BY CAITLIN LEIKER
Higher education is constantly evolving, and attracting and retaining students has always been a key goal. But in light of the current economy, public opinion and recent enrollment data, colleges and universities must attain that objective through more innovative forms.
In October, higher education strategist Brad Goan presented national enrollment trends and strategies to faculty and staff at Fort Hays State University as a part of Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL).
Much of the data showed college enrollment is becoming increasingly diverse – the education accessibility gap between white male students and all other demographics is slowly closing. Differences in student ages have also been a standout point.
Goan pointed out that while some 18-year-olds are debating the importance of college, more 25- to 40-year-olds are going back to school to wrap up unfinished degrees, start a different career path or simply expand their credentials to fit in today’s job market.
Throughout the presentation, that idea was referred to as “up-skilling” and “re-skilling” through shorter, non-degree options such as certificates, microcredentials and specific job training programs.
“As the traditional-age market contracts, colleges and universities are going to have to be more thoughtful that they’re meeting students where they are, whether that be traditional-age students, whether that be adult learners … and also think about how they can leverage what we do at a university to serve students in different ways than they have before,” Goan said.
The aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic were also discussed in the presentation. According to the Kansas Board of Regents, Academic Year Enrollment headcount decreased by 17,848 students from Fall 2019 to Fall 2021.
While the pandemic was a large obstacle in education, Goan pointed out that “COVID wasn’t just a hindrance, it was an accelerant.” He talked about being thrown into the deep end of online learning – it was a sink-or-swim situation. Those who thrived in virtual environments forced universities to level-up their course capabilities, offering reliable modalities both in-person and online.
Goan also pointed out the work-from-home boom in his presentation – how COVID inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs, side-hustling to make ends meet. He recommended Fort Hays should continue presenting more interdisciplinary pathways and career connections.
The financial strain of higher education has also been a significant enrollment variable in recent years. In a 2020 RNL survey on high school student and family perceptions of college finances, the top reason students lost interest in a college or university was that it was too expensive.
A total of 76 percent of the students and 80 percent of the parents said financial aid and scholarships were “Very Important” in their enrollment decision. A combined 92 percent of students said it would be “Very Difficult” or “Somewhat Difficult” to finance their college education. Those same ratings made up 96 percent of parent perspectives.
The price for books and other classroom supplies alone can be between $628 and $1,471 annually, on average, according to Education Data Initiative.
Some Fort Hays departments are responding to the expensive supply problem by implementing Online Educational Resources (OERs). The overarching idea is to use free online resources in college classrooms, thereby making higher education more financially accessible for students.
Math instructor Bader Abukhodair started the push for OERs in his department during the 2021-22 school year and was soon joined by many of his colleagues.
They started the conversion with Contemporary Math, and they are continuing to expand it to College Algebra, Pre-Calculus and beyond.
While the impact is widely beneficial, the downside of using OERs is the time commitment for professors. Rather than purchasing a prescribed (more expensive) teaching package from a large publisher, professors must select and build their course curriculum and resources around what is already free or low-cost online.
This process takes a lot of digging. For Abukhodair and other math professors, it required a whole semester. They received a grant from FHSU’s Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies (TILT) to help offset the time it took to replan their courses.
They provide two options within their department, based on their courses: (1) Students don’t pay anything for their homework, textbook and other course materials; or (2) They pay $12 to cover the whole semester.
Half of that money goes to the math department, and half goes back into the development of the OER development program.
“In College Algebra, we decided not to take anything from the students,” Abukhodair said. “Zero amount, period. But in Contemporary Math, we decided to get the $12 because we want the kickback for the projects. Basically, the grant is going through that department, who is overseeing the project of OER … . So the grant is coming back from the student money that they paid through the classes that they took with OER.”
The department was later awarded the Z-Course grant, whose goal is to “incentivize departments with large-registration courses to convert courses so that students are not required to purchase any course materials” – specifically pointing at high-enrollment general education requirements.
“I have students who are depending on financial aid,” Abukhodair said. “And the financial aid sometimes kicks in later on. I’ve had students wait almost four weeks to be able to access their textbook or their software. This is really a setback for any student.”
Thanks to Fort Hays grants like those obtained by Abukhodair, more faculty and staff have been able to enact similar changes in their departments to eliminate these kinds of barriers from higher education.
An impactful past example of this was the Red Balloon Project. The chapter was first established at Fort Hays by Larry Gould during his time as provost from 1998 to 2013.
The organization was created by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), housed in Washington, D.C. The organization serves as FHSU’s higher education institutional membership organization. There are approximately 430 AASCU members. Approximately 190 of them operated a Red Balloon Project chapter in 2012-13.
Stacey Smith, director of the tourism and hospitality management program, said FHSU was a leader among those 430 institutions, and it continues to build on what is destined to help students and support the professional development of faculty.
Smith was a faculty and chair participant in the Red Balloon Project activities. She said her department was a beneficiary of the program.
“The project provided access to speakers, resources and opportunities who have been building the OER movement,” Smith said. “Much of the projects’ activities also involved the more effective and efficient use of technology in teaching and learning.”
While there is no longer a campus-wide initiative under the organization, its advocacy helped pave the way for more financial accessibility at FHSU today.
Their website is housed under the Department of Political Science at FHSU. The organization’s goals, collaborations, action plans and other web materials – mostly developed from 2012 to 2014 – are still available.
“The most visible institutional impact of the project is the work being carried out in Forsyth
Library by Claire Nickerson, with the promotion and advancement of OER resources for faculty and students,” Smith said. “The university’s Z-Course project is predicated on the early work of the Red Balloon Project.”
According to Smith, the most important work of the Red Balloon Project is the promotion of the mindset that higher education can be better, supportive of faculty work, and more affordable for students despite what critics of higher education say in their critiques.
“Ultimately, the skills developed through this initiative can only add to better career readiness through more comprehensive and affordable outcomes in FHSU learning experiences and opportunities,” Smith said.