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Major Trends

Community-minded students volunteer on the Lions Day of Caring at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.

Arkansas’ institutions of higher learning, not unlike their peer institutions nationwide, continue to evolve with changing student demands and priorities. Administrators say many of today’s college students view higher education very differently than previous generations did, seeing it as a clear means to a specific end.

“Student expectations of a college education are much different from the ‘60s and ‘70s, when college education started to become significantly more attainable,” said Paul B. Beran, chancellor of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. “Students went to higher education to discover and develop different areas of interest that may lead them to a career. 

“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.”

Beran added the motivators for this purpose were not exclusively financial and that the desire for a certain kind of lifestyle – to help people or for entrepreneurship – are equally powerful draws for today’s collegian. Whatever the reasons, it’s fallen to colleges to be creative in developing well-rounded graduates. 

“At UAFS, we push students very hard to declare a major  and to also look at declaring a minor that may or may not be related to the major,” he said. “For example, if students want to be a theater major, we’re encouraging them to develop a minor in a field of study like business so when they graduate, they have practical business skills to go along with their artistic skills, which will ultimately help them to find employment more successfully.”

Judy Williams, associate vice chancellor of communications and marketing at University of Arkansas-Little Rock, said whether part of the student’s major curriculum or not, methodology and structure of classes is also evolving rapidly. Having grown up with instant access to information, the current generation is used to educating themselves and aren’t about to change learning styles once they hit college.

“Students today expect more engaged learning opportunities from colleges and universities, including research, study abroad, community service and internships,” she said. “Personalized learning is a trend that will be key to student success. Universities such as UALR are investing in resources that help each student stay on a clearly communicated career path to college completion through prior learning assessment, customized degree plans, faster feedback on academic performance, coaching and mentoring.”

Light the Night at Arkansas Tech.

Colleges are finding hands-on, experiential learning strikes a particular chord with today’s college students. Given the generally fickle nature of millennials when it comes to work and careers, providing an early “real world” taste of a prospective career field also serves a practical purpose in zeroing in on that first job.  

“UALR academic programs meet this need by offering many chances for hands-on research whether in the lab or within a community study,” she said. “We provide chances to study abroad, often funded or partially funded by scholarships and take advantage of the many options in the capital city and across the globe for community service and engagement. Programs such as Heifer International and Children International and internship opportunities throughout central Arkansas provide that real-world experience in fields such as government, banking, nonprofits, tech and other industries.”

Even with the steps that many colleges and universities have taken to adapt the makeup of programs, many of today’s college students arrive on campus with an unrealistic expectation of the rigors of college-level study. 

Community colleges have also seen their share of change, resulting in technological investment and college amenities that are challenging the stereotypical ‘commuter school’ image to provide more opportunities for students to connect on campus.  

“Flipped classrooms, in which the traditional lecture model is replaced with a more hands-on, in-class learning experience is a major trend as is online instruction and the use of blended or hybrid online courses,” said Dr. Wade Derden, vice president for academic affairs at National Park College in Hot Springs. “Students expect more technology in their classrooms and more opportunities to interact with their classmates. At NPC in particular, we have created opportunities for students to use e-textbooks, introduced a number of student clubs and we’ve teamed up with the City of Hot Springs to allow our students to compete against city-wide intramural teams.”

“Students seem to have a sense of entitlement and expect grades based on work submitted. They see an A as the default grade and B as the grade given for attendance,” said Joanne Lawson, associate vice president for applied sciences at East Arkansas Community College. “Previous generations would earn As by going above and beyond the standard requirements. The level of effort is confused with the quality of work. 

“Our faculty goes to lengths to explain the requirements to receive an A or B means quality work exceeding standard requirements.”

Another trend that is shaping study programs in Arkansas colleges and universities is paying more attention to helping students adapt to college-level coursework, sometimes to include providing academic remediation courses.

“Traditional age students are not always well-prepared academically for college and require developmental support systems in order to succeed,” said Dale Bower, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at University of Arkansas-Monticello. 

“UAM is aligned with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education Master Plan Closing the Gap 2020 and as such, is reorganizing to provide intensive academic and career advising for more entering students,” he said. “The university is also partnering with the Education Advisory Board to apply predictive data analytics to student success initiatives. Assessment measures will ensure better student placement into classes and career pathways with increased completion outcomes.”

Complicating these issues is the steady and in some cases, rapid growth of minorities and other traditionally underserved populations in the student body. Administrators say while these new and diverse populations add immeasurably to the learning environment, steps do have to be taken to ensure all students are respected and supported.

“Arkansas Tech University serves a predominantly in-state student body with 92 percent of students from the Natural State,” said Sam Strasner, director of university relations. “The fastest-growing demographic inside Arkansas is the Hispanic population, which increased 836 percent from 1990 to 2010. In response to the changing demographics and thus the changing educational needs of its constituents, Arkansas Tech has launched several initiatives to reach the Hispanic population.” 

Among these, Strasner said, were distributing bilingual posters and flyers providing year-by-year advice on how to prepare for college to high school students around Arkansas. The university also reached out to prospective students and their families with bilingual advertisements in periodicals dedicated to the Hispanic community and made campus tours available in Spanish to make parents and families of prospective students feel more included on campus.

University President Dr. Robin Bowen also leveraged available resources and partnerships to make Tech more affordable to this growing student segment. 

“Dr. Bowen worked with the Mexican Consulate of Little Rock to obtain scholarship support for students of Mexican descent,” Strasner said. “On December 3, 2015, the Mexican Consulate announced that Arkansas Tech would be the lone institution of higher learning in the State of Arkansas to receive IME Becas Fellowship scholarship funds during the 2016 calendar year.”

As in virtually every other segment of society, technology is taking higher education into bold new frontiers of student-faculty communication, research and content delivery.

“Online courses are an important part of our academic offerings, as approximately one-third of our students are enrolled in online classes each semester,” Lawson said. “The number of students requiring the flexibility of online courses continues to grow. Providing college level courses through the convenience of distance education helps us meet the needs of our students and change lives through education. 

“A critical success factor facing colleges is the speed with which technology is advancing. Most colleges are financially unable to keep up with the changes. East Arkansas Community College must be creative about addressing future economics and providing the technology necessary for student learning.”

As far as which courses of study are the most in demand, Arkansas students have demonstrated a pretty sharp eye when it comes to getting into fields that are marketable, assisted by on-campus resources.

“The business and education programs are two of our most popular,” said Charlene Chambers, public relations coordinator for Arkansas State University-Beebe. “An academic advisor can provide assistance in selecting courses which apply toward a bachelor’s degree and our college transfer services works with many four-year universities to ensure students have a smooth transition to further their education to a bachelor’s degree or beyond. Students who average a 3.25 GPA or higher may receive a transfer scholarship to most four-year universities.”

Business and education are also solid choices at some of the state’s larger schools, where departments such as those at University of Central Arkansas have expanded upon the tried-and-true accounting and management to more contemporary business topics.

“The College of Business officially launched the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program in order to meet the economic development and job growth needs for the Conway region,” said Julia Reed, UCA media director. “The College of Business has more than 1,300 students who have access to one of the most active internship programs in Arkansas.

University of Central Arkansas students Madison Simpson (left) and Haley Harvell.

“The College of Education promotes a strong emphasis on preparing educators to work effectively with low-achieving student populations to improve student learning outcomes and has become one of the largest educator preparation programs in the state. UCA students spend an average of 600 hours in a public school setting through student teaching.”

Such innovation is critical for colleges and universities of all sizes to stay relevant in a rapidly changing educational marketplace, according to Steve Adkison, provost at Henderson State University.

“Henderson is the second-oldest college in the state, Arkansas’s only member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges and one of its most affordable universities. Even with that, it’s critical that we continue to enhance our curriculum by offering new degree and certificate programs” he said, noting some recent examples that ranged from innovative media and museum studies to creative writing and engineering physics.

Alexandra Patrono-Smith, communications specialist for Lyon College said this evolution of curriculum can follow hand-in-hand with traditional centers of excellence or even encompass cultural heritage of the school, as Lyon has done.

“Lyon has cultivated a Scottish Heritage Program, a program designed to teach, preserve, and celebrate Scottish arts and traditions in the United States,” she said. “Offering a minor that focuses on the traditions of Scottish music as well as a range of courses and scholarships in the Scottish arts, the heritage program 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.”

“It fits perfectly within our liberal arts tradition and mission to foster the critical, creative thought and ethical, spiritual and intellectual growth of our students.” 


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