Last month, I shared several thoughts on the future of regional public universities like Central Michigan University. Specifically, I reflected on the doom-and-gloom headlines predicting the end of our relevance — headlines which failed to capture the critical role we play in supporting students, meeting the needs of communities and driving our region’s economy.
Making the case for the relevance of regional public universities means showing the value we offer to our students, community partners, employers and other stakeholders. Our value isn’t simply that we offer an affordable and accessible path to degree attainment — it is that we offer the resources and opportunities of a larger, more expensive flagship university as well as the personalized support and attention of a much smaller institution. We offer students the ability to immediately engage in hands-on learning experiences with the guidance of expert faculty and supportive staff. We offer academic rigor and excellence while also promoting a culture of caring in a community that lifts each other up. We focus on meaningful relationships among students, faculty and staff, and we recognize that every student’s path to success will be different. In short, our value is our outcome: skilled, knowledgeable, compassionate leaders who are Fired Up to make a difference in their careers and their communities.
Today, I want to share a little about some of the steps we are taking to remain relevant and excellent. To put it simply, it begins with continuing to do, and building upon, what we do best: focusing on meeting needs. Whether it’s the needs of our students and their families, our community partners and employers, or our state, CMU’s Strategic Envisioning Process is laying the framework for our university to meet them.
Student needs are changing, and so are we
Students of this up-and-coming generation have lived their entire lives with technology. They are proficient users of the internet, smartphones, messaging platforms and collaboration tools many of us (myself included) are still learning. These tech-savvy students are accustomed to accessing information easily, completing transactions quickly and engaging with others around the world at all times of day. These are things they also expect to see in their colleges and universities.
Many of these prospective students still want the “full” college experience of living on campus, joining registered student organizations and engaging in in-person, hands-on learning. Yet, most say they also want to take some classes fully or partly online. Our university will continue to offer incredible living and learning experiences, along with much-needed support services such as our Counseling Center and mentoring programs, while also embracing technology to deliver classes in flexible, accessible ways.
We’re here to help nontraditional students, too
The pool of first-time-in-any-college students has been dwindling for years and is expected to fall further as birth rates continue to decline. While still offering the traditional four-year experience for future students, we also are shifting to meet the needs of the fastest growing group of students: working adults aged 25 and older.
In our state, and in many parts of the country, thousands of these adult learners already have some experience with college. Many have taken on student loans without ever reaching graduation — they have debt but no degree. Not only does this saddle them with expensive payments, it offers them no protection when there are fluctuations in the job market such as what we have seen during COVID-19. During the pandemic, college-educated individuals experienced unemployment at lower levels and have rebounded from the recession faster than their less-educated peers.
These nontraditional learners need pathways to educational attainment, too. We have made significant changes to our admissions practices to make it easier for community college students to transfer to CMU, and we are investing in tools and technology to make enrolling and succeeding at CMU more accessible and flexible for working adults. Whether they choose to attend on campus, online or through one of our many sites and centers, lifelong learners will find expanded access to education at CMU.
The job market changes quickly, and so must we
Institutions of higher education are notoriously slow to change. Engaging in a deliberative process requires involving many individuals, hearing multiple perspectives and having healthy debates to arrive at the best possible solution. However, while this process results in excellent decisions, it often requires a very long timetable.
In the world of work, change occurs at breakneck speeds. Employers can’t — and won’t — wait for universities to complete the often-slow process of program development to educate and train their workforce. Some for-profit companies have already launched their own educational modules to expedite the process: Consider certificate programs from Google and Salesforce, for example.
We have proven our ability to be nimble and adaptable, and we can do so now with our course offerings. Therefore, we are now looking at new models of educational delivery, including certificate programs, micro-credentials and stackable classes. We also are partnering with employers throughout the state to offer onsite and online professional development programming tailored to their needs. We are experts in education and innovation, and we will work expediently to keep up with demand.
Economic growth demands knowledge and skill
Our state has come a long way since 2009, when Michigan was ranked second-to-last on the “Best States for Business” list by Forbes magazine, but we still have a long way to go if we wish to continue to attract new businesses, increase employment and grow our economy.
At present, Michigan sits below the national average for postsecondary educational attainment. If we are to reach the state goal to have 60% of Michigan residents earn a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2030, we must keep education accessible and affordable. At CMU, we made it easier to apply for admission, and we have significantly increased the number and value of our scholarships to keep CMU within reach for students and their families. We also introduced guaranteed on-campus employment for any student who wants or needs to work while pursuing their education.
In addition, we are aligning our programs with Michigan’s areas of growing need and market demand. During our academic program prioritization process, we identified five key themes that align market demand with CMU faculty expertise: community and leadership, design and technology, entrepreneurship and innovation, environment and climate, and health and well-being. A number of academic programs currently available at CMU, including teacher education, data science, engineering, medicine, business information systems and others, already are designed to prepare students for careers in those areas.
An iterative, ongoing process
Innovation requires a willingness to take risks, to try new things and test out new theories. We live in an era of disruptive change, and every industry, including higher education, is under pressure to keep up or miss out. Through our Strategic Envisioning Process, we have identified numerous innovative strategies to pursue rigor, relevance and excellence. Several have been implemented already, and others will roll out as we approach fall. Some will lead to success; others will teach us valuable lessons and provide stepping stones for the future.
The future of Central Michigan University, of all regional public universities, is still bright. We will continue to assess and adapt our practices to ensure we remain relevant. We are navigating this exciting path together, and I look forward to sharing more news of our successes.