guest commentary Donald R. Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, and Ben Beaumont
Editor's note: This is the final piece in a three-month long series on various funding aspects of Arkansas’ higher education system. See the list of related stories at the bottom of this page for more stories on the topic.
American higher education is at a crossroads. Federal and state funding cuts, rising student loan debt, an increased demand for graduates and competition from for-profit online institutions are challenging the centuries-old model of public higher education in our country.
To survive and thrive, colleges and universities will need to consider new funding, delivery and business models that can provide a quality education for more students while maintaining a cost-structure that is affordable for all. The details of this new model are varied and complex, but the overarching answer is simple: we must embrace the use of technology in education and harness it in order to serve the needs of our students and society at large.
Here in Arkansas we are not immune to these pressures facing higher education across the country, but we are fortunate to have a leader in Gov. Mike Beebe who recognizes the importance of higher education to the future of our state. To compete in the 21st Century economy, he has set a goal to double the number of Arkansans with higher education degrees by 2025. To get there, we have to find ways to successfully educate more students with existing resources. Clearly, accomplishing this will take an innovative approach.
The financial pressures facing higher education have stretched many colleges and universities to their limit. In today’s economy where state governments are struggling to fund other important societal needs, public higher education is receiving fewer state dollars while also managing large enrollment increases. These competing forces have shifted the higher education cost burden from the state to students and families in the form of steady tuition increases.
Thanks to the prudent leadership of Gov. Beebe and the General Assembly, Arkansas colleges and universities have fared well compared to other states. Through the economic recession and slow recovery, Arkansas higher education has seen its share of state funding remain relatively constant even while the number of students being served increased substantially. While we have managed to keep tuition increases modest in this complex environment, it’s clear that we have to do more to maintain broad access and affordability or some students will be priced out of the higher education experience.
Meanwhile, competition from for-profit, online companies is also threatening traditional higher education. For-profit companies now account for almost 15 percent of all higher education enrollments in our country. Unfortunately, the students who attend such institutions are also responsible for 50 percent of student loan defaults. Earning a degree from a for-profit institution can cost four to five times as much as attending a public university or community college. While the quality of the education provided by these institutions continues to be debated, they have succeeded in providing access to place-bound students who are unable to attend traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions because of a number of factors including family obligations and job responsibilities.
In light of this, many colleges and universities recognize they can and must do a better job of utilizing technology to provide these place-bound students with access to the quality education they deserve. Leading universities like Stanford, Harvard and MIT have begun experimenting with free MOOC (massive on-line open courseware) classes – An Intro to Robotics class offered by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun attracted more than 160,000 students!
In the UA System, our two- and four-year schools are also offering a number of courses and degrees online. Three of our two-year colleges including the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope and Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas collaborate to deliver an Associate of Arts degree online.
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith allows students with the AA degree to complete their Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership online without leaving their community. Other UA institutions are quickly expanding their catalogue of online courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
While critics of the online education movement have legitimate questions about quality and accountability in a virtual world, there are many advantages that a well-designed digital program can provide to both students and faculty. In fact, the online environment can allow for more, not less, interaction between students and teachers.
When I became president of the UA System in November 2011, I quickly saw that while we have a good foundation of online offerings, we can and should do more to embrace this technological innovation. There will always be a large demand for the traditional college experience from those who matriculate directly from high school, however the growing demographic of nontraditional students will continue to want a flexible, cost-effective education that can be provided in the online format.
From rethinking the traditional academic calendar to considering a learn-at-your-own-pace approach to course scheduling, we need to take a strategic and deliberate approach to determine how we can best meet the needs of these students. With our outstanding faculty across the UA System, I am certain that we can provide an exceptional educational experience and help move our state towards Gov. Beebe’s goal of doubling the number of Arkansans with degrees.
The challenges of funding and access are indeed significant but I remain optimistic about the future. For more than two centuries, our colleges and universities have provided the opportunity for social mobility through education. Technology has given us the tools to take this opportunity even further.
Through innovation, we can provide more students with access to, and success in achieving a college education. In doing so, we can ensure the viability of public higher education in our state and country for years to come.