Leaders Working Hard To Adapt In Higher Education

In fall 2023, the University of California, Irvine (UCI) received more than 143,000 student applications. The unprecedented number resulted in the third consecutive year the public land-grant research university outperformed its fall registration numbers. This means that since 2015, UCI has placed among the top four universities in the country for receiving the most freshman applications.

But there is much more to the numbers than meets the eye. In the continuous throes of an ever-evolving student demographic, the numbers are a result of the strategic building blocks UCI has put into place. For example, UCI has been building support for its diverse student body for the past 10-plus years as it continues to transition, being recognized as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander (AANAPISI) serving institution in 2016 and a Hispanic serving designation in 2017.

“The most important place for investment is in the design and structure of the students’ experience within courses and across courses,” says Michael Dennin, UCI’s Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning and Dean, Division of Undergraduate Education. “The outcomes of a university education are incredibly valuable, but the current process by which we deliver the education was designed for a different student. Students had a very different set of experiences prior to attending a university in the past, when our current systems were developed, than students have now.”

UCI continues to place a major emphasis on equity, inclusion, diversity and free speech—tenets that are integral to its mission as a top-tier public university and leader in inclusive excellence. Along with its inclusion-based programs, UCI’s Active Learning Institute (ALI) is transforming its instructional approach to active learning with more than 200 certified teachers.

“Students come to the university with a different set of strengths and experiences. If we are to best leverage these, we need to adjust our approaches to teaching.”

— Michael Dennin, Vice Provost of Teaching & Learning, and Dean, Division of Undergraduate Education University of California, Irvine

ALI, a series of eight sessions that supports faculty in integrating active learning strategies into their courses, covers course goals, active learning activities and assignments, use of technology, and more. The interactive sessions give faculty the opportunity to practice techniques and design strategies that work best in their own courses. It also is an opportunity to discuss teaching and gain insights from faculty across the disciplines.

In addition, UCI has introduced the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) Fellows, which include graduate students who work with faculty over the summer to transform instruction based on pedagogical research to better support their diverse students. The university also continues to focus on providing quality online courses for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as its Digital Learning Institute, which helps train faculty.

“Students come to the university with a different set of strengths and experiences,” Dennin says. “If we are to best leverage these, we need to adjust our approaches to teaching. To do that, UCI is focused on providing faculty and departments with the information and support needed to make these adjustments. Programs like DTEI Fellows and our new Faculty Academy of Teaching Excellence are dedicated to helping support these changes.”

Broadening the outreach

Nestled in the hills of Central New York, the State University of New York at Oneonta (SUNY Oneonta) provides an idyllic setting for study, adventure and self-discovery. The four-year university, which enrolls about 6,000 students in a wide variety of bachelor’s degree programs and graduate degree programs, offers a variety of liberal arts and sciences majors and pre-professional and teacher preparation programs.

Sitting in what SUNY Oneonta President Alberto J.F. Cardelle calls a “community college desert,” the campus has put its efforts into expanding its education and workforce training in the high-demand fields of healthcare and education.

The program is facilitated through SUNY Oneonta’s Extended and Community Learning (ExCL) Center, which is located in downtown Oneonta. By partnering with the third-party provider CareerStep, which offers online training mostly in healthcare, the ExCL Center provides residents the ability to complete, at no cost, 10 programs aligned with employment needs in the area, especially the city of Oneonta and surrounding Otsego County.

“The need for non-credit professional and vocational instruction in these areas has been underscored to our administrators and staff in meetings and conversation with leaders of neighboring healthcare organizations,” says Cardelle, Ph.D., MPH. “One of the organizations, Bassett Healthcare Network, currently has 720 vacancies, distributed across diverse areas like nursing, administration, accounting and medical records.”

While Cardelle does not believe there is a “moonshot approach” that will help regional colleges overcome the challenges of declining enrollment, there are ways to find their niche. “It is important for institutions like ours to work on multiple strategies and interventions, with the goal that each will provide the institution with incremental increases in different student populations.”

One area that has worked for SUNY Oneonta is its focus on strengthening the support system for first generation students, especially ones from immigrant families. SUNY Oneonta has a history of accessibility for students from migrant farmworker families through its CAMP (College Access Migrant Program) program. “If we are to increase the number of students we serve and provide truly equitable access, we need to increase our language support systems,” Cardelle says.

Enter the SUNY Oneonta Heritage Language Institute (SOHLI), which is being designed to support its English language learners with multiple levels of support in an asset-based context. “In other words, SUNY Oneonta wants students enrolling with a second language to be celebrated,” Cardelle says.

Building (online) bridges

Like many schools during the pandemic, Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC) had to completely transform its online learning pathway. Working its way through the post-pandemic era, OCCC continues to see strong enrollment, with numbers consistently reaching 60% of students engaging in online learning.

OCCC President Mautra Staley Jones, Ed.D., says the digital emphasis continues to create new opportunities to make intentional investments in its technology and communication platforms. For example, along with expanding its social media outreach to connect with current and prospective students online, the OCCC team is working on a user-friendly website and enhanced portal for students and employees. 

“The efforts for advancing online learning excellence are building a foundation for future innovation to meet the ever-changing needs of our students and community.”

— Mautra Staley Jones, Ed.D., President, Oklahoma City Community College

Today, students can choose from 32 online degrees or certificate offerings, which represent critical areas of workforce need and provide clear pathways to jobs. In addition to existing offerings, new online degree programs and certificates are regularly added. “A key differentiator is the manner in which we are advancing online learning,” Jones says. “We are committed to a collaborative, intentional and strategic approach for advancing the quality and excellence of online learning. This student-centered approach helps ensure our students can access the most affordable and highest-quality educational opportunities possible.”

Each online class, service, program and experience is designed to help students reach their full potential. Over the past year, OCCC has established and is implementing a comprehensive, multi-phase plan for online learning excellence.

Key activities of this plan include:

  • Creating new structures for cross-college collaboration
  • Expanding faculty development opportunities for online teaching
  • Creating new systems for celebrating excellence in online teaching and student service
  • Enhancing digital communication and marketing for prospective students
  • Creating new industry advisory boards to ensure program relevance and value

“This work surrounding online learning is driven by a simple, yet powerful vision of helping every student thrive, no matter where or how they are pursuing their education,” Jones says. “The efforts for advancing online learning excellence are building a foundation for future innovation to meet the ever-changing needs of our students and community.” In today’s evolving higher education landscape, leaders continue to become pioneers of adaptation in the uncharted territories of innovation and change.