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High Quality Academic Programs

 Background 

 

 High quality academic programs are a hallmark of universities. Characteristics that define quality programs vary from one field to the next; yet, there are foundational elements that are essential to rich academic experiences. Paramount is the recruitment of outstanding faculty who strive for excellence in the classroom and are committed to providing a rigorous academic experience. Excellent faculty members are mindful of the quality and preparedness of students while being nimble enough to serve the changing student demographic and industry needs. The defining theme of a high quality academic program is one that embraces a culture valuing instruction and student success. High quality academic programs are student centric, meaning they address each of the components necessary to prepare all students, regardless of ability, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or country of origin, to excel in their chosen field and as productive members of society. 

Two indirect, yet useful tools in determining the quality of academic programs are the incorporation of program accreditation and Higher Learning Commission (HLC) initiatives. South Dakota State University (SDSU) has prioritized increasing the number of accredited, certified or approved programs. In 2013, SDSU had 32 accredited programs and set a target of 42 by 2018. The number of accredited programs increased to 39 by the close of 2016. These programs exist within every degree-granting college. Additionally, SDSU participates as an institution in HLC accreditation every 10 years. 

Since 2013, SDSU undergraduate students have improved on the academic challenge indicators of reflective and integrative learning and learning strategies, as measured by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Performance is static on indicators of higher-order learning and quantitative reasoning. In FY17, a campus committee used NSSE data to recommend that the cross-curricular skills “Diversity, Inclusion, & Equity” be a student learning outcome for all academic assessment plans. 

Undergraduate students who earned an academic degree increased between 2013 and 2016 (1,834 and 2,050 graduates, respectively). During this timeframe, student retention increased from 75% to 76.1%. Enrollment of underrepresented students increased from 1,416 to 1,606 for the same years. Enrollment growth and continued emphasis on student retention are institutional priorities. The number of Honors-eligible students remained consistent during the same period, yet the number of students pursuing Honors has increased. The number of graduates from STEM disciplines is on the rise. At the same time, the reach of the university has grown through a 30% increase in the number of online degree programs offered at SDSU since 2013. The number of agreements with other universities, community colleges, and technical institutes has doubled. 

Lessons Learned 

 

SDSU has experienced dynamic growth and change over the past 5 years resulting in a range of lessons learned. One perspective gained is that accreditation is important; however, it is not sufficient. Support of quality academic programs and people through 2 sufficient resources is vital in order to build and maintain a positive university culture and meet the demands of students and the marketplace. 

University level leadership must support collaborative and comprehensive approaches to developing students. Strong academic experiences paired with enriching co-curricular programming are essential. Necessary to this approach is ongoing and purposeful dialog between academic and co-curricular units and the university administration. Each program must have the necessary resources (fiscal, environmental, and social) and collaborative mindset in order to flexibly navigate an evolving world. 

Support of the work of faculty is essential to the development of high quality academic programs. Administratively engaging with faculty through active communication of the value and expectations of their roles in teaching, research and service is vital to their professional success. Consistent messaging regarding the importance of quality academic programs is vital. Support of faculty at the university level through opportunities for professional and personal development, instructional support and the management and accessibility of information is key to long term viability. 

National Trends & External Picture 

One trend affecting higher education is diversity, which extends beyond domestic diversity to include non-traditional, international, and low-income students. With diversity, come themes of access, assistance, safety and global perspectives. To improve access for diverse students, institutions are developing online or accelerated degree programs with a focus on specific skills and competencies. A strong technological infrastructure and flexible course and program delivery options are needed. 

The overall cost of higher education is a growing accessibility concern as state support is generally declining. For low-income students, broad based assistance (e.g., financial, nutritional, shelter, clothing) is increasingly available at institutions of higher education. Growth in dual enrollment credit certainly addresses issues of cost and access to a degree by allowing students to begin their college career while still in high school, at a much lower cost. While this is a great opportunity for students, it creates financial challenges for institutions when credit hours do not generate sufficient operational revenue. 

Safety for all students is another theme, as acts of violence in public settings are on the rise, with many of these acts focused on specific groups. A safe campus climate is key to attracting and retaining diverse students. Messaging and events that promote a safe and welcoming campus climate for international students, people of color, LGBQT communities, and people with disabilities are essential. 

Another trend is a focus on global perspectives for both students and faculty. As programs become more diverse, understanding of global perspectives is essential for institutions of higher learning. The complex interplay of worldwide issues on every academic discipline, profession, and population is important for future productive citizens. 

The value of a college degree is of question as demands for technical and service skills are high. There is also concern about the career readiness of university graduates. There seems to be a gap between college performance and job placement, meaning the best students are having difficulty finding employment. A focus on communication, creative and critical thinking, and collaboration skills has begun at many institutions. Employers demand these skills and report that they are lacking among college graduates regardless of the discipline. 

Accreditation standards for institutions have changed to focus more on rates of retention, graduation and job placement. Accreditation of degree and professional programs or specializations implies a high level of excellence; however, in some cases accreditation is voluntary. There are some concerns that the costs and bureaucratic processes associated with accreditation may not be worth the effort, as a program can be of high quality without accreditation. 

Strategic Themes 

Balancing workload between teaching, scholarship/creative activity and service based on the needs of their particular discipline as well as clarity of expectations. SDSU has defined key inter-related areas of faculty performance as teaching and advising; scholarship, research and creative activity; and service (both professional and general). Faculty members must balance each of these areas, based on the discipline and workload assignment. While faculty members focus on academic and disciplinary interests, the increased expectations for measurable outcomes and accountability are demanding. These expectations contribute to stress and potentially disrupt the balance of work- and home-life, both of which can affect the quality of academic programming. 

Developing Student Career Skills. The job market is changing as technology and global economies restructure the modern workplace. SDSU must prepare students for this evolving workforce. While preparing students for a specific career is still important, it is also critical that students continue to combine technical skills with skills in creativity, communication, and collaboration. 

Resource allocation. Appropriate resource allocation is critical to high quality academic programs. Essential costs include institutional operations, competitive faculty and staff salaries, recruitment and retention initiatives, and both maintaining and improving facilities and services. Resource allocation must reflect the ability of the federal, state, and local government as well as the student to meet these demands. 

Enrollment strategies - Retention and Quality Online Education with Assessment. A strategic enrollment management plan must consider a student population that includes international students, students of color, LGBQT communities, and students with disabilities. This includes ascertaining each individual student’s identity as well as his or her academic, educational, and career goals along with personality preferences. To achieve an effective enrollment strategy, SDSU should use the recruitment process to begin building a meaningful relationship that will sustain a new freshman student through graduation. 

Administrative Support. With a decentralized budget and an increased emphasis on faculty productivity, it is more important than ever that faculty and staff have administrative support for their changing roles in creating high quality academic programs. In order for faculty to focus time on research or creative activity, administrators must be willing to adjust teaching and service workloads. Likewise, in order for assigned specific service (such as extension) to be nationally relevant, resources are needed to be productive. 

Faculty Development Programs. We must attract and empower outstanding faculty and strengthen academic programs through secured and dedicated university resources. Quality people are essential to the ability of SDSU to deliver on its mission. Hiring and retaining top faculty can assure high quality programs. Faculty development programs and resources provided by SDSU can help faculty to learn teaching strategies and design innovative learning activities for students. Faculty development conferences, courses, and workshops (such as the fall faculty conference) positively affect academic programs. 

SDSU Assessment Academy. The SDSU Assessment Academy supports the University as a competitive and innovative institution focused on student learning and high quality academic programs. As an HLC accredited institution, SDSU commits to high quality academic programs through ongoing assessment of student learning. The SDSU Assessment Academy is focused on helping programs and units to develop program level assessment plans to assure continuous improvements. The SDSU Assessment Academy also includes co-curricular activities and events. These assessment initiatives improve academic programs. Cohorts of faculty/staff from each program will take part in the academies over a 3-year period, beginning with 65 participants in 2016-17. 

Options 

Attracting, keeping and rewarding good educators. Educators need to have the resources and incentives to develop academic programs. High quality programs must have high quality instruction, thus a focus on teaching skills within a strong technological infrastructure lends itself to quality academic programs. Supporting new faculty is the most important area to focus on to develop high quality academic programs. In this area, some options include: 

  •  Separate supplemental contracts for new faculty to provide course and professional development at least two weeks prior to the start of the academic year. 
  •  A strong review system for on-campus courses and teaching, similar to what is in place for online courses. 
  • Incentives for professional development as teachers, through either stipends or required continuous improvement every three years. 
  • Opportunities for new faculty to obtain feedback and support, including assigning a teaching mentor and continuing to require a partial FAR and review after the first semester of teaching. 

Investment in information technology infrastructure. A strong and secure information technology infrastructure is necessary to address long-term success. A focus on using technology and data analytics to track learning patterns and student engagement as well as instructional competence will assist in quality program delivery and student success. Funding spent in this area is not readily visible to either the students or the faculty, however if implemented and used correctly, can reap benefits across critical areas that affect quality programs. 

Creating engaging learning environments. Course size, delivery mode and classroom teaching technology influence personalized learning approaches. Having sufficient bandwidth capable of real-time video and audio streaming increases accessibility and adds to the individual learning experience. Such access goes beyond the physical classroom. Integrating pedagogical approaches that encourage engagement and interaction can improve the ability to connect with online students or large classrooms in a more personal way. 

Estimated Costs 

Infrastructure 

  • Technology costs (becoming a 24/7 accessible university) 

  • Modernize instructional delivery spaces 

  • Information and analytics functions. 

Instructional 

  • Optimal class sizes 

  • Onboarding of new faculty supplemental salary costs (outside of COHE contract dates) 

Accreditation 

  • Preparation for accreditation    

               - Program development and modification costs 

               - Consultation and accreditation visit costs 

  • Annual costs: Initial and ongoing charges from accrediting agencies 

  • Resource expectations of accrediting organizations

                - Competitive faculty salaries 

                - Class size and Faculty/student ratios 

                - Program leadership 

Short-Term Plans 
  • Support new faculty by providing a stipend to begin course development and mentoring at least three weeks prior to the start of classes. Provide clear outcome expectations. 

  • Support existing faculty by providing 10% workload release (dependent on number of course preps as well as overall teaching load) once every 3 years to reinvigorate/redesign courses. 

  • Update the faculty handbook to create better alignment between measures of teaching effectiveness beyond the IDEA scores and those recognized in individual academic programs. 

  • Update the faculty annual review (FAR), workload, and promotion and tenure documents to reflect the importance of measures of teaching effectiveness beyond the IDEA scores. 

  • Identify opportunities to emphasize inclusion and accessibility in programs and services for underrepresented and financially-challenged student populations. 

  • Review the expectations of the lecturer track to reduce turnover and ensure quality instruction. 

  • Involve students in the development and evaluation of high quality academic programs. 
Long-Term Plans 
  • Create a standardized review process for all courses regardless of delivery method. 

  • Improve information technology infrastructure and access with 24/7 support. 

  • Invest in recruitment and support of an accessible university and diverse student body. 

  • Continue to upgrade and review classroom design, technology, and instructional methods. 

  • Examine the balance of research, service and teaching expectations. 

  • Examine the cost verses benefit of accrediting programs. 

  • Encourage cross-disciplinary and co-curricular academic learning opportunities and programs. 

  • Continue to involve students in the development and evaluation of academic programs. 

  • Identify opportunities to capitalize on the work of the assessment academy through transparent communication of progress on academic/co-curricular initiatives. 

  • Create workforce-ready graduates who possess the essential skills expected by the workplace. 

  • Focus on continuous improvement related to inclusion and access to programs and services for underrepresented and financially-challenged student populations.