By Doug Ward

I’ve been doubtful about the emergence of a Generation Z. Strangely, Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, along with some reassurances from Pew Research, have me reconsidering.

Before I get to Hogwarts and District 12, though, I need to provide some background.

A few years ago, two of my students, eager to look behind the hype of marketers who claimed to see into the minds and habits of a post-millennial generation, came away frustrated. After semester-long research projects, they both asked the same questions: Who can really define a generation? And is “generation” just a convenient label that older people apply to younger people they don’t understand?

A baby boom generation made some sense because it was part of a demographic shift, the students said. Yes, today’s students are certainly different, but the “generation” labels that have been applied seem more of a put-down than an amalgamation of meaningful, or valid, characteristics.

3 students with laptops talking around a table
The characteristics of Generation Z have many implications for higher education. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center explained some of the haziness of generational labels earlier this year when he wrote that Pew researchers were adopting the Generation Z category in their work. He wrote:

“Generational cutoff points aren’t an exact science. They should be viewed primarily as tools” for analyzing views on things like work, education, social issues and politics. Pew defines Generation Z as anyone born in 1997 or after. Others see Generation Z as starting earlier, and some place the starting point as late as 2005. By most definitions, though, traditional college-age students now consist solely of Generation Z, and the oldest in that group have already graduated.

What does that mean?

I thought about my students’ search for Generation Z as I listened to speakers at the Educause 2019 conference in Chicago recently. My students’ questions were – and still are – valid. Their search for a Generation Z may just have been a few years premature, though.

The racial and ethnic diversity of this generation — and how that diversity shapes views and expectations — has rightly received considerable attention. At Educause, though, the father and son team of David and Jonah Stillman made a case for “generational personalities,” which they said formed from experiences in adolescence. Many of those experiences are tied to significant economic and cultural events. Here are a few of the characteristics that the Stillmans said separated millennials from Generation Z.

Millennials

  • Came of age during an economic boom.
  • Parents, mostly baby boomers, told them they could do anything.
  • Went through childhood during what the Stillmans called “the self-esteem movement,” when everyone got a trophy just for participating.
  • Parents preached a message of college at any cost – apparently even to themselves – and told their children they could change the world.
  • Jobs were about seeking meaning and changing the world.
  • Technologically minded but with a clear separation between online and in person.

Generation Z

  • Came of age during and after the 2007-2008 recession, when their parents’ net worth plummeted and they saw seemingly unsinkable companies barely able to stay afloat.
  • They are realists. Their parents, mostly from Generation X, emphasized the need to compete and win. (If you doubt this, just do a search for “TikTok famous.”)
  • Watched as millennials took on enormous debt to pay for college, even as many employers started to emphasize skills rather degrees.
  • Jobs are about money. Full stop.
  • See few boundaries between physical and digital. (Think Pokemon Go.) They even saw online companies begin to create physical stores, another case where they see “no line at all” between online and in person.

Even popular culture icons offered competing messages. Millennials read about and watched Harry Potter, a young wizard with a tight group of friends who grappled with the meaning and purpose of their magic powers. Generation Z read about and watched Katniss Everdeen, a young rebel in a dystopian nation who is chosen for a fight to the death in The Hunger Games. The message: one against the world; win or die; children are expendable.

This is all a broad-brush picture, of course, but I find that much of it rings true. After all, enrollment in business schools has soared as enrollment in the liberal arts has declined. Many students are working 20-plus hours a week to help pay their college bills. They want flexibility in their schedules and access to technology always. Most students and parents still see value in college, but they look closely at price and consider their return on investment.

So what does this mean for higher education? The Stillmans offered these observations and suggestions:

Get on their radar earlier

Many of these students are trying to make college and career decisions much earlier than previous generations did. They crave certainty and security in their careers. Universities that tap into that desire for a clear pathway have a better chance of reaching those students than those that wait. Relatedly, these students want to know what universities have to offer. They seek out winners and opportunities, and they want to see that reflected in their schools.

Group work is harder

This generation is competitive. They want to stand out and they resent others who tag along in group projects and don’t work as hard as they do. That means they dislike group work, even though the ability to collaborate is among the top skills that employers seek. That means, the Stillmans said, that educators will have to work harder to help these students learn group skills.

So is traditional communication

Older adults complain that this generation is illiterate, David Stillman said. He argued, though, that today’s students are writing more than ever. They post on social media and in online forums. They chat via instant messages and games. They are in constant conversation. Much of that may be in the form of “lol” and “omg,” Stillman said, “but who are we to say that’s not writing?” They also learned to communicate with emojis before they communicated in words, he said. That approach creates more ambiguity and leaves more room for interpretation, he said. So students need help understanding how to communicate in a professional world. Even so, he said, “professors need to understand emojis.”

Emphasize the tangible

Promoting vague “experiences” and learning for learning’s sake doesn’t work for most of these students. Rather, they want to see the practical application and individual benefit of their school work. That means instructors and advisors need to explain why students are learning what they are learning and how the various disciplines, activities and assignments fit together and help lead to good jobs. Additionally, universities, departments and classes should partner with businesses, David Stillman said. Bring professionals from various fields to campus so that students can learn about pathways and make connections between what they are learning and what they might do on the job.

Allow customization

A higher percentage of Generation Z was home-schooled, and many of their parents are entrepreneurs. They are open to alternative paths to learning, and they value customization. After all, Amazon and Netflix know what they want and make frequent suggestions about what they should buy or watch. Why shouldn’t their college? Iowa State, which caught on to this earlier than most universities, sends out video announcements for each student. These videos include a “breaking news” announcement by a CNN anchor, a message from the college president and the football coach, a shot of a banner with the student’s name, and footage of thousands of students cheering and celebrating. (Some students apply to Iowa State just to get a video, the Stillmans said.) Other schools have allowed students to create custom majors, a strategy that all schools need to adopt, the Stillmans said.

Improve online courses

Students still prefer in-person courses, but they want the flexibility that online courses provide. That flexibility is critical for a generation that is putting in more hours on jobs to pay for college. They also expect online courses to have the same quality and the same outcomes as in-person courses. The culture, the feel, the layout of an online course should be the same as an in-person course, the Stillmans said. Everything should be seamless.

Be flexible with technology

Students in Generation Z “don’t see the difference at all” between the physical and digital worlds. Technology is simply part of who they are. It connects them. It informs them. They expect it to be there. Universities that demonstrate technological sophistication will have an advantage, the Stillmans said. That doesn’t mean Generation Z is impressed by technologically advanced campuses. That is simply an expectation. These students take that expectation into the classroom, too. Instructors who ban this technology simply stoke students’ fear of missing out on something online. So rather than take that technology away, help them learn how to use it to learn.

Those are just a few of the few of the student characteristics we need to pay attention to. Yes, these are broad generalizations that don’t apply to all students, but they help us understand some of the challenges we face as educators. College used to have a Harry Potter-like magic in attracting students, but it has entered a world much more like The Hunger Games. We can still be suspicious of labels like Generation Z – I still am – but we need to adjust to the reality of the changes.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Enrollment at Kansas regents universities declined again this year. I say again because enrollment has declined each year since 2011.

The decline – 5.7% since 2011 — is relatively small, but it illustrates the challenges of a state university system that has become increasingly dependent on student tuition dollars to finance operations. It also illustrates the challenges that regents universities will face in the next decade as the number of traditional college-age students flattens after a post-recession “baby bust.”

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The National Center for Education Statistics projects that undergraduate enrollment nationwide will increase about 3% by 2028, but that national average blurs regional differences. Institutions in the Midwest and Northeast are especially vulnerable. Many smaller colleges have faced growing economic problems, with some merging and more than 20 closing.

KU isn’t in any immediate danger from those trends, but the regents system as a whole is. Given the current political climate, it seems likely that Kansas will face some of the same pressures that states like Wisconsin and Alaska have faced to close or merge campuses.

In Kansas, Wichita Area Technical College merged with Wichita State two years ago, a move that made sense given their proximity. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine financial concerns forcing additional mergers – mergers that would be much more painful than the one in Wichita. Eleven of the state’s community colleges have had double-digit enrollment declines over the past five years, and three – Cowley, Allen and Highland – have seen enrollment fall by more than 20%. Even Johnson County Community College, the largest in the state, isn’t immune from this trend. Its enrollment has declined 7.8% over the past five years, although there was a slight uptick this year.

I’m not trying to predict impending doom. Rather, I see the numbers as a clear signal of the need to move quickly with innovative approaches that better meet the needs of a changing student population. Colleges and universities can no longer expect student applications to simply flow in with regularity. They must find niches that set them apart, form partnerships across disciplines and institutions, do more to reach out with online courses, and develop new approaches that make a college education more of an ongoing process – and one of individual renewal – than a degree-and-done-forever approach.

The numbers at KU

KU’s full-time equivalency enrollment fell slightly this year. As you can see from the chart above, though, there has been only slight movement over the past six years. That’s mostly good news, especially because retention rates have increased. This fall, 86.2% of last year’s freshman class returned, and retention of freshmen has increased substantially since hitting a low of 77.8% in 2008.

That’s a phenomenal accomplishment made possible by the work of everyone from instructors who have adopted more effective teaching practices to advisors who have helped students make better choices to administrators who have created new support programs and allocated money and resources to address a collective problem.

The university did a good job of highlighting other aspects of this fall’s enrollment report, so I won’t go into those. I would like to touch on some other trends I saw in the enrollment figures. These figures come from various reports and public dashboards on the site of Analytics and Institutional Research. Wherever possible, I have used full-time equivalency figures rather than headcount. The regents and the federal government have shifted to full-time equivalency because it cuts down on possible distortions from part-time enrollment and allows for a better comparison across universities. The university tends to prefer headcount.

Troublesome long-term trends

Combined enrollment at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses has been mostly stable over the past few years. The longer-term trends aren’t as positive. Enrollment has declined 10.5% since 2007 and 13% since a peak in 2008.

For KU as a whole, those declines have been partly offset by a growth of 11.2% at the medical center since 2014. Enrollment at the Edwards Campus has grown in each of the past four years but is 11% below where it was in 2011.

Not surprisingly, the largest decline in the student population has been in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It still has the largest number of students by far of any college at KU, but undergraduate enrollment has fallen 21.6% since 2010, and graduate enrollment has fallen 18.2%. The largest percentage gains in undergraduate enrollment since Fall 2010 have been in business (up 122%) and engineering (up 46.3%).

Interestingly, the largest percentage increase overall was in non-degree-seeking students, whose numbers have risen 181% since 2010. There were 491 of those students this fall. That’s a small number in the overall enrollment picture, but it clearly shows an interest among a group that is rarely discussed when we talk about enrollment.

Shifting gender balancechart showing decreasing percentage of male students

Men accounted for 46% of KU students this fall, the lowest percentage of the decade. The number of men enrolling at KU has declined from 49.2% in 2010, reflecting a national trend of fewer men going to college.

The number of students not reporting gender spiked this year to 524 from 75 in Fall 2018, 53 in Fall 2017 and 25 in Fall 2016. This reflects a national trend of students more willing to identify as gender fluid, transgender or non-binary.

Interestingly, the vast majority of those who did not report gender were graduate students. The breakdown of graduate students this fall is 50.6% women, 40.4% men and 9% not listing gender.

Other changes in student demographics

Several other changes in the characteristics of students are worth noting:

  • Declining number of transfer students.Transfer students have never made up a large percentage of the student population at KU, but their numbers have fallen significantly during the past decade. In Fall 2010, the Lawrence campus reported 1,404 transfer students, compared with 1,024 this fall. That is a decline of 27%.
  • Declining number of graduate students. The Lawrence campus has 5,570 graduate students this fall, a decline of 9.5% since 2016 and 13.5% since 2010. This is largely a result of a smaller number of students pursuing a master’s degree (down 19.8% since 2010), although the number of doctoral students has declined 9.1% from a peak in 2013.
  • Declining number of international students. The number of international students fell for the fourth straight year and is now 14% below a peak of 2,363 in Fall 2015. This again follows a national trend.
  • Rising number of Hispanic students. The number of Hispanic students attending KU has increased 65% since 2010, with growth in every year this decade. Hispanic students now make up 8% of the student body. This again reflects national trends.
  • Rising number of part-time students. The number of part-time students on the Lawrence and Edwards campuses surpassed 4,000 for the first time this fall. Part-time students now account for 16.3% of the total student population, the highest percentage this decade and up from 13.7% in 2012.

Changes at Edwards CampusChart showing growing number of undergraduates at edwards campus

KU’s Edwards Campus has traditionally been reliant on professional master’s programs for its enrollment. That has begun to shift toward more of a balance of graduate and undergraduate programs.

Undergraduates now account for nearly 41% of students at the Edwards campus, nearly double the percentage of a decade ago. That is an enormous shift in mission and mentality. The campus is still heavily reliant on working professionals who attend evening classes, but it has increased its online offerings, partnered with Kansas City-area schools and businesses, and drawn undergraduates to programs like information technology, molecular biosciences and exercise science.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Ann Austin stands on stairs in a lecture hall, raising her hand and looking across the room
Ann Austin calls for a show of hands during her keynote address at the Teaching Summit.

By Doug Ward

We know the story well. We helped write it, after all.

As instructors and students and administrators, we have lived the story of modern higher education. And yet, despite the familiarity of that story – or perhaps because of it – we continue to struggle with its meaning and direction.

Ann Austin, an education professor and administrator at Michigan State, told participants at KU’s annual Teaching Summit last week that that struggle is not only natural; it is also crucial as colleges and universities adapt to a landscape that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years and is poised to change even more dramatically in the next 20.

In her Summit keynote address, Austin moved among the past, present and future as she highlighted the challenges and opportunities that rapid societal changes are posing to colleges and universities. She also challenged faculty members and administrators to think philosophically and creatively about the way they teach, interact and plan.

“What kind of vision do we have in the back of our minds as we go about our day-to-day work?” Austin asked.

“What is our vision for where our learners are going, and what is our vision for the role we play in their lives?”

That vision, after all, guides us in conscious and unconscious ways, and is crucial for the success of the university. We are doing many good things, she said, but we need to be more creative in working with students, curricula and our approach to learning.

‘This noble profession’

Austin maintained an upbeat tone as she made a case that colleges and universities must change to keep pace with society. Universities are exemplars of society, places to share ideas, to advance knowledge and to debate with respect, she said. She evoked the symbolism of KU’s campus on a hill as an indication that it is “involved in something important,” or what she called “this noble profession.”

Ann Austin turns in her seat and speaks with two women behind her
Ann Austin speaks with Lisa Wolf-Wendel and Susan Twombly, professors of education, before the start of the Summit.

Even so, those of us who teach and work and learn and lead at universities must push our institutions to adapt and evolve. We have welcomed an increasingly diverse population of students, Austin said, and we must find better ways to support those students. Right now, she said, there’s a mismatch between social needs and educational practices and outcomes. (There is also a growing political rift over the direction of higher education.) We are doing much good, she said, but we need to do more.

“How do we create environments for the success of all?” Austin asked.

She pointed to large gateway classes as an example of where universities have fallen short. Those courses can guide students toward many types of careers – or prevent them from pursuing those careers. Nationally, half of students in those courses fail, she said, and women and students of color encounter the biggest hurdles. By embracing evidence-based teaching practices and taking a more inclusive approach to teaching and learning, though, we can lower the barriers to success.

“We know that if we change the way we go about our teaching, if we think about what will support this diversity of learners, we can pretty much get rid of that gap,” she said, citing years of research about active and engaged learning.

Generosity of thinking’ and other any areas of potential

Gateway courses are just one area where there is a mismatch between social needs and educational practices and outcomes, she said. Another involves soft skills, or what Austin calls “human skills”: things like communicating well; discerning between accurate and inaccurate information; understanding the context of problems and actions; engaging in teamwork and collaboration; and approaching work with integrity and ethical standards.

white man in jeans, left hand in pocket, holds a lavalier microphone as he stands on the stops of Budig lecture hall and speaks
Jeff Hall, professor of communication studies, asks a question during the Summit.

She also singled out something she called “generosity of thinking,” or the ability to work with people different from yourself and to seek out those complementary perspectives on projects at work and in communities.

“We really need to cultivate that even more than perhaps we do,” Austin said.

Austin drew upon her work as co-chair of the Roundtable on Systemic Change in Undergraduate STEM Education for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. That group has highlighted the importance of a vibrant educational system and a well-educated citizenry that can join conversations on the challenges facing society. It has also focused on the needs of a changing workforce.

We know that jobs that are common today won’t exist in the future, Austin said. And in 10 or 20 years, “there will be opportunities for work that we can’t even imagine right now.”

“How do we prepare our students for this kind of world?” she asked.

What can we do?

I’ve written before about Austin, who cofounded the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning. Her work in organizational change has influenced some of the approaches we take at CTE, and she is a partner on a National Science Foundation grant on creating a more nuanced approach to evaluating teaching. She has worked with many KU faculty members on that project, which is known as Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness at KU. The multi-university project is known as TEval.

Austin provides broad insight and thought-provoking questions to everything she does, and the Summit was no exception. She also offered several concrete steps that participants could take to improve their courses, their departments and the learning environments for their students:

white man with mustouche and open collar shirt sits in audience, holding microphone, as he asks question
Robert Hagen, lecturer in environmental studies, asks a question during the Summit.
  • Embrace high-impact practices. These include things like service learning, internships, writing-intensive courses, and learning communities. These and other practices “link the knowing with the doing,” Austin said, and create a more equitable learning environment.
  • “Become more fluent in how learning happens.” Research into learning and higher education continually provides new insights, Austin said, urging participants to consider ways of applying that research in their disciplines. CTE programs and materials can help instructors do that without spending hours combing through journals.
  • Focus on learning, not seat time. Our courses are organized by credit hours, a system that originated in the 19th century and focused on the amount of time instructors delivered information to students. That system is outmoded, especially for online courses, but we can still work within it, Austin said, by emphasizing learning and using effective means of assessing learning.
  • Seek out new ways to reach students. This might involve using technology, taking an innovative approach in face-to-face or online courses or curricula, or using new types of physical classrooms. Austin emphasized the importance of flexibility and creativity in helping students learn. Organize curricula in new ways and look for new pathways that better fit today’s students. She said that included not just degrees but ways for people to move in and out of higher education to refresh skills and share their expertise.
  • Cultivate new partnerships. Communities inside and outside the university help us draw on new perspectives, learn from one another, and create new learning opportunities for our students and our colleagues. These partnerships can also provide opportunities for developing and promoting leadership skills that universities need if they hope to innovate.

Even as she pushed audience members to take action, she urged them to draw on the many good things already happening at universities.

“I’m not in any way suggesting that we just jettison what we’re doing,” Austin said. “We do so much that is so good.”

Rather, she suggested committing to effective practices and ask “what is this changing world suggesting that we might do differently?”

Doing so helps us move from story – a beacon on a hill in a volatile, changing world – to action.

“That’s the story we are part of,” Austin said. “We need to think not only in a philosophical way – that’s part of the story – but in a real practical way. What do we do in our departments, in our programs and in the university to actually let us make the best contributions to our learners and to society?”

A whiteboard with Welcome to KU, new students written in blue
A whiteboard at the School of Engineering

A cloudy day with lots of sunshine

The Summit took place on the same day that hundreds of students moved in to KU’s residence halls. Chancellor Doug Girod, dressed in khaki slacks and a blue KU polo shirt, said at the beginning of the Summit that he always looked forward to helping with the move-in and talking with students and their families.

The day was cloudy, and the sky threatened rain, but school had yet to start and a shiny eagerness and a positive energy permeated the campus.

“This is one of the few days of the year when everybody smiles,” Girod said.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

This year’s update on the Kansas Board of Regents strategic plan points to some difficult challenges that the state’s public colleges and universities face in the coming years.

First, the number of graduates is thousands short of what the regents say employers need each year. The number of certificates and degrees among public and private institutions actually declined by 1.2 percent between 2014 and 2018, and was 16 percent short of the regents’ goal.

I’ve written before about the shrinking pool of traditional students in coming years amid changing social norms. Full-time undergraduate enrollment nationwide peaked in 2010 and has been flat or declining since then. And as long as the economy remains stable, universities are likely to have trouble attracting older students. Since 2010, the number of Kansans between the ages of 25 and 64 who are taking classes at regents institutions has declined 20.4 percent. That decline is even steeper among those 35 and older.

Most certainly, the regents’ report highlights successes. For instance, the number of engineering graduates has already surpassed the regents’ goal for 2021. The regents president and chief executive, Blake Flanders, also writes that the state’s public colleges and universities have made transfer among institutions easier and that most bachelor’s degrees now require 120 hours of credit.

The primary goal of the strategic plan is to increase the number of post-secondary credentials among Kansans as a means to improve the state’s economy. This includes associate’s degrees and certificates in various technical fields. KU would have to increase its number of graduates 25% over the next two years to meet the regents’ goal. That’s a Sisyphean task, given recent trends.

KU has certainly made progress toward retaining students and helping them graduate. This has involved such things as transforming classes to make them student-centered, streamlining core classes, improving advising, making better use of data, adding freshman courses with fewer students, and adopting a host of other strategies.

The need for a clearer path for students

Disciplines within liberal arts and sciences have also worked at providing a clearer roadmap for students, often taking on some of the strategies of professional schools. Earlier this month, Paula Heron, a physics professor at the University of Washington, spoke to physics faculty at KU about the findings of a report called Phys21, which she helped write. That report urges physics departments to look more practically at the value of a physics degree.

Paula Heron spoke with instructors at a recent physics colloquium.

Physics, like so many disciplines, is set up primarily to move students toward graduate school and academic careers, Heron said. Most students, though, don’t want to stay in academia. Forty percent of physics students go directly into the workforce and 61% work in the private sector, she said. Among physics Ph.D.s, only 35% work in academia.

Heron urged faculty to “educate people in physics so they have a broader sense of the world.” Help students apply their skills to practical problems. Give them more practice in writing, speaking, researching, and working in teams. Help students and career counselors understand what physics graduates can do.

One of the biggest challenges is that most physics professors lack an understanding of the job market for their graduates. They have worked in academia most of their lives and don’t have connections to business and industry, making it hard for them to advise students on careers or to help them apply skills in ways that will prepare them for jobs.

The challenge in physics mirrors that of many other disciplines. Academic work tends to focus our attention deeper inside academia even as demographic, social and cultural trends require us to look outward. If we are to thrive in the future, we must shift our perceptions of what higher education is and can be. That means transforming courses in student-centered ways and rewarding research and creative work that informs our teaching and brings new ideas and new connections to the classroom. That doesn’t mean we must throw out everything and start over. Not at all. We must be flexible and open-minded about teaching and research, though. Ernest Boyer made a similar plea in 1990 in Scholarship Reconsidered, writing:

“Research and publication have become the primary means by which most professors achieve academic status, and yet many academics are, in fact, drawn to the profession precisely because of their love for teaching or for service – even for making the world a better place. Yet these professional obligations do not get the recognition they deserve, and what we have, on many campuses, is a climate that restricts creativity rather than sustains it.”

Much has changed in the nearly 30 years since Boyer’s seminal work. Unfortunately, universities continue to diminish the value of teaching and service and creativity even as their future depends on creative solutions to attracting and teaching undergraduates. We have ample evidence about what helps students learn, what helps them remain in college, and what helps them move toward graduation. What we lack is an institutional will to reward those who take on those tasks. Until we do, we will simply be pushing the enrollment boulder up a hill again and again.

More from the report

A few other things from the regents report stand out:

  • Only Fort Hays State met the regents’ goal for the number of graduates and certificate recipients in 2018, and it actually exceeded that goal by 3 percent. KU fell short by 14.3 percent, and K-State fell short by 10.7 percent. Community colleges and technical colleges were 11.9 percent short of the 2018 goal.
  • A third of students attending regents institutions received Pell Grants in the 2017-18 academic year, slightly above the national average. Between 2014 and 2018, though, the number of students receiving Pell grants declined by 7 percent at Kansas’ public universities.
  • Pell grants, which in 1998-99 covered 92 percent of the tuition for a student at a public university, now cover only 60 percent.
  • The number of Hispanic students continues to grow, with Hispanics now accounting for 11.1% of students at regents institutions, compared with 7.6% in 2010. Enrollment among blacks has been steady at 7.4% of the student population. That is up from 6.3% in 2010 but down from 8.1% in 2013.
  • Another metric the regents created, a Student Success Index, seems cause for concern. That index accounts for such things as retention and graduation rates among students who transferred to other institutions. Among all categories – state universities, municipal university, community colleges and technical colleges – students performed worse in 2017 than they did in 2010.

Does the U.S. have too many college graduates?

Here’s a view that runs counter to the Kansas regents’ argument that public universities need to increase the number of graduates. It comes from Richard Vedder, an emeritus professor at Ohio University, who argues in a Forbes article and a forthcoming book that universities are producing too many graduates. His claim: “We are over-invested in higher education.”

Vedder argues that colleges and universities face a triple crisis: The cost of college is too high; students are spending less and less time on academic work; and there is a disconnect between what universities teach and what employers want.

I agree with all of those things, though I disagree with the idea that we have too many college graduates. Vedder seems to approach education in strictly utilitarian terms, with graduates fitting like cogs in the machinery of capitalism. If all universities did was match course offerings to job requirements, they would deprive students of the broader skills they need to carve out meaningful careers and the broader ability to make innovative connections among seemingly disparate areas. They would also deprive the nation of citizens who can dissect complex problems and cut through the obfuscation that permeates our political system.

Briefly …

Enrollment challenges are hardly limited to the U.S. In the U.K., regulators say universities are overestimating the number of international students they expect to attract in the coming years, The Guardian reports. That is significant because the traditional-age student population is expected to decline in coming years in the U.K., and universities are looking overseas to attract students. … Research done by makers of educational products often greatly overestimates the effectiveness of those products, a Johns Hopkins University study warns. Product makers often create their own measurement standards, exclude students who fail to complete a protocol, or dismiss failures as “pilot studies,” according to The Hechinger Report. That leads to inflated results that the study calls the “developer effect.” In many cases, companies obscure the funding source of their studies.


Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

We can glean many lessons from the most recent college admissions scandal.

A system that purports to be merit-based really isn’t. Standardized testing can be gamed. A few elite universities hold enormous sway in the American imagination. Hard work matters less than the ability to write a big check. The wealthy will do anything to preserve the privilege of plutocracy.

We knew all that, though.

What struck me most about the admissions scandal was how blatantly transactional a college degree has become and how vulnerable universities have become to sacrificing their integrity to the promise of a bigger donation.

I’ve written before about how the product of education – a diploma, an overemphasis on sports, bucolic images of campuses, perceptions of privilege from association with a particular institution – have overshadowed the process of learning. The admissions scandal not only reinforces that idea of education as a product but makes it clear that to many, education is only a product.

Those of us who teach see that mentality all too often in our classes. An undergraduate once told me that I was diminishing her prospects because she had to work too hard to earn an A. She knew what she wanted to do, she said, and she would learn nothing from my class or the other classes she was required to take. A degree with a high GPA was the only important thing, she said. Another student quoted his father as saying that the only thing college was good for was to meet people who could help you later.

Those students represent extremes of what higher education has become. College costs loom so large that students choose majors based on how much money they can make rather than on what might fulfill them in career. State governments perpetuate this by channeling money to favored programs rather than to universities as a whole, emphasizing economic development over an informed citizenry. The federal government encourages it by favoring privately issued college loans over grants and highlighting graduates’ income in comparing college programs. And universities themselves perpetuate it by chasing the status of rankings and promoting prestige over the needs of student learners.

Universities must live within this transactional culture but they must not sacrifice their integrity. They must address student concerns about costs and careers and salaries. They must make classes more accessible and convenient to students (see below). They must find fairer ways than standardized tests to gauge student competency.

Above all, they must promote the process rather than the product of education. A college education is certainly about career preparation, and institutions must help guide anxious students toward meaningful careers. They must also remind students that education is about learning and discovery. It’s about challenging ideas and beliefs, about challenging the self. It’s about a wide range of values and intellectual challenges that must be lived and earned, not bought and sold.

If nothing else, the admissions scandal should push universities to take a hard look at themselves and ask what they value, how they are perceived, and how they can maintain their integrity. If they don’t, they risk becoming just a wall decoration in a tarnished gilded frame.

Experimenting with new models of higher education

MOOC-mania has largely subsided, but companies and non-profit organizations continue to experiment with models that allow students to take online courses at little or no cost and transfer the credits to traditional colleges and universities.

EducationNext writes about three of those entities – StraighterLine, Modern States, and Global Freshman Academy – which collectively have enrolled more than 500,000 students but have mostly had the same low completion rates as MOOCs.

For instance, Arizona State created Global Freshman Academy in 2015. That program allows students to take 14 online freshman-level courses for $600 each. Of 373,000 who have enrolled, only 1,750 have completed. Students who have enrolled in classes through StraighterLine and Modern States generally complete only a course or two.

Those are hardly stunning results, but they are nonetheless worth watching. Many students are already acquiring college credit through advanced placement exams and dual-enrollment courses, which are generally taught on college campuses. KU is also expanding the number of classes it offers through Lawrence Public Schools, with courses created by KU instructors but taught by high school teachers. Students will pay a lower rate for those courses.

The Edwards Campus has taken this even further, working with area high schools and community colleges so that students can earn a college degree in three years.

Take a trip on the K-10 bus between Lawrence and Johnson County Community College, and you will see substantial numbers of KU students traveling to classes at JCCC. Many others take online community college classes in the summer, not only because of the convenience but because of the lower cost. Some university classes incorporate MOOCs in their instruction, supplementing the online materials with in-class discussions and problem-solving.

The upshot of all this is that a college education is not always centered on a single institution. Most universities treat it that way, but students are increasingly considering cost and convienience. And as long as the cost of a college education pushes large numbers of students into debt and the demand for flexibility in scheduling and class format grows, there will be opportunities for outside organizations to step in with alternative approaches to higher education.

Perception and reality of university budgets

Those of us in higher education know all too well that states have slashed funding for colleges and universities over the last 10 years.

Yes, “slashed” is the right work. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that states’ spending on higher education is $9 billion lower today than it was in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

That message apparently hasn’t gotten through to the American public, though.

According to a poll conducted by APM Research Lab and the Hechinger Report, 34% of Americans think funding for higher education has stayed the same over the last 10 years, and 27 percent think it has increased. (We wish.) Only 29 percent realize that funding has actually declined.

More people realize that government-financed grants and loans have not kept up with tuition increases. In the APM-Hechinger poll, 44 percent said they knew that. Disturbingly, though, about the same percentage said they thought that government aid had either increased or stayed the same.

The poll showed some interesting disparities among various groups. I won’t go into those other than to say that Easterners seem better informed than Westerners and Democrats better informed than Republicans. The abysmal overall understanding, though, should send a clear message to those of us who work in higher education: We need to do a better job of communicating with the public.

Briefly …

EdSurge asks an intriguing question – Is creativity a skill? – and then seeks answers from the perspective of various professions. … The University of Missouri plans to add five new undergraduate degrees and four new graduate degrees as part of its plan to increase enrollment by 25,000 students by 2023, The Missourian reports. … From the this sounds familiar department, a committee in the Missouri House of Representatives is considering a bill that would allow concealed carry of firearms on public university campuses. … Moody’s has issued a new warning about the finances of universities as enrollment flattens or declines, Education Dive reports. … Speaking of finances, Blackboard has agreed to sell one of its businesses and plans to move its headquarters outside Washington, D.C., as part of an effort to reduce its substantial debt, an analyst writes in e-Literate. …


Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Faculty members seem ready for a more substantive approach to evaluating teaching, but …

It’s that “but” that about 30 faculty members from four research universities focused on at a mini-conference here this week. All are part of a project called TEval, which is working to develop a richer model of teaching evaluation by helping departments change their teaching culture. The project, funded by a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant, involves faculty members from KU, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Michigan State.

Rob Ward, Tracey LaPierre and Chris Fischer discuss strategies during a meeting of TEval, an NSF-grant-funded project for changing the way teaching is evaluated. They joined colleagues from three other universities for meetings this week in Charlotte, N.C.

The evaluation of teaching has long centered on student surveys, which are fraught with biases and emphasize the performance aspects of teaching over student learning. Their ease of administration and ability to produce a number that can be compared to a department average have made them popular with university administrators and instructors alike. Those numbers certainly offer a tidy package that is delivered semester to semester with little or no time required of the instructor. And though the student voice needs to be a part of the evaluation process, only 50 to 60 percent of KU students complete the surveys. More importantly, the surveys fail to capture the intellectual work and complexity involved in high-quality teaching, something that more and more universities have begun to recognize

The TEval project is working with partner departments to revamp that entrenched process. Doing so, though, requires additional time, work and thought. It requires instructors to document the important elements of their teaching – elements that have often been taken for granted — to reflect on that work in meaningful ways, and to produce a plan for improvement. It requires evaluation committees to invest time in learning about instructors, courses and curricula, and to work through portfolios rather than reducing teaching to a single number and a single class visit, a process that tends to clump everyone together into a meaningless above-average heap.

That’s the where the “but …” comes into play. Teaching has long been a second-class citizen in the rewards system of research universities, leading many instructors and administrators to chafe at the idea of spending more time documenting and evaluating teaching. As with so many aspects of university life, though, real change can come about only if we are willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen.

None of this is easy. At all the campuses involved in the TEval project, though, instructors and department leaders have agreed to make the time. The goal is to refine the evaluation process, share trials and experiences, create a palette of best practices, and find pathways that others can follow.

At the meeting here in Charlotte, participants talked about the many challenges that lie ahead:

  • University policies that fail to reward teaching, innovation, or efforts to change culture.
  • An evaluation system based on volume: number of students taught, numbers on student surveys, number of teaching awards.
  • Recalcitrant faculty who resist changing a system that has long rewarded selfishness and who show no interest in reframing teaching as a shared endeavor.
  • Administrators who refuse to give faculty the time they need to engage in a more effective evaluation system.
  • Tension between treating evaluations as formative (a means of improving teaching) and evaluative (a means of determining merit raises and promotions).
  • Agreeing on what constitutes evidence of high-quality teaching.

Finding ways to move forward

By the end of the meeting, though, a hopeful spirit seemed to emerge as cross-campus conversations led to ideas for moving the process forward:

  • Tapping into the desire that most faculty have for seeing their students succeed.
  • Working with small groups to build momentum in many departments.
  • Creating a flexible system that can apply to many circumstances and can accommodate many types of evidence. This is especially important amid rapidly changing demands on and expectations for colleges and universities.
  • Helping faculty members demonstrate the success of evidence-based practices even when students resist.
  • Allowing truly innovative and highly effective instructors to stand out and allowing departments to focus on the types of skills they need instructors to have in different types of classes.
  • Allowing instructors, departments and universities to tell a richer, more compelling story about the value of teaching and learning.

Those involved were realistic, though. They recognized that they have much work ahead as they make small changes they hope will lead to more significant cultural changes. They recognized the value of a network of colleagues willing to share ideas, to offer support and resources, and to share the burden of a daunting task. And they recognized that they are on the forefront of a long-needed revolution in the way teaching is evaluated and valued at research universities.

If we truly value good teaching, it must be rewarded in the same way that research is rewarded. That would go a long way toward the project’s ultimate goal: a university system in which innovative instructors create rich environments where all their students can learn. It’s a goal well worth fighting for, even if the most prevalent response is “but …”

A note about the project

At KU, the project for creating a richer system for evaluating teaching is known as Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness. Nine departments are now involved in the project: African and African-American Studies; Biology; Chemical and Petroleum Engineering; French, Francophone and Italian; Linguistics; Philosophy; Physics; Public Affairs and Administration; and Sociology. Representatives from those departments who attended the Charlotte meeting were Chris Fischer, Bruce Hayes, Tracey LaPierre, Ward Lyles, and Rob Ward. The leaders of the KU project, Andrea Greenhoot, Meagan Patterson and Doug Ward, also attended.

Briefly …

Tom Deans, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, challenges faculty to reduce the length of their syllabuses, saying that “the typical syllabus has now become a too-long list of policies, learning outcomes, grading formulas, defensive maneuvers, recommendations, cautions, and referrals.” He says a syllabus should be no more than two pages. … British universities are receiving record numbers of applications from students from China and Hong Kong, The Guardian reports. In the U.S., applications from Chinese students have held steady, but fewer international students are applying to U.S. universities, the Council of Graduate Studies reports. … As the popularity of computer science has grown, students at many universities are having trouble getting the classes they need, The New York Times reports.


Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Education has always been a balancing act. In our classes, we constantly choose what concepts to emphasize, what content to cover, what ideas to discuss, and what skills to practice. As I wrote last week, the choices we make will influence our students throughout their careers.

Higher education is now facing a different kind of balancing act, though, one that involves not just what we teach and who we are but what college is and should be about and how it fits into the broader fabric of society. The recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities made clear just how tenuous a grasp higher education has on credibility and how broad the gap is between internal and external perceptions of colleges and universities.

Consider this from Brandon Busteed, a former Gallup executive who is now president of Kaplan University Partners:

“If you were to take the most brilliant marketing minds in the world, put them in a room for a day, lock them in there and say, please emerge with words that would be the worst possible combination to use in attracting students to higher education, they would emerge with one combination called ‘liberal arts.’ ”

Ouch!

To explain that, he referred to a study of high-performing, low-income students at Stanford. When asked what they thought of liberal arts, they most commonly replied: “What’s that?” Or “I’m not liberal.” Or “I’m not good at or interested in art.”

Lest those of you in professional programs start to feel smug, read on.

The negative connotations of ‘college’

In Gallup polling, Busteed said, Americans express confidence in “higher education” and “post-secondary education.” They see those things as important to the future. When asked about “college” or “university,” though, the warm feelings suddenly chill.

“Why?” Busteed asked. “When we say ‘college,’ we think about traditional-age students. We think about a residential experience. We think about Animal House movies.”

In other words, Americans see a need for education to prepare them for jobs and careers. Increasingly, though, the typical student who needs additional education looks nothing like Flounder, Babs or Bluto and wants nothing to do with a system they see as driven by liberal ideology and populated by drunken misfits more interested in toga parties than in preparing for the future.

“The words are holding us back,” Busteed said.

A new study from the Pew Research Center reinforces that. According to Pew, Democrats rank improving education as the second most important priority for the president and Congress, trailing only reducing health-care costs. Republicans, on the other hand, see defending against terrorist attacks, fixing social security and dealing with immigration as far more important than education or health care.

Another divide shows up in the Pew survey, with about three-quarters of women and those between 18 and 49 years old saying that improving education should be the top priority. Men and older Americans see education as a less pressing issue. The Pew poll doesn’t distinguish K-12 from higher education, but it does point to the complicated relationship Americans have with education of all sorts today. And the way educators see education and the way the public sees education are vastly different.

“Talk of higher education as a public good, of investing in societal education, has been replaced by talk of return on investment: tuition in exchange for jobs,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U said during the organization’s annual meeting. She added: “The fact that Americans believe more in higher education than in colleges and universities is a clear indication that the way we talk about what we do in academia shapes public perception.”

Employers’ conflicted feelings

That perception applies not only to the public whose voices carry weight in state and federal funding of education but to the businesses and organizations that hire college graduates.

survey AAC&U conducted last year found that only 63% of business executives and hiring managers have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in colleges and universities. That’s higher than the 45% of the public who express confidence in colleges and universities. And if you ask those same business leaders whether college is worth the time and expense, 85% to 88% say yes, according to the AAC&U survey.

The responses indicate a clear ambivalence about higher education, though. Nearly all of the business leaders say they are asking employees to take on more responsibilities and more complex tasks than in the past. Nearly all of them say they are looking for prospective employees who think critically and communicate clearly, possess intellectual and interpersonal skills that will lead to innovative thinking, and have an ability to use a broader range of skills than workers in past years did. Many of them just aren’t convinced that college is preparing students for that.

Many academics will scoff at the focus on business leaders. A university education isn’t the same as job training, they say. It isn’t about tailoring classes to meet the specific demands of the business world and molding students into corporate clones.

I agree. And yet as the cost of college has risen precipitously, students increasingly want assurances that their degrees will lead to good jobs. We can – and should – talk about how our degrees will make students into better people and better citizens, about how our courses prepare students to face the unpredictable challenges of the future. Students want that, too. Above all, though, they want to be able to pay off their loans once they graduate. As Busteed told the AAC&U gathering, today’s students, as “consumers of higher education,” want more efficient and less expensive paths through college, and they want their coursework aligned with the jobs they will take upon graduation.

So we are back to the balancing act that those of us inside colleges and universities face. We want our students to leave with disciplinary knowledge but must help them understand how our disciplines lead to careers. We fret over week-to-week understanding of course material even though much of it is very likely to be obsolete within a few years. We try to teach in a reasoned, meaningful, inclusive way even as a partisan, skeptical public questions our epistemological foundations. We carry the burden of a name – college or university – that has lost its cachet even as a wary and reluctant public continues to see a need for what we do.

What’s the point of a major?

A colleague at AAC&U pointed to an enormous paradox in teaching and learning today. As students flood into what they see as “safe” majors of business and engineering, the liberal arts and sciences have donned the mantle of job skills. English isn’t just about literature and poetry; it’s about the communication skills that employers prize. History isn’t just about an understanding of the past; it’s about critical thinking skills that will get you a job. Political science isn’t just about the machinations of government; it’s about learning to work in groups so you can thrive in a career.

All of those things are true, but as my colleague reminded me, students don’t choose a major because they think it will make them better at group work, improve their critical analysis, or allow them to make better decisions independently. They choose a major because they are passionate about literature or linguistics or biology or politics or French or journalism or (name the major).

So more than ever, we educators must approach our work in multiple layers. We must balance disciplinary depth with broad-scale career skills, short-term understanding with long-term viability. We must learn to explain our majors more meaningfully and our roles as academics more thoughtfully. We must help our students explore the many facets of our majors while helping them connect to the ideas and philosophies of other majors. We must guide students through the details of disciplinary competency while recognizing that only the broader skills and experiences – what the media historian Claude Cookman calls the “residue” of education – generally sticks with students over the years.

Higher education has always been about exploration and understanding. As those of us who make up higher education balance the many demands pressing down on us today, though, we must undertake a broader exploration of just who we are because, increasingly, those on the outside don’t know.


Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Those of us in higher education like to think of ourselves as preparing students for the future.

That’s a lofty goal with a heavy burden. Predicting the future is a fool’s game, and yet as educators we have accepted that responsibility by offering degrees that we tell our students will have relevance for years to come.

In our courses and with our colleagues, we simply don’t talk nearly enough about how we foresee the future and what role our disciplines will play. We have a responsibility to ask ourselves difficult questions: What skills will our students need not just next year, but in the next decade and the 40 or 50 years after that? What can we do to prepare students for a future we can’t possibly predict?

Michael Murray writes on a white board as other professors talk in the background
Michael Murray, professor of physics, summarizes notes from a group discussion during a STEM sexual harassment prevention workshop. The workshop, held earlier this month, was sponsored by the Center for STEM Learning and led by Blair Schneider of KU and Meredith Hastings of Brown.

The core curriculum is certainly part of the answer, emphasizing such broad skills as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, communication, ethics, creativity, and synthesis. Those show up frequently in the lists of skills for the future issued by various organizations and industries. Other skills I’ve seen listed recently on those lists include agility, resilience, flexibility, entrepreneurism, technological know-how, relationship building, systems thinking, global awareness, online collaboration, emotional intelligence, and an ability to spot trends. Groupings of those are sometimes referred to as “power skills.”

You can find many others. Most likely you have your own. Or you may prefer to think about higher education in broader terms, much as Bernard Bull, assistant vice president for academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, wrote about recently:

“The essence of a great college experience is not a college degree. It is a rich, engaging, empowering, enlightening and transformative learning experience. It is the experience of a network that may well extend through one’s lifetime. It is the experience of being immersed in a culture of curiosity and a love of learning. It is a place where you are stretched, challenged, inspired, and pushed to discover meaning and purpose in your life and the world around you.”

Most certainly, college helps students learn about themselves, their peers and society, develop independence and responsibility, and gain enough disciplinary understanding to apply skills in a meaningful (if often rudimentary) way. There’s a danger in being too general, though, because those generalizations make academia an easy target for critics, who like to paint higher education as out of touch and irrelevant. In that view, all a person needs is hard work, ingenuity and grit, not a college degree. Drawing on those inner skills is not only practical but much, much cheaper.

A variation on that theme posits that college students are ill-prepared for the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of tomorrow. You don’t have to look far to find scathing portrayals of universities as mindless playgrounds in which students dally for four (or five or six) years and emerge mired in debt and no more prepared to face the world than when they started college.

Both of those portrayals hold grains of truth, but they also view education through the lens of neo-liberal utilitarianism. In that view, the only valuable skill is one that leads to monetary gain and the only valuable graduates are those that fit like cogs into predetermined slots of corporate machinery. A degree, in that view, is all about the money. The federal government has backed that perspective by promoting comparisons of graduates’ salaries vs. cost of degree, and universities have perpetuated it themselves as they have whittled away at the liberal arts, raised tuition to levels that stretch ordinary families to the limit, and run themselves like corporations rather than nonprofits that serve the public good. States and the federal government have forced universities to adopt that way of thinking as they have slashed spending on higher education and turned student loans into a guaranteed profit center for private lenders.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

It’s the beginning of the semester, though. Students and instructors have a chance to start anew. We can’t solve all the problems of higher education in a single semester, no more than we can teach students all the skills they need in a single class. We can and must keep the broader picture in mind, though, as we lead students into a new exploration of disciplinary challenges, societal problems, and academic inquiries. As we do, though, we must remember that knowledge is useless without an ability to apply it, and that skills have limited currency without an ability to refresh, revise and remake them.

So as you begin the semester, consider this: What are you doing to prepare your students for the future? And how will they know they are on the right track?

Worth considering …

“I think it is important for parents to be situated in the context of the digital revolution through which we are living. It was only 11 years ago that the iPhone was introduced, and faster download speeds, and it has transformed almost all of American community life. Inevitably, for good or for ill, it’s going to transform where education heads.”

—Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, speaking at the ExcelinEd conference

Briefly …

The Midwest is producing an increasingly larger share of graduates in technology-related fields, the website OZY reports. Twenty-five percent of computer science graduates now come from the Midwest, OZY writes, saying that “tomorrow’s innovators may never set foot in Silicon Valley.”  … The Atlantic looks at the struggle that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point faces in maintaining liberal arts programs amid budget cuts and a declining number of majors. … Providing students more direction and community could help reverse declining enrollments in history programs, Jason Steinhauer of Villanova argues in a Time column. … Politico writes about how free college, an idea usually associated with liberal politics, has been enthusiastically embraced in conservative Tennessee.


Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.