Like a beginning freshman plotting out college courses so she can have a marketable degree four years down the road, the Missouri Department of Higher Education is embarking on a new planning process to make sure students leave campus with skills to help the state – and themselves -- move ahead.
But when the plan is finished, the final exam question will be this: Will its recommendations actually be used on the state’s campuses?
Lowell Kruse of St. Joseph, a longtime member of the state’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education, says implementation is the key.
“I've been on the coordinating board for 12 years,” he said in a recent interview, “and I've seen a lot of strategic plans come and go. And we tend to fall short on the solution piece because it is so complicated….
“Someone said to me, this is not rocket science. We know how to put a man on the moon and return them safely to earth. We just don't know how to do this. This is very complicated stuff.”
The new plan has been dubbed “Preparing Missourians to Succeed: A Blueprint for Higher Education." The department and the coordinating board began putting it together earlier this month at two hearings, in O’Fallon and downtown St. Louis, with seven more scheduled across the state in the coming months.
Once they are finished, a steering committee will oversee a report due to the board next December.
David Russell, Missouri’s commissioner for higher education, told the board at a meeting at St. Charles Community College earlier this month that his department’s goal is to raise the number of Missourians with a college degree to 60 percent by the year 2025. Among young adults, ages 24-35, only 41.3 percent of Missourians had a two-year or four-year degree last year.
That was up from 40 percent two years before – progress that brought Missouri just below the national average. But Russell is hardly satisfied.
“Is it enough?” he asked the coordinating board at its meeting? “I would of course say it is not. Our challenge is to maintain this momentum to meet the higher education needs of Missouri.”
Those needs, he added in an interview, include matching the skills and education that today’s jobs require with the credentials of those who will be needed to fill them.
“We know that 60 percent of all of the jobs in the inventory of jobs in Missouri by the year 2018 are going to require some kind of postsecondary education,” Russell said. “A high school degree is just not going to be enough in the future.
“If you look back over the period of time that we had this recent recession, the jobs that require only a high school diploma or less went away at the beginning of the recession, and they aren't coming back in the recovery.”
To make sure people get the education and training they need, Russell and Kruse said, the system has to change.
“There’s no way we can continue doing things the way we have been doing,” Kruse said, “and expect a different result.”
Blueprint for change
The last statewide plan submitted by the department of higher education came in 2008; it was titled “Imperatives for Change: Building a Higher Education System for the 21st Century.”
It was adopted by the coordinating board right before the economy tanked, so the emphasis on jobs was not as strong as it is likely to be this time around. But it did recognize the importance of a college degree to students’ future well-being.
“More than ever,” it said, “in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, higher education is the gateway to an improved standard of living for Missouri’s residents.”
The report went on to outline steps and goals that are similar to the ones being considered this time around. In its planning for the upcoming blueprint, the board said it should focus on four major areas:
- Accessibility. Schools have to make sure students are prepared for college, and higher education has to make sure opportunities are available to students all across the state.
- Affordability. Even though Missouri has been among the nation’s leaders in limiting tuition increases at public institutions, more has to be done to make sure college costs are within the reach of the state’s families.
- Quality. Students need to be sure that the knowledge and skills they need are as excellent as possible, not just for the first jobs they will hold after graduation but for the ones that come after that.
- Completion. Enrolling in college is just the first step; schools have to help make sure students stay the course and complete the program designed to provide them with a certificate or a degree
Those factors are similar to ones released this month by the federal Department of Education in a preliminary plan for rating colleges and universities. The final plan is expected next year.
Above all, Russell said, higher education in Missouri has to be able to adapt to shifts and respond quickly.
“We want to continue to provide quality education to students,” he said, “and we have to be more nimble. We've go to be able to change -- change the curriculum, change our approaches to education, so students learn more than they did in less time.”
Just as important, he added, is making sure that once students begin their path to a degree, they persist. Part of that process, Russell said, is making sure everyone sees that reaching the finish line will have meaningful consequences.
“We want to make sure that a degree still has value to individuals long after they have earned those degrees and have entered the workforce. That means that we've got to continue to maintain the quality of what we're teaching in the classrooms, that we're teaching them the right things.”
Kruse said that recognizing and strengthening the continuum between the campus and the workplace will go a long way toward making higher education more productive and more satisfying for everyone involved.
“Higher ed is in a position to describe what has to happen upstream and what has to happen downstream,” he said. “It's a different role than just educating the students that are with them for that short period of time. It's a bigger role for society. Maybe we have to take that on.”
The power of partnerships
That broader vision was clearly on the minds of those who attended the department’s first public hearing on the upcoming plan. It convened at Component Bar Products in O’Fallon, where CEO Troy Pohlman told members of the coordinating board and the steering committee charged with writing the report that his company’s training program has helped give young people opportunity they have not had before.
Letting students “test drive” a job before they commit to it, he added, helps both companies and their prospective employees.
“I would rather learn that this is the job that I want to do – or more importantly, the job I don’t want to do – in my first semester of school than in my fourth or fifth semester of school,” Pohlman said.
Most participants in the session agreed that partnerships between businesses and education can help establish more such situations that can help match students with jobs they can do and can find satisfying.
“How can we all work best together,” asked Ronald Chesbrough, president of St. Charles Community College, “to transform lives and build a vibrant future for those lives and the state?”
And, he added, those relationships have to work within the higher education community as well.
“If we’re going to solve the various riddles of effective higher education in Missouri,” Chesbrough said, “we need to stress partnerships between two-year and four-year institutions…. The coordinating board needs a coordinated plan.”