In the United States, a significant number of undergraduates continue their education to obtain graduate degrees. Of the 1.8 million undergraduates in 2014, 750,000 pursued and earned master’s degrees and over 50,000 earned PhDs (not including professional doctorates such as MD, JD and DVM). As a barometer, 42% of the bachelor’s degree holders went on to post-graduate work.

Responsive universities diligently seek to provide pathways into graduate study at their own university or another institution. At West Texas A&M University, a series of “pipeline” programs smooth the way for the increasing number of undergraduates who want to pursue graduate studies. In the past year, eleven agreements have been established between WT and various Texas A&M University (TAMU) colleges and schools. These include the Bush School of Government and Public Service; the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Architecture, Engineering, Geosciences, Liberal Arts, Medicine, Science, and Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; the Mays Business School, and the School of Public Health.

Students are often discouraged from receiving degrees at multiple levels – bachelors, masters, doctorate- from the same institution. The genesis behind this predisposition is that different learning cultures at different universities in different locations provide a richer blend of experiences and opportunities. In some cases, structural relationships — being part of a large system of higher education, for example — provide powerful opportunities. In the case of West Texas A&M University, a member of The Texas A&M University System, the potential relationships to Texas A&M University afford a smooth pathway. First, access to an internationally recognized research university with a wide range of study options and a deep pool of expertise is an asset to WT. Second, pipelines afford TAMU to receive some of the best and brightest bachelor’s graduates from the Texas Panhandle. Third, forward-looking undergraduates have a connect-the-dots course of action leading to one of the premiere universities in the nation.

The plan is already at work. Last year, nine WT undergraduate students enrolled in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program at TAMU. This pipeline made WT the second largest provider of undergraduates in the DVM program at TAMU, second only to TAMU undergraduates in the entering class of the DVM program. The University of Texas, Texas Tech and Rice University– all certainly excellent institutions — trail WT. This pipeline creates opportunity and access to one of the best DVM programs in the nation, in areas of study and practice related to Panhandle needs, for the best students from the Texas Panhandle.

The pipeline to the TAMU College of Engineering currently has a handful of WT graduates in the PhD program. Annually, up to five WT graduates will be admitted into the College of Engineering PhD programs. On an individual basis, candidates for this program will receive financial support through assistantships, fellowships and other venues. These institutional relationships and reciprocal benefits create a smooth pathway for graduate study.

WT is also focusing on students who started study at WT or at one of our affiliated community colleges. Graduates will have the opportunity to complete graduate and professional studies at one of the best universities in our nation. In turn, the goal is for these students to return to the Panhandle with insight and knowledge that creates economic development opportunity at home.

One might ask, “Wouldn’t the same students be admitted to Texas A&M University if they were qualified and applied?” In all likelihood, yes, but the pipeline establishes communication that supports a connection, movement and a positive relationship.

Associations such as these between universities help students create a clear vision for their academic path. They also help universities expand their service to the community, region, state and nation and emphasize the creative qualities available to local students first. Additionally, the cost for undergraduate study is lower at regional universities, such as WT.

One might ask, “What about the excellent graduate programs that exist at WT?” Graduate programs at WT appropriately focus on the needs of the Panhandle region and our ability to provide first-rate educational experience with high employment potential at low costs — even online programs, and there are many.  Adherence to our mission, particularly in a state where duplication and cost inefficiencies are frowned upon by a rational state government, is essential.

Pipelines provide opportunity and cost effectiveness. In addition, they strengthen both institutions and the service those institutions provide to their respective constituencies.  The results of these pipeline programs will provide opportunities for WT to recruit the best freshman regionally and offer faculty interactions that generate quality educational experiences. In addition, appreciation for the Texas Panhandle as a region that nurtures the diligent, hardworking, practically minded, yet intellectually assertive students would be widely broadcast.

West Texas is a hothouse for values that contribute to a person’s willingness to strive for and benefit from exercised personal responsibility, and these pathway programs provide the prospect of demonstrating those values.

Online or On-Campus?

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Every high school and college student, every working professional engaged in continuing education and every educational leader and faculty member will address this question every day: “What is the correct mix of face-to-face and online instruction?”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, of the 20.25 million students enrolled in universities nearly 3 million enrolled only in online courses. Nearly 400,000 studied exclusively through online institutions. Over 2.5 million students subscribed to distance education courses at traditional universities. Overall, two of three college students are currently studying in a hybrid environment with some courses on-campus and some courses online or a blended delivery of both types of courses. The trend is apparent. Institutions offering both online and on-campus instruction more effectively meet student needs.

In the next decade, graduates of universities who need continuing education courses for maintenance of professional licensure will increasingly gain experiences in an online environment. Beyond licensure, being “current” often requires a steady stream of knowledge and insight.  Universities should encourage hybridization of study if only to prepare students for lifelong learning.

Teaching and learning in a digital environment differs from face-to-face settings. Online learning is similar to a wind tunnel; it allows controlled experimentation in a special setting to produce new ideas at a lower cost. Thoughtful faculty and leaders recognize the value of good teaching in both settings.  The foundation for excellence in teaching – passion for students – does not change. A number of online programs at West Texas A&M University consistently gain recognition for teaching excellence and quality. Commitment by all and insistence on equivalent qualifications for faculty members teaching the same degree programs online and on-campus is the coin of the realm. Effective teaching in any setting is independent of delivery mode, founded on ability, knowledge and passion.

The number of students enrolled exclusively at online institutions is decreasing while the number enrolled in online courses at state supported institutions is growing. Some private institutions with large online enrollments are seeing enrollment loss. The causes of enrollment fluctuation are difficult to articulate, but Adam Smith’s free market economy is at work in domains of educational delivery just as surely as it is anywhere.  Furthermore and simply stated, student perception of real quality is the most important measuring stick that determines growth or decline. Students do not vote only with footprints, but with keyboard clicks. Quality affirms market eventually, albeit at different rates of speed.

The costs for online and on-campus instruction vary by institution and major.  Arizona State University has significant enrollments in both venues and charges different rates for each. Others, such as Auburn and West Texas A&M University, charge equivalent rates. Institutions and costs for various degree programs must be closely compared—side-by-side, service-to-service, benefit-to-benefit, apples-to-apples. Buyer beware.

Academic leaders overwhelmingly report the importance of online learning to their institutions, according to a Babson Research Group study. As student demographics change with nontraditional students who work, raise families, study and actively engage educational opportunity the force of hybrid programs will increase.

Some claim digitally supported learning is creeping down into elementary schools, but more likely, it is creeping up from elementary schools into universities. Nancy Blair expresses this clearly in a National Association of Elementary School Principals article. Kindergartners use iPads and other digital technology without differentiating its impact from a face-to-face encounter. Nearly impossible for me. Technology fascinates, even mesmerizes me, but not kids.  Cybernetic conjuring charms neither the coming or current college cohort.  The best students engage the knowledge and insight they glean through their courses in spite of the delivery mode, not because of it.

Digitally delivered instruction does not relieve faculty from excellent teaching or students from fully engaged learning. Students needing support in traditional settings will likewise need support in digitally delivered instruction. Focus, determination, goal setting and commitment to excellence are all part of the teaching/learning environment no matter the delivery method. Hybridization can lead to learning responsiveness focusing on learning needs for both faculty and students:  processes do not absolve anyone from anything.

A recent Deloitte study summarizes the challenges of online versus on-campus learning. It suggests continuous study is essential for ongoing access to insights and ideas because of the dramatically changing nature of careers. Hybrid delivery provides real learning experience in different settings and areas of study for different people. Deloitte suggests the average career length is 65 years, the average job tenure is 4.5 years and the half-life of a learned skill is 5 years. This reinforces the importance of educated people sustaining the ability to “learn to learn.” Traditionally, this meant having aspirations and being inquisitive, curious and self-aware. The question of face-to-face or digital is trivial. A good education creates hunger and a means of satisfying it.

Online or on-campus?  Sorry.  Wrong question.

Student Debt:  Hard-Nosed Suggestions for Students

Student debt for college is a twisted labyrinth of complexities. Clarity is hard to find. In 2015, two of three student loan balances were less than $25,000. That sounds bearable. The chillingly high debt loads of $100,000 occur in only 5% of the cases, but that is no consolation if you are one of 20 college graduates deep in debt with no job. What follows are a number of hard-nosed suggestions.

First, if you have to borrow money to attend the first two years of a university, do not attend a university. Go to a community college; however, if your goal is to obtain a bachelor’s degree, make sure the community college courses transfer to your major. Better yet, take applicable dual-credit courses in high school. Frequently they are free. No matter your life circumstances, don’t borrow to attend a community college. Instead, work while you study. Eat ramen noodles and bologna. If someone tells you it’s okay to borrow a few thousand dollars a semester to attend a university, ask them if they will cosign the note. They likely will not. Or, if necessary, work first and study later when you can pay the bills. This is all challenging, but possible.

Second, borrow less if you choose a field with consistently modest starting salaries. Not all degrees are equal. This does not mean avoid areas with traditionally low starting salaries, such as public education. Find ways to acquire the education that allows you to be a great schoolteacher without incurring high debt loads. It takes persistence and determination. Impossible? No!

Third, make sure that your life choices and career interests require a college degree. Also, you might seek out companies like Fidelity, Random House or Staples that help graduates pay down college debt as a benefit of employment. When employed at Starbucks and attending Arizona State University, your bills shrink to near zero. Use foresight – vision.

Fourth, understand what plans are available to reduce costs at various institutions. At West Texas A&M University, we offer a program called Buff Promise for families with an annual income less than $40,000. It allows our university to pay the difference between grants and the cost of tuition and fees. Turn over every stone.

Fifth, unchecked borrowing is a lifelong burden. In many cases, students accumulate debt that exceeds tuition, fees and living costs. This is crazy. If you buy a new Chevy Spark for $15,000, a banker would never lend you funds to buy a new Corvette, approximately $55,000. However, this happens routinely in higher education. Federally insured loan programs demand no “skin in the game“ for anyone other than the student and insulate lenders and universities from responsibility for student borrowing decisions. Be a cheapskate.

Sixth, if you over borrow, expect anxiety, resentment and frustration all preceding relief, freedom and accomplishment when the debt is finally paid off. All of this is according to a December post of The Simple Dollar. U. S. News also reports over indebtedness leads to compromised physical health. Know all the costs.

Seventh, people who over-borrow less frequently start their own businesses. If free enterprise is the gear that drives a free society, educational debt is the grit in the machine. Two-thirds of new job creation comes from small businesses with many started by recent college graduates. Indebtedness dampens economic opportunity. Likewise, hope for home ownership suffocates with too much education debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and others. Think ahead.

Eighth, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board provides a concrete measure answering the question, “How much debt is too much debt?” Don’t borrow more than 60% of the anticipated first-year salary. Thoughtful students can determine how much they should borrow based on the starting salaries in the field they intend to work. If someone anticipates a starting salary of $40,000 a year, he or she should not borrow $80,000. It is senseless. A USA Today analysis addresses the question of how much is too much. The short story: leave the F-150 on the lot. Drive a junker. Borrow only for education, keeping these hard-nosed suggestions in mind.

Ninth, every student should borrow money only for courses that count on their degree program. No matter how enticing the joy of learning in a particular subject area appears, borrowing to take the course will be less enticing when the bills are due. If anyone advises a student this will be worth it, let him or her cosign the student loan. Focus sharply.

These observations scratch the surface of the extent and repercussions of over borrowing. If anyone says, “It’s worth it, don’t worry about the cost,” do not trust them.  They are uninformed, duplicitous or disingenuous. All suggestions apply, whether you are a planning to be a neurosurgeon or a kindergarten teacher.

Think before you borrow.


Higher Education – Turning the Corner on a New Year

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“The American Dream … is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

—James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (1931)

The focus of higher education at almost every university in the nation, and from a policy standpoint in every statehouse, is changing. At the turn of the century, many pundits stated that campuses would be dinosaurs. They were wrong. A decade ago, commentators predicted the burgeoning growth of for-profit and online institutions would choke traditional campuses. They, too, missed the boat. As 2017 closes out, the impacts of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things is taking center stage for the effect each will have on higher education. Change we must. Here are five noteworthy forces at work in the postsecondary educational environment.

First, online courses, artificial intelligence and digitally supported classroom instruction will all create powerfully supported learning environments. This will lead to a hybridization of educational opportunity for college students. We will see in the next year, and those years closely following, a continued shift away from transcripts that list coursework from one or two institutions. Soon, a graduate’s transcript may have formal coursework and credit-bearing learning and work experiences from diverse places, all supported by varying degrees of hybridized delivery.

Second, families and students will address burgeoning costs that lead to crippling student debt and underemployment. Universities, lending organizations and political infrastructure all seem resolute in support of the status quo. Continued growth in transfer of students from community colleges, where costs are 10 to 15 cents on the dollar, will prevail: A student driven response to out-of-reach costs. In addition, dual-credit and concurrent enrollment of high school students in community colleges will lead to more high school graduates with associates’ degrees in their backpacks, or vice versa: A family instituted means of cost control. Universities must articulate and assist the transfer of all highly motivated, vocationally driven hard-working and cost-conscious students, or fail.

Third, in the coming year a renewed commitment to geographic locales, in spite of decades of hypnotic digital promises, will occur. Institutions will drive quality up from a regional perspective. Moreover, because regional similarities exist across our nation and indeed the world, the applicability and value of regionally focused institutions will grow.

Fourth, successful institutions will increasingly focus on cost competitiveness and efficiencies on campus that drive costs down  for students. Ancillary activities will be subject to ever-greater scrutiny. Economy dorms with shared bathrooms and two-star accommodations will increase. Five-star resort-style accommodations may go begging, save for the seemingly fortunate few. The coming generations of students are rapidly becoming non-traditional populations. ’Older’ students are coming back to school and juggling family and work demands. Younger students are leaving high school with half of the college experience completed. All look differently at efficiencies that drive costs down. Fear that such an approach lacks academic rigor is only true if universities make it true.

Fifth, partnerships between universities and community colleges, high schools, trade schools and business and industry will continue to grow. The monastic university separate and apart from the world is not sustainable. Instead, the university needs to be a ”think-and-do-tank,” providing people insight and skill, which are useful to individuals and the places that will eventually employ them. Whether or not it takes a village to raise a child misses the point. Rather, the question is, “Can institutions collaborate to meet student aspirations, a better place in life, fueled by the notion that insights gleaned from education, life experience, work experience and other engagements will be integrated into a constellation of experience that serves students’ needs and desires?” For too long, too many institutions have offered up a plate with a fixed menu but a smorgasbord of required content and delivery that is intellectually rigorous and challenging is required.

Universities enslaved to Western European traditions, some of which are laudable, will suffer. Accrediting agencies will wane in value. Their genesis was needed and well intentioned, but they support many dated traditions that stymie institutional initiatives to serve students.  Elected officials who concede to a predictable status quo will watch as constituents writhe under the weight of postmodern bureaucracies. Lenders will inflict economic hardship that will boomerang back to their doorstep. The professoriate, some of whom want to give back what they received, looks backward rather than forward.

Bob Dylan warbled the point,

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.”