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Colleges, universities seek to explore ways to serve economic development needs

(Editor's NoteThis is the first of two articles exploring the challenges faced by higher education in coming to grips with the role of four-year colleges and universities in serving the economic development needs of their regions and states.)


As institutions of higher education come to terms with the expectation that they should adopt a mission to serve the economic development needs of their regions, some in academia may recall wistfully Thomas Jefferson's view that "education, as a lifelong encounter with the delights of the mind, is an end in itself."


But a growing number of leaders in higher education might view a different Jeffersonian observation as more appropriate today: "Education is a highly legitimate claimant on public treasuries."


The point of the latter quote, in the view of many within the higher ed system and in other segments of society, is that institutions of higher education provide economic value and should receive financial support accordingly.


The issue was brought to the fore in this state in recent days with a report to the board of regents of the University of Washington by the Washington Future Committee, headed by former regent William Gates Sr., which suggested UW could do more despite its obvious and significant economic impact.


The group of business and civic leaders Gates chaired urged UW to increase the number of in-state students, keep tuition affordable and increase the number of STEM degrees and do a better job of telling its story to key stakeholders.


But well before the Gates report, Initiatives have been under way across the country to explore what role colleges and universities should play, and, how, in helping grow the economies of their states.


UW President Michael Young and the regents will now have to digest the report and weigh its relevance to how the state's major research university charts its future.


Nowhere is the process of higher ed's role in economic development being scrutinized more than in North Carolina. There a process is under way that has each of the state's college and universities being asked to define their mission and answer how the mission is serving the needs of the state today.


"It's basically a hard look at what the state needs to meet its education and economic needs," says Sam Smith, the WSU president emeritus, who has been hired as a consultant to help the North Carolina process.


"They got me involved to see how they are using modern technology and online education to meet the needs of the state," explained Smith, who as WSU president from 1985 to 2000, launched WSU's three branch campuses and helped the launch of Western Governors University as an online accredited university. Still a member of WGU board of trustees, Smith guided the launch of WGU-Washington in early 2011.


Smith says he is currently advising colleges in a handful of states as part of his role with a Sacramento-based higher-education consulting organization called Collaborative Brain Trust, one of whose focuses is consulting for colleges and universities in dealing with the challenges of change they face.


"It's as simple as if institutions are doing a better job of meeting the needs of students, they'll get more students and more pay for what they are doing," Smith said.


Smith notes there's a challenge for colleges and universities facing increasing budget pressures and for businesses seeking the educated work force necessary to grow and compete and both challenges need to be addressed by those who would have higher education serve economic development needs of their states.


Those who help chart the changes higher education needs to make have to understand that "there's little incentive, from strictly a business point of view, for universities to increase the number of students and there's no reward for them to increase the percentage of graduates or to decrease the time it takes to get a degree," Smith said. "And there's little incentive for a university to see to attract middle-income students since those are the student least likely to be able to afford college."


And he pointed out that "many businesses don't feel there's a lack of educated people for them to hire because they are hiring students from other states. In essence those businesses think it's easier and less expensive to have a system where they hire those educated elsewhere.


"Higher education institutions who hope to become a more essential part of producing the state workforce of the future need to convince those businesses we're talking about that in-state schools can better tailor their programs to fit the changing and emerging needs of the state's economy," Smith added.

Smith lauded the University of Washington Medical School for the partnering arrangements it has developed.





Smith suggests that the fastest-growing segment of "the new model" for public universities will be what is referred to as the 2-4, meaning four-year institutions partnering with community colleges, which already have built a reputation of working with businesses to determine their workforce needs.


"One of the first things I do when I go into state to examine how things are working is to look at the primary medical school to see if it is a silo or is working with others," he said. "If the medical school is a silo, it tells me that the university isn't involved with others and isn't interested in changing."


(Next: Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, brought with him when he arrived here in May of 2007 from Missouri a conviction that economic contribution should be a key measure of how well an institution of higher education is fulfilling its mission.



And James Gaudino, who became Central Washington University president in 2009, spent 15 years looking at higher education from the outside as executive director of National Communication Association. He says "It would be irresponsible for a public institution to ignore the higher-education need" of its state or region. They share their thoughts on the next Flynn's Harp.)

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WSU's long-time role in distance learning paves way to top ranking for online MBA

To those who have watched the leading role Washington State University has played in distance education for nearly a quarter century, word that WSU's online MBA programs have been ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report will seem like appropriate recognition.


But the honor isn't viewed by College of Business Dean Eric Spangenberg, or WSU President Elson Floyd, as the culmination of a chase for rankings. Rather, as Floyd put it, "Our goals are to increase access, improve quality and push the envelope of educational innovation. We have and will continue to experiment with the most promising approaches to digital instruction for connecting students to WSU."

Dean Eric Spangenberg


Indeed the success of Spangenberg and his team in being chosen as at the forefront of online MBA programs nationally is far beyond the early distance learning WSU established when a microwave-tower relay system brought higher ed to new branch campuses in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities.


But the early '90s commitment to distance learning that had WSU staff sometimes out in snow storms straightening up


the towers so the offerings of faculty on the Pullman mother campus could reach students at the new campuses was no less vital than the initiatives evident today.


In the view of Sam Smith, who as WSU president at the time oversaw launch of the branch campuses and was the key college president involved in development in the late '90s of Western Governors University (WGU), the WSU honor is a key indicator of this state's leadership in on-line education.


Smith was instrumental in getting legislative approval two years ago for the launch of WGU-Washington to provide online baccalaureate degrees. And he suggests:"Watch our state's two-year colleges because they are on the forefront of one of the next real stages of this evolution."


"It has long been predicted that America' system of higher education must evolve new and more creative models of institutions to meet the needs of our students and our country," Smith said. "The state of Washington, with WSU's leadership, is doing just that and if you combine it with the online, competency based WGU-Washington, we are truly leading this evolution.".


Janis Machala, long involved in coaching entrepreneurs and now guiding online programs at Bellevue College, picks up on Smith's comments by noting she "fell in love with the role of the community colleges" because of their ability "to be more flexible and entrepreneurial in meeting employer needs and because of the focus on employable job skills versus theoretical education."


While there's more than a little challenge to bringing those getting their degrees and MBAs online into the normal university experience, the social media evolution is enhancing the opportunity to do that, says Cheryl Oliver, director of graduate business programs at WSU.


Oliver, whom Spangenberg credits with being the person largely responsible for putting the WSU MBA programs in place, says "We don't want to just be pushing information out. These online students are WSU students, Cougars, and it's important for us to find ways to engage them so they have the same circle of experiences as other students, trying to make sure we are using best practices to keep them engaged."


"I think one of the biggest challenges we have had in entering the online arena is a public misunderstanding," Oliver noted. "People tend to believe that going online means boxing up a brick and mortar program and trying to replicate a traditional classroom online. While we do offer the same core material (course topics, etc...) online education is a class unto itself."


Spangenberg, who praises Floyd for being "instrumental in encouraging us to pursue excellence in this learning space" and for "allowing us to pursue our own destiny" in this online development, views online offerings as a global opportunity.


"Online programs are the most effective and efficient mechanism by which we can positively influence communities around the globe," he says."While the education of many communities is prohibitively expensive on both sides of the equation for face-to-face programs, they are readily and economically reachable through online access."




Smith, the emeritus president of WSU, carries a lifetime conviction about the importance of higher education's broad accessibility.


As a youngster, Smith was a crop picker in the fields of the Salinas Valley until an academic scholarship to University of California-Berkeley proved to be his ticket to higher education, a career in academia and eventually to a college presidency. He maintains a strong belief that "our higher education system must evolve and once again be accessible to the average person," an accessibility he calls "the key to our country's future."






  (Editor's Note: I have been a member of the national advisory board of the WSU College of Business for nine years)
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