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Major Trends

Arkansas’s colleges and universities are facing ever-increasing demand for improved educational access, degree marketability and rapidly-changing classroom modalities. With tuition continuing to creep upward, more students are viewing education as a direct means to an end.


“Student expectations of a college education are much different from the 1960s and ‘70s, when college education started to become significantly more attainable and students went to higher education to discover and develop different areas of interest that may lead them to a career,” said Paul B. Beran, chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

“Students today are much more focused, parents are more involved and students are much more interested in specific career goals. Those decisions might change throughout their academic career, but generally speaking, students come with a greater desire to have a purpose for coming that leads to some kind of job and career.”

Henderson State University

Beran said this not only speaks to the number and variety of curricula offered at a given school, but has also challenged the educational modalities within the classroom to better prepare students for the realities of the working world.

“The learning dynamic today is that faculty are no longer the only purveyor or absolute expert in their field,” he said. “Any student can use a handheld device and get an answer to any question that arises in an academic environment from a variety of sources. The professor’s role has changed from being a sole source of learning to a facilitator of learning, directing students to educational resources and introducing and guiding students to multiple sets of sources to reinforce the knowledge base of their individual discipline.”

 “The major trend in higher education in Arkansas is the emphasis on student graduation, therefore UA-PTC works hard to ensure that students succeed,” said Tim Jones, associate vice chancellor for public relations and marketing at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College.

“We seek to increase retention by offering convenient class scheduling, strengthening relationships between students and advisors and offering tutoring and other wrap-around services that diminish barriers to success.”

Jones said colleges and universities have to remember they are in the service business, a fact that’s often lost in the shuffle.

“Students today expect good service and convenience,” he said. “UA-PTC strives to provide both by giving personal attention and with small class sizes. The personal touch is what makes the biggest difference.”

“We are seeing a focus from both students and parents on a clear pathway to careers and students want those pathways defined when they get to college,” agreed Dr. Brandie Benton, associate provost for enrollment services and admissions at Henderson State University. “To those ends, we are giving our students information about the wide variety of options they have for careers after they graduate. We are incorporating that into the discussions we have with students about academic programs from the very beginning.”

At the same time, students are demanding better amenities and more activities to round out the academic side of the collegiate experience. This is particularly true as cost of attendance continues to rise.

“As a university, we are investing in the facilities, support and organizations that will give our students a rich campus life,” Benton said. “We’ve also created a simple, easy-to-manage tuition calculator that allows prospective students and their parents to see what makes Henderson State a great value.”

The value proposition facing many institutions, large and small, often turns on technology, not only for ease in content delivery, but also to train students using the very tools they will be exposed to in their career. All while not taking one’s eye off the basics.

“There is hardly a profession at this time that is not employing some level of technology and yet the incoming college student seems only to have knowledge of how to use the technology they are interested in, such as a gaming system, phone or tablet,” said Kimberly Coker, director of communications, public relations and grants for Southern Arkansas University Tech in Camden. “Much of the time, basic skillsets are missing such as the ability to type or to use software programs.

“To be able to provide the student with the relevant skills by which to obtain a job after graduation or transfer in an ever-changing technological landscape is critical. Staying relevant ourselves, that being college faculty and staff, with technological advances and upgrading programs in a timely manner is already crucial but will become much more crucial in the next 10 years.”

The desire on the part of students for an education that is relevant both from the content and the technological aspect is increasingly a consideration in the creation of new degrees. Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, for example, drew from a variety of industry trends and forecasts in the creation of its Master of Business Administration degree that will be available entirely online starting in the fall.

The ATU Master of Business Administration degree was developed in conjunction with surveys of ATU College of Business alumni and employers. Information from those surveys was used to identify specific needs in the marketplace that could be addressed by the new program. The resulting degree consists of 10 three-hour courses pursuant to a degree that is focused on executive decision-making and is information analysis-oriented in nature.

“Our research found that prospective MBA students are interested in a degree that will help them analyze business market situations using real-time or gathered business information and that employers appreciate the efficiencies created by online learning,” said Dr. Robin E. Bowen, ATU president.

“With that information in hand, the College of Business, in conjunction with the Office of Academic Affairs and the Graduate College, developed an MBA program that will create new career opportunities for our students and a deeper, more prepared pool of leadership candidates for the business community in Arkansas and beyond.”

In many cases, paying attention to the dual needs of the student and the community has resulted in one or more centers of excellence. At the University of Central Arkansas, for instance, classes in the Colleges of Business, Education and Health and Behavioral Sciences are routinely filled to capacity.

University of Central Arkansas

“UCA’s College of Business is currently home to more than 1,500 undergraduate students and more than 100 graduate students, all taught by about 70 faculty members, which gives students opportunities for hands-on experience in lots of different business fields,” said Chelsea Huckaby of UCA University Relations and Creative Services.

“UCA also produces more undergraduate and graduate professionals in health and behavioral sciences than any other four-year institution in Arkansas. And, the College of Education at UCA is the premier program for educator preparation in Arkansas, as well as one of the largest programs in the state.”

Such outcomes have paid off with increased enrollment and positioned UCA as a first choice among the state’s best and brightest. Applications for its Norbert O. Schedler Honors College this fall is predicted to be the largest and most competitive in the program’s 35-year history, with 90 new students with an average high school GPA of 4.12 and an average ACT score of 30.

“The Honors College has become one of the most full-featured in the nation and provides students with enhanced education opportunities in a living/learning environment designed to develop citizen scholars,” Huckaby said. “Placing emphasis on students capable of authoring their own lives and leading social change is a benefit to the community.”

While some elements of higher learning focus on the prestige and accelerated academics of an Honors College, an equal if not greater amount build their programs on input from a particular industry they wish to serve. Two-year colleges have maintained a tradition of staying deeply invested not only in their students, but in the working world into which they propose to send them after graduation.

“Many students are looking for a way to enter the workforce, gain a career-ready degree or certification, and continue their education along the way,” said Jenn McDannold, enrollment coordinator at Baptist Health College in Little Rock. “We offer many options, including one-year certificate programs, two-year Associate of Applied Science degrees in nursing and occupational therapy assistant and even post-graduate options for students with bachelor degrees. Each program we offer utilizes hands-on techniques, multiple clinical site options and interactive and open access to professionals in their field of choice.”

This level of engagement, along with a higher degree of flexibility in creating new curriculum, helps keep colleges such as Baptist Health College on the forefront of emerging specialties.

“As new health care needs emerge, Baptist Health College Little Rock is ready to continue to produce educational programs that relate and assist those health care needs,” McDannold said. “Sleep technology, for instance, is a unique program offered at Baptist Health College, a one-year certificate program with no college experience required.”

Another small-college advantage is the level of connectedness in the community, which often results in working relationships with local business that provide internships, a major plus for today’s college student.

“There is a growing emphasis on providing internships to students as a way of receiving hands-on training and as a way of making industry connections that may assist them in finding employment upon graduation,” said Dr. Wade Derden, vice president for academic affairs for National Park College. “A number of our programs have added internships to their curriculum and the college is pursuing grant opportunities that would allow these internships to be paid. In fact, NPC was awarded a Career Ready Internship Grant from Great Lakes Community Foundation allowing the college to provide 72 paid internships through May of 2018.”

Experts say student input represents a major trend in higher education, one that is already shaping programs.

“Students today expect more engaged learning opportunities from colleges and universities, including research, study abroad and community service,” said Judy Williams, associate vice chancellor of communications and marketing for University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “Our academic programs offer many chances for hands-on research whether in the lab or with a community study.”

“We offer chances to study abroad, often funded or partially funded by scholarships, and ample options in the capital city and across the globe for community service and engagement. Personalized learning is a trend that is key to student success.”

All of this doesn’t even begin to speak to the affordability factor. As the cost of higher education continues to escalate, institutions have to work harder to justify the increases. 

“Students and parents of traditional students today have high expectations of affordability and value in higher education,” Williams said. “We are investing in resources that help each student stay on a clearly communicated path to college completion through prior learning assessment, customized degree plans, faster feedback on academic performance, coaching and mentoring.

“In addition, online teaching requires special training and skills for faculty to deliver education in this format. Our university provides special training in technology, curriculum development and course design to ensure that online students get quality instruction.”

Baptist Health College nursing students gain hands-on training using cutting edge medical equipment

Dr. Lynita Cooksey, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Arkansas State University, detailed some of the ways the university has evolved to keep up with student expectations and the demands of the market.

“As a student-centered university, we strive to provide students the greatest opportunity to succeed,” she said. “We recently reviewed student and employer needs and have sharpened our focus on four university learning goals. These goals include effective communication, critical thinking, social and civic responsibility and globalization.

“Among A-State’s many high-impact learning opportunities that support our new university goals are undergraduate research projects, team projects, student organizations, study abroad, internships and service learning.”

It doesn’t take a large university to foster such academic diversity. Lyon College, a small liberal arts school in Batesville, prides itself on excellence in traditional subjects while also affording students coursework they can’t find anywhere else, such as its nationally known Scottish Heritage Program. 

“A Lyon education fosters the critical, creative thought and ethical, spiritual growth that prepares students for fulfilling personal and professional lives committed to lifelong learning and service,” said Eric Bork, associate vice president of marketing and communications. “Lyon offers 15 majors leading to a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree and at a class ratio of 14:1, ensures personalized attention for all students.”

“At the same time, Lyon has cultivated a Scottish Heritage Program, a program designed to teach, preserve and celebrate Scottish arts and traditions in the United States. It has become one of the most significant in the nation for students interested in developing and refining their skills in bagpiping, drumming or Highland dancing.”

College and universities are also finding that in order to be successful in this highly-competitive, highly value-conscious environment, they need to adopt a strategic model that more resembles the best retail operations, both in technology and in customer service.

“We are certainly entering the time of the ‘on demand’ education, where students can take courses when and how they want,” said Emily Newling, director of institutional advancement at University of Arkansas-Cossatot Community College in Ashdown.

“The days of solely operating 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. are over. Colleges will have to offer classes and hours that fit the consumer’s timetable. Technology is so ingrained in our society that educational institutions must use this to our advantage. Things such as Blackboard Collaborate, online office hours and online tutoring will be vital in the coming years.”

Newling said in addition to pedagogical considerations, colleges and universities will have to adapt the content and focus of their curriculum as well. Cost and time required in the traditional collegiate model are no longer acceptable to today’s audiences.

“For previous generations, college was often a time of personal exploration. Today we are noticing students need a more directed path and guidance. Students value this direction and tend to be more engaged in their plan,” she said. “We have also noticed a shift emerging with many students being interested in learning a quick and employable skill, thus the boom in technical programs. Not all students want to be lawyers and doctors anymore.”

Finally, colleges are finding it increasingly important to teach soft skills to go along with mastery of content. Presentation, writing and speaking skills and work ethic are every bit as important as textbook information or lab work, yet what many students have in technical proficiency, they often lack correspondingly in professionalism.

“As more and more students come to college with concurrent and dual-enrollment credit, preparation beyond academics becomes more critically important,” said Tricia Baar, dean of learning, director of Honors College at College of the Ouachitas in Malvern. “In 2016, College of the Ouachitas redefined its institutional student learning outcomes to include professionalism along with communication, critical thinking and information literacy. Such areas as accountability, respect and work ethic are topics of increased focus and assessment.”

The need for instilling such skills was precisely the motivation behind the establishment of COTO’s Honors College program in 2013 which helps round out academically-advanced students’ soft skills, ethical understanding and appreciation for the wider world around them. Baar said as the time window required to earn a degree continues to narrow, such companion skills and aptitudes are an increasingly important component of developing well-rounded members of society.

“Traditionally, community colleges are known for the many ways in which they support academically underprepared students. The addition of honors programming is one way that we support and encourage students who come to us exceptionally well-prepared,” Baar said.

“Research indicates that the primary need identified by employers nationally, in all sectors, is better soft skills, those qualities that are evident in reliable, professional employees. A student who graduates with an associate’s degree at age 19 may be well-educated, but often lacks the life skills that come with age.”


—Dwain Hebda Photography by Mat
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