Editor’s note: At the request of Talk Business Arkansas, Shane Broadway, interim director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, led a roundtable discussion of the future of higher education with Dr. Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-year Colleges, and Dr. Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System.

Broadway:  The Governor has set a goal of doubling the number of college degrees by 2025. Without compromising the integrity of our academic institutions, what do you see as the innovative ways to reach that goal?

Franklin: We first have to look at some of the things that we have going that are working well right no, like Career Pathways, where we are taking people off welfare, getting them in school and getting them degrees. With a success rate of 24,000 out of 27,000 students, that program in and of itself is really making a cultural change in Arkansas and increasing the number of people with degrees.

We’ve got to be innovative in the whole area of student success. Once a student gets in school, we have to make sure they stay in school and graduate.

I think also industry specific training – working for those businesses that we know are growing in the state. I think a good example of that is what is happening up at the University of Arkansas Community College in Morrilton with the River Valley Manufacturing Company. So I think there’s some of those kinds of things.

I think in terms of where we’re going for the future, the part we know some of and don’t know is the whole use of broadband infrastructure within the state for delivery of educational programs. That’s something we are going to be exploring a lot: how do we use this new tool that we have in a new capacity? And then how do we deal with those students who come to us who are not digital immigrants. They come to us with a full set of skills in terms of using the computer, so how do we use the iPads and the laptops and the iPhones to deliver education?

The other thing that I would add is we are really trying to move the two-year colleges into being “centers of excellence.” We can’t continue to try to be all things to all people, and so trying to focus our colleges based on regional set pool strategies. What are the business and industries of that region? What are the kinds of educational programs that we need to have in place? We’re really trying to identify for every college 3 to 5 programs that they’re the best of the best at delivering and then letting them help the other colleges. Those centers of excellence need to be the place that really has the most knowledge and most expertise in delivering that.

Bobbitt: Higher education’s role in economic development across the state cannot be understated. If you look at the states with the highest per capita incomes, you’ll also find the most developed, advanced and comprehensive systems of higher ed.

I’d like to start with a bit more of a philosophical bend. When I think of these questions, I’m reminded of Henry Ford’s comment that “you can have any color you want as long as it’s black” in terms of a car.

If you think about higher ed, we have always done things a certain way since probably the 1800’s. We teach by face-to-face method. I’ll go on the record as just saying when it’s done and you can do it this way, this is the absolute best way. You learn at the foot of a master. But we work in 16-week semesters that begin in the fall, and the spring semester ends in the spring. And why is that? Well, because you have to harvest in fall and plant in spring.

I think we have to keep in mind that our traditional systems are based upon the concept that “time is fixed” and “learning is variable.” Over a 16-week period, some will get it very quickly because they have a background in it or they’re intrinsically talented. Some could get it, but 16 weeks just isn’t enough time. In fact, some of them may get it so easily that they could have done all the work in 5 weeks. But we force everyone into the 16 weeks.

What surveys have shown in this generation that’s coming through K-12 now – and at that rate entering college – is that they don’t understand any of these limitations. In fact, they may not want to accept them.

The second cohort that may not be reachable by our traditional mechanisms are the non-traditional students. These are students that for whatever reason when they were 18 year olds they did not or could not – or they did and then stopped – participate in a higher ed experience. Now travelling to a campus, a remote campus, and being resident or taking 4 or 5 or even more courses at a time in parallel fashion, while holding down a job, while having family responsibilities is probably not going to be possible for them.

We absolutely must strengthen the traditional institutions because there is a very strong cohort of students that will learn best in that environment and/or have the resources and intellectual maturity to participate in that environment.

On the other hand, if that’s the only environment we provide, we will be missing serving a great segment of the university, possible, university-bound students in the state. And this includes all the students who will be prepared and coming from our wonderful 2-year schools. And that is one of the reasons why I think, as Dr. Franklin said some of these new technological advances and some of these opportunities that the internet provides to us are going to have to part of our portfolio if we want to be able to serve all of the Arkansans that are going to need to be served in order for us to participate in the economy in the 21st century.

Franklin: Let me add to that. If we’re going to change the economy – especially in the short-term, and by short-term I mean 10 years – it’s going to be the retraining of the adult population that’s going to be key in how we approach that and how we deal with at as educators. That will require a different mindset than what most people think of as traditional higher education.

Broadway: To that end. What do you see as the potential obstacles to getting these changes done?

Bobbitt: There was a very interesting article today in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it was a book on monsters. It said that the most scary monsters are those that are sort of hybrids. Vampires, they’re dead and they’re living. Werewolves, they’re animal and they’re human. And its those things that are at the interface that really scare us the most. Think about some of the advances that are being proposed for higher education, which involve technology, the Internet, and online learning in addition to classroom learning. We call that the hybrid environment and they’re that same sort of entity in that they combine parts of two worlds and they appear most scary to us. So I think that there’s going to be a reluctance to accept things that have worked pretty successfully.

Franklin: Just looking at the report the Arkansas Research Center has released recently in terms of the value of education and how more and more education leads economically to a better future. I think we’ve just got to keep telling that story over and over and over again. So many Arkansans have not participated in higher education in such a way that they’ve seen that value and that needs to be told over and over again, especially the part about how little ability you have to make a livable wage if you don’t complete high school. We have 250,000 people in the state without a high school degree. We have to reach them.

I think in terms of the institutions, the use of technology in education, looking at things from a different view. Some of our faculty may or may not be able to adapt to that. I think that’s one of the issues that we have to face. The other thing is just keeping up. The technology that we have today, by the time we turn around, it’s outdated. So keeping up with that.

Broadway: Coming from a business perspective, if I’m looking to make an investment or to expand my company in Arkansas, long-term should we continue to invest more dollars than what we’re currently doing into higher education in your opinion?

Franklin: You know we just completed a study from EMSI [Economic Modeling Specialists Inc.] looking at the return on investment. When you start looking at the return on investment of state dollars, you’re talking about $20 for every $1 that the state puts in. That’s a pretty good return on investment. When you start looking at the return on investment from a student’s perspective, in terms of the dollars they spend for tuition and fees, and what they get back in terms of long-range income. Those are good investments, in terms of it takes them about 7 years to pay back for that 2-year degree and any wages they lost while they were in school. From that point on, it’s just icing on the cake.

I think too much we’ve looked at higher education’s cost, instead of as a value. And I think part of that is our fault, from a higher education’s perspective in terms of the way we talk about it. I think part of it is a culture within the state.

More and more, we’ve got to show the value, but we also need to show that in terms of how it affects the state and the student, but also how it affects the bottom line for businesses. I do think businesses more and more are realizing if they don’t invest in higher education, then they’re not going to have the kind of workers that they need to make money and improve the bottom line.

Bobbitt: The only thing that I would add to that is if you look at job creation, you find out that we need workers who can operate all across the skill set. When you look at the last recession, you look at where job creation occurred. The lowest unemployment, the most jobs that were created were those that had the highest skill sets.

It could be the electricians and other individuals, but it also was the engineers who built the machines and helped to maintain them. I think that you’re going to find that as we have machines that do more and more of the things that used to be done by humans, it’ll become those that use their minds and have the training to use their minds that will probably be most immune to the effects of rotations in the economy.

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