Higher education: Dollars and sense

Local institutions focus on student success

With mounting student debt and competition for jobs, area educators say that the role of preparing students in an affordable manner is more important than ever.

"It is a challenging time across the country in evaluating the cost of higher education and the ability to get the jobs students are looking for," says Amy Bragg Carey, Ph.D., president of Friends University. "People are cautious about taking on additional debt they want a return on their investment."

In response, area schools are working to meet student need with a dual approach reducing student costs through scholarships and various tuition breaks and by helping them achieve their goals in a reasonable time period.

Streamlined degrees

Carey says Friends has long been attuned to the needs of students and the potential education debt they face on graduation it is for this reason that Friends has developed an extensive scholarship program.

"With scholarships, our tuition is very close to what you would pay at a public university, and on average, our student debt is actually less than what is accrued (elsewhere)," Carey asserts.

Even so, she says tuition assistance is not enough to allay student debt and attract students. The longer it takes for students to graduate, the greater the costs. And their degrees have to translate to careers post graduation.

In response to demand, Carey says Friends has initiated several programs to help students, including reduced tuition for credit hours taken during the summer, streamlined course work to help returning adults and a new 4 + 1 MBA program that helps students achieve a master's degree on a faster track.

Similar to dual coursework programs that allow high school students to achieve both high school and college credit for approved courses, the 4 + 1 program offers dual coursework for those seeking both bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology, sociology and criminal justice at Friends. Through the program, undergraduate students are allowed to take some dual credit courses that make it possible to obtain a master's in a shorter timeframe than most traditional tracks.

"It offers students the ability to continue on for an additional year and achieve an MBA in that fifth year," Carey explains.

Individualized attention to students

Efficiency and targeted learning also is a hallmark of the Butler Community College programs offered to area students.

"Nationally, there is a focus on accountability and helping students achieve degree completion," says Lori Winningham, vice president of academics at Butler Community College, on the trends she sees regarding the cost of post secondary education and increased scrutiny on higher education. "Are we producing what we are supposed to?"

To answer that question, Butler has focused its efforts on meeting students where they are in order to help them achieve success.

"Our data reveals that students who are successful in completing English Composition I and college algebra are more likely to go on and complete either a degree, certification, or transfer to a four-year institution," Winningham relates, pointing out that basic math and English requirements and failure to pass them can thwart students from pursuing their true passions and achieving career success.

To address these potential roadblocks, Butler has adopted an entirely new math curriculum designed to work with students.

The new curriculum has divided the math concepts required for developmental math through college algebra (five courses in all) into 12, one-hour modules that can be taken every five weeks. If students are struggling with a particular concept, they can retake that specific module without having to repeat the entire semester class, which was the case under the former system.

"It allows students to have an individual path through college algebra, while reducing the time and money it takes to achieve it," says Bethany Chandler, Butler math instructor.

Winningham adds that the math curriculum redesign is only one aspect of many at the college that are designed to ensure student success. The college's Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) helps students complete the state's basic English composition requirement by offering a developmental course that can be taken in tandem with the credit-bearing course.

Since ALP's inception, Butler has seen the number of students who successfully complete the Comp I requirement jump from an average of 39 percent to nearly 60 percent.

Career focus

Along with helping students efficiently move through curriculum, Sheree Utash, president of Wichita Area Technical College, says it's important to create affordable programs that prepare students for available jobs.

"There is more work we need to do," she maintains, explaining that while WATC has experienced significant enrollment growth, national statistics show that enrollment in higher education, in general, is declining. "There are still a lots of high school graduates that are not making the decision to attend any type of college."

Utash says this is a problem in light of the growing needs of our economy and the demands of the modern workforce.

"By 2020, most jobs will require some type of post secondary training or credentialing," Utash allows. "We need to be recruiting high school graduates into career pathways to be ready to go into the workplace and be successful."

Making education affordable is essential to recruitment, Utash explains, pointing out that WATC's commitment to affordability is a driving force to Wichita Promise, a program at WATC that provides free tuition to students seeking high wage, high demand, highly technical jobs.

Utash says WATC funds the program through internal budgeting and support from business, industry and community organizations that see value in WATC's efforts to build a career pipeline of students to fill an urgent need for skilled labor.

Like other technical and community colleges, Utash says WATC also provides an economically sound pathway for students who want to move on to four-year institutions. Specifically, WATC has partnered with Wichita State University in Shocker Pathways, a program that allows students to earn an associate of arts degree through WSU by completing their first 50 hours of coursework at WATC. After completing the program, students can then easily transfer to WSU to complete their bachelor's degree.

Collaberation and creativity

Tony Vizzini, Ph.D., P.E., provost and senior vice president at Wichita State University, says it's important for colleges and universities to offer students flexibility as well as room to grow and explore. WSU's partnership with WATC through Shocker Pathways is just one example of the university's commitment to meeting the needs of students today.

"I think the overall concern (of students) is the connection between what we provide in terms of an educational platform and their future career that is the way they view the university experience is it a way to achieve their goals and dreams?"

A benefit of the many concurrent programs offered to high school students today, along with A.P. coursework and the ability to take classes at community and technical colleges prior to graduation, is that students have the opportunity to start their post secondary education with many of their college requirements already completed. Vizzini says this is not only a financial advantage, but an opportunity advantage as well.

"It gives them more opportunities to explore their interests," he says, noting that with basic requirements satisfied they can take courses of interest that won't affect their graduation timeline, yet may help them discover an ultimate career path. "Realistically, you are setting yourself up for a career, so being open to different opportunities is important"

Vizzini says it's also important to establish a pattern of lifelong learning and discovery that will help students in the "real world" post graduation.

One way WSU promotes this concept is through a badge program that allows working adults the ability to further their knowledge and skills in specific, concentrated areas.

"A badge is a half-hour credit of curriculum for adults who aren't degree seeking but looking to add to their credentials," he says. "It increases their marketability in the workforce."

"If you are flexible," Vizzini continues, "you will be better off in a changing market."

He says the greatest challenge of higher education today is to prepare students to adapt to and meet the demands of a jobs environment that is constantly changing and evolving and to help them do it an a fiscally responsible manner.

"It's about meeting students where they are," he says.

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