. Changing an existing college to a polytechnic college can alienate alumni and donors who don’t identify with the college’s new mission, especially if they graduated with a degree in the arts and humanities.
“If you position yourself as a polytechnic aggressively, it may be more difficult for you to establish other credentials that you have. For example, the humanities, they seem contrary [to polytechnic fields] in people’s minds,” Sevier said.
When Akron announced that it was becoming a polytechnic institute, Scarborough anticipated that some people would think the change undermined the humanities and social sciences, a perception he wants to avoid.
“It’s not restricted to STEM fields. It applies to the character of an academic program,” he said, adding that at the same time he announced that Akron would become a polytechnic college, he also announced the formation of a new center for dance choreography, which is partnering with an organization in Cleveland called Dance Cleveland. He also said that Akron already has humanities programs that will fit in nicely with its polytechnic mission, such as its existing Bliss Institute for Applied Politics.
Yet it’s clear Akron’s shift to a polytechnic college has concerned some alumni and faculty members.
“There's a sense that this is moving away from the commitment of being a broad university that serves the community, that we're going to be a narrow, specialized university,” Zipp said.
When rumors surfaced that Akron would change its name, more than 10,000 people signed a Change.org petition against the change within a week.
“What will happen to the already low funding to graduate study programs that are not part of the engineering and polymer department? What will happen to the future enrollment for the college if students are deterred by a niche name?” wrote the petition’s author, Akron alumna Jessica Kaisk.
A comment on Purdue’s website on a post about the College of Technology’s transformation was similarly discouraging.
“Please tell me this is a bad joke,” wrote commenter Justin Mcintyre, who identified himself as an alumnus of the college’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. “I would donate… to reverse this.”
Bertoline, the Purdue administrator, said it can be difficult to change a college with a long history. The College of Technology was established in 1964.
“It’s much easier to start from scratch and do this. To change from within is extremely difficult,” he said. “But the fact is if someone doesn’t figure out how to change from within then [universities are] in trouble, because we cannot tear down all of our universities and start over.”