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Marketplace of Degrees

By Mark Green

Education is increasingly requisite for students preparing to participate in an ever-changing, increasingly global economy, but it is not only students doing homework and studying the marketplace. Postsecondary educational institutions operate in a competitive environment that necessitates astute observation of market demands, innovative programming for changing student populations and a nimble operating system.

Kentucky colleges and universities have created scores of new degree and certificate programs the past several years, many of those in healthcare and technical fields where the workforce requires increasing skill levels.

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) licenses some 89 institutions, comprising public and private organizations. In the past five years, CPE has approved 150 new programs – and that is among only the 24 public-sector schools within CPE purview.

Enrollment numbers have also steadily grown over the past 10 years.

Independent colleges and universities likewise have demonstrated notable growth in new programming, degrees awarded and enrollment, according to the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU).

Additionally, the 52 for-profit or career colleges in Kentucky are part of the mix, providing education to 32,000 students, according to the Kentucky Association of Career College Schools (KACCS) and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Kentucky mirrors national trends, according to CPE data, in the demand for programs in health-related and STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Health-related programs dominated the new-degree list on all levels – from associate degrees offered at Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) institutions, to new post-baccalaureate pre-med and residency programs at University of Louisville, to a master’s and Ph.D. in reproductive science at University of Kentucky. Though less prominent, STEM-related programming was notable within this list and may in fact be a reflection of things to come, particularly considering a recent gift of $1 million to the University of Kentucky from Lexmark to support STEM education.

Enrollment climbing with degree program numbers
Enrollment at Kentucky’s public institutions is up 17.9 percent the past 10 years, CPE data indicates. Perhaps more significantly, enrollment within KCTCS is up 79.5 percent in that time. The public institutions have offered consistently increasing numbers of degrees and other credentials over those 10 years – certificates and associate, baccalaureate, post-baccalaureate, master’s/specialist, post-master’s, doctoral, law, medicine, pharmacy and dentistry degrees.

Within all sectors, the highest number of programs were approved at the associate level – KCTCS’ statewide campuses combined garnered the most approvals – followed by baccalaureate, master, doctorates and certificates.

The institution with the most approved programs on the list in those five years is Western Kentucky University. New WKU degrees cluster mostly in healthcare, business and traditional education, said Dr. Gary Ransdell, president of Western Kentucky University.

“We are quite conscious of efficiency, and we want to be sure our curriculum is relevant to the market demands of our primary service region and the broader national and international work place,” Ransdell said. “We know that if we are to drive up degree productivity we must blend the traditional core curriculum with a rich array of high-demand disciplines.

“Much thought goes into which programs to add and which to eliminate. It is our job to help drive Kentucky’s economy, and put a large volume of qualified graduates into Kentucky’s work force. Unwanted degree programs do not do that; relevant and high-quality programs shaped by the marketplace do.”

New WKU healthcare degree programs include a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and doctor of physical therapy (DPT), exercise science, sport management and health science. New traditional education programs include an Ed.D., math education, math economics and military leadership.

“We have also been focused on the business sector,” Ransdell said, “with new programs that include international business, business informatics, entrepreneurship, and applied economics. New programs in the sciences include water resource management, homeland security, meteorology, and geographic information science.”

Other new WKU programs focus on humanities, such as religious studies, Asian studies, organizational leadership, art history, film, pop culture, and dance.

Adjusting curricula is always a negotiation. It involves weighing simple elimination – which is rare – with a re-alignment or re-engineering of an existing program that may become more practical with changes. Due to this complicated formula, demonstrating growth of proposed or even approved programming from year to year is rarely quantifiable.

Student demand and market factors
Kentucky private and independent institutions likewise have grown in degrees and credentials awarded the past 10 years, and several have made notable adjustments and additions to programs offered.

“In general, most recent new programs have been developed in response to workforce demands in some combination with student demand and market factors,” said Mason Dyer, director of communications and research for AIKCU. “Graduate programs have accounted for a good portion of overall enrollment growth, and online and distance education has grown dramatically at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Two AIKCU institutions making remarkable changes include Asbury University and Midway College.

“There’s a statistic that 80 percent of the jobs that will be needed by 2020 do not even exist today, which is a pretty scary thing for those who have a long time to work,” said Dr. Sandra Gray, president of Asbury University.
While the 80 percent figure may be an overestimation, she said, the point remains valid.

“That just suggests to you that perhaps the specific skills you may have learned in school may not apply to the skill base that will be needed five, 10, 15, 20 years from now,” Gray said. “We’re trying to teach people how to think, to be critical thinkers, to be able to apply what they’ve learned to new ideas.”

Asbury’s recent transition from “college” to “university” reflects its expanding program offerings in post-baccalaureate work.

“Asbury has developed and produced and is now offering the very first teacher-as-leader [master’s] program in Kentucky,” said Gray. “As a follow on to that, we’ve developed a principalship program, so Asbury will begin in the fall the very first principalship program of any institution in the state – and that’s really a rank one, it’s beyond a masters.”

A new multimillion-dollar high-tech communications arts building testifies to the conservative Christian school’s commitment to its crowning program. The communications department has gained recognition in recent years from participation in high-profile events such as several successive international Olympics. A communications master’s program is planned, Gray said.

Another private college with significant offerings is Midway College, which since the early 1990s has maintained a dual purpose, operating its 164-year-old traditional women’s college – the only one in Kentucky – in Woodford County while offering online classes and an accelerated adult-education program at multiple sites. Midway’s two notable recent initiatives are an online bachelor of arts in mining management and safety, and even more significantly, a pharmacy school – only the third in the state – that will be located 130 miles east in Paintsville.

Dr. William B. Drake, president of Midway College, said the adult education and online learning programs are two of the school’s strongest points and have helped it grow. The online and adult-ed degrees address specific market needs and are drawing enrollment from across the country.

“We know there are people working in industry who want that degree in mining management and safety and who cannot go to the University of Missouri, Colorado State University or even UK to complete mining management degrees,” Drake said. “So we started what we believe is one of the only degrees in mining management and safety in the United States.

“We started that program because the industry came to us and said, ‘We need people who are qualified, who have degrees in our area, and there simply are not enough academic programs, or not the kind of degree programs to supply our businesses with educated and capable staff.’ ”

The new pharmacy program will take its first class in August, accepting 80 students yearly the first four years. Beyond being a boon for students, Drake and Midway estimate the pharmacy school will create a $40 million annual economic impact in Johnson and surrounding Eastern Kentucky counties.

“It’s intriguing. The profile [of students] hasn’t changed. Our median age continues to be 35. We just have more students,” Drake said. “The majority of our enrollments, over 1,600, are in programs designed for adults. We believe we offer what Kentucky needs in this time when so many people are losing jobs or underemployed or cannot find jobs. Many of our degrees lead directly to either enhancing one in their position or to other positions.”

On the other side of the private education sector lies the for-profit, or career, institutions. Though many serve Kentucky, Sullivan University has demonstrated a knack for developing programming that is innovative and responsive to market demands while carving a niche in the students it enrolls. The university includes the Sullivan College of Technology and Design as well as Spencerian College.

“Our students are 26 to 28 years old on average, although we do have about 40 percent of our incoming freshman class out of high school,” said A.R. Sullivan, chancellor of Sullivan University. “The rest of them may have one or more degrees and are coming back as a career changer and are a little more mature. In a way, I call us a finishing college. They may come with credits from here and credits from there and we package them together and put them on a set career path.”

Since it was formed as a business college with five teachers and seven students in 1962, Sullivan has grown into Kentucky’s largest independent higher education institution. Fall enrollment was 6,069 for programs ranging from a one-year through doctoral tracks. The university’s renowned hospitality program has 1,100 students from 38 states and several foreign countries on its two campuses.

Sullivan boldly launched a College of Pharmacy in 2008 that will graduate its inaugural class of doctorates this year. A recently introduced Ph.D in management, with concentrations in strategic management, information technology management or conflict management, will be available online and on-campus.

Other new programs at the school reflect partnerships between the university and industries whose workforces its students aims to populate. For example, Chancellor Sullivan notes a planned program in manufacturing technology driven in part by a relationship with the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers. Another is the Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning-Refrigeration (HVAC-R) program at the College of Technology and Design, which has its own new building, for which it has sought LEED certification, and a recent endowment of $150,000 for scholarships from Ingersoll Rand, owner of Trane brand heating and air-conditioning products. More than 100 students are currently in the program to become HVAC-R technicians and energy auditors.

“Overall, we do a really good job, I think, of giving people what they really want in an efficient manner,” Sullivan said, “and paying attention to what we should all be paying attention to in education, which is: what’s good for the student and helping the students to be available when someone wants to hire.”

A broad commitment to expanding higher education in Kentucky is seen in increasing enrollment numbers across ages, increasing awards of degrees and certificates, and increasing program proposals, approvals and adjustments. But are those numbers the result of reactions to the market’s demands, or is education driving the bus?

It is a case of chicken-and-egg, according to Dr. Aaron Thompson, senior vice president for academic affairs at the CPE.

“What pushes forward that economic agenda? Is it education pushing it forward in a proactive way, or is it education reacting to the need?” Thompson said. “I think it’s a little of both.”

Evolution in degree programs for traditional students, he said, are preparing them for a new world’s career requirements. Meanwhile, adult learners who had dropped out of high school or college as a market of its own greatly in need, Thompson notes. Some of these students may have been able to gain reasonable employment in the past but now find themselves unprepared.

“We’re adjusting most to help (adult students),” Thompson said. “Especially if they are in the paid labor force and their employers are asking them to go back. More than likely they are asking them to go back and re-engineer themselves to be more high-tech.

“Many folks come back for postsecondary credentials instead of degrees, and we’ve seen a tremendous amount of increase in credentials and degrees completed at that community and technical college level.”

That’s not to say that the new focus on adult learners has taken away from students on a traditional track. Healthcare, often accepted as one of the most-necessary fields – and one of the most quickly changing – is a place where students both younger and more experienced can grow through continuing education.

Two new programs at Northern Kentucky University, for example, offer additional higher education degrees: a doctorate of nursing education, DNE, which will provide new educators to the institutions training nurses, and a doctorate of nursing practitioner, DNP.

“There was a need for nurses to be able to handle multiple duties on deeper levels of clinical and administration,” Thompson said. “The DNP was designed for that. The association that represents all nurses recommended that that was the direction they needed to be going – instead of the MSN (master’s of science in nursing) as the terminal degree, having the DNP as the terminal degree.”

While new educational offerings train students for highly specialized areas of medicine such as informatics, medical records and nursing, Thompson notes also that the necessity for a liberal arts education has not diminished. It is being honed, however.

“The liberal arts education gives you the foundation to operate in highly specialized areas – that’s important. So just the jobs themselves shouldn’t be the only criteria that we’re looking at. As a matter of fact, if we listen to employers and what they want, they want people who can … problem-solve. They want people who can communicate – orally and written – and all those things are liberal arts,” he said. “So when we think about new programs, we need to remember some of the core and basic foundations lie within that traditional general education or liberal arts area.”

It may be difficult to analyze which came first, the educational initiatives or the market demands. It may be challenging to determine which is more important, the traditional or the nontraditional learner. Kentucky institution, however, are learning to equip those who pursue education and job skills in ways pertinent to the world’s changing economies and expectations.

“We have many more people who were, in the past, not able to get educated in this country who are now able to get educated,” Thompson said. “We’re bringing a lot more people under that umbrella than we ever have before.

[Education] is not just being prepared for a job; it’s essential for that, but it’s more than that. It’s also being prepared to be a citizen, a lifelong resident of this country or other countries.”