Higher education must be responsive, flexible

by Ken Warden ([email protected]) 246 views 

Editor’s note: Dr. Ken Warden is dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics or the UAFS administration.

With the educational attainment rate of Arkansans the second-lowest in the nation, there is an appropriate concern among state officials, legislators and higher education administrators about increasing accessibility to education among our residents.

But to effectively educate more Arkansans, we must dispel with the traditional perspective that technical and higher education are separate entities. It is an antiquated view but unfortunately one that persists and is propagated through the structure of our state’s educational systems.

For higher education to thrive, we must shift toward a fluid, seamless model that focuses on creating pathways, not obstructing them.

The traditional model of higher education is defined by silos, where secondary, technical, and higher education are each disparate institutions. A student attends high school and will either pursue the traditional educational route towards a bachelor’s degree or pursue a technical certificate or associate degree. Often, many of the credits students earn toward those short-term credentials are not transferable toward baccalaureate degrees, which creates roadblocks for students wanting to continue their education when they want to advance their careers.

Higher education must eschew this approach and embrace a more flexible educational model. That model must rely on creating pathways to higher degree attainment that begin in high school and allow those who choose short-term, job-focused training to also have the flexibility to seamlessly continue their education when they want to move up in their careers.

That model must offer concurrent credit opportunities to high school students who accelerate their path to a credential and smooth the transition to college. It must offer course credit that is transferable toward higher degrees and must provide applied learning opportunities to produce work-ready graduates.

The model must also extend to responsiveness. Higher education must be vigilant in identifying industry needs and nimbly crafting curriculum that responds to those needs. The benefits of this approach are twofold: it helps residents by preparing them for lucrative job opportunities, and it benefits the industry of the area by providing them a skilled workforce that also makes an area alluring for future businesses.

To put it simply, the future of higher education lies in increased collaboration between public schools, higher education and industry to create a K-through-career pathway.

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith has embraced this model for years. Our Western Arkansas Technical Center (WATC) offers area high school students concurrent credit opportunities in everything from welding to early childhood education and acts as a powerful recruiting tool.

Through the resources provided by the ADHE Regional Workforce Grant, we hope to complement WATC by offering concurrent credit programs at high school campuses in the fields of robotics and automation and data analytics. It’s not uncommon now – and will soon become more common – for students to graduate high school with enough credits to earn an associate degree from UAFS, and those credits also count towards a baccalaureate degree if a student chooses to pursue one.

We have also increased accessibility to education in rural areas of the state by partnering with 13 community colleges throughout Arkansas and one in Oklahoma to offer online completion degree programs. Through these, students who have received associate degrees can earn bachelor’s degrees through UAFS without having to step foot on our campus.

Additionally, the university has forged partnerships with local and regional businesses to ensure quick responsiveness to their needs. Through our Babb Center for Student Professional Development, we connect students with potential employers in the area such as ArcBest Corp, Baldor Electric Co., and Walmart to place our graduates shortly after graduation. The proof of our success is in our 85% job and graduate school placement rate.

This model helped UAFS graduate the largest class in its history last spring and a comparable if not larger class this year. To truly increase the educational attainment rate of Arkansans, all higher education institutions in the state must follow the same approach.

Higher education is in a state of flux. The new Arkansas Department of Higher Education master plan dictates the recruitment, resource allocation and operations of higher education institutions through 2020, but make no mistake: this is the beginning of a paradigm shift in the state’s — and country’s — higher education institutions.

To truly accomplish those goals, we must abandon the rigid, antiquated model in favor of one that is flexible, nimble and responsive.