Working Inside the Box: How Small Steps Cumulatively Expand Access to Large Public Universities

Working Inside the Box: How Small Steps Cumulatively Expand Access to Large Public Universities

Marty Anne Gustafson, Jeffrey Russell
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-3809-1.ch021
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Societal and financial changes impacting higher education present great opportunities alongside great risks to traditional, large public institutions. While many such colleges and universities have defined goals to enroll more nontraditional students, it can be challenging to undertake large-scale initiatives that require updates to policy, accreditation, and structures. Alternatively, continuous, steady, and incremental improvements undertaken in partnership with willing faculty can accomplish the same goals. Though initially enacted on a smaller scale, demonstrated success can spread across flagship campuses. The authors present seven strategies demonstrating how incremental change at a unit level can create stronger connections and pathways between traditional research institutions and nontraditional students without disrupting the overall university culture. At the aggregate level, the impact of these individual initiatives has spurred thousands of new graduates and numerous opportunities for learners to achieve their goals through higher education.
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We [flagships] have three missions: education, research, and outreach to the state. What we do with those three missions is not just important to our students. It’s not just important to the state of Wisconsin. But, I deeply believe that we and other flagships—the work that we do—is important to our country, its long-term success, and its possibilities for economic growth and for addressing inequalities.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is known globally for its excellence in research, enviable undergraduate time-to-degree, six-year graduation rates, high production of doctoral students, and nationally recognized athletic programs. It is precisely because of this long-respected reputation that institutions like UW-Madison have had a culture focused on traditional students for over 170 years. Investments remain focused on growing the undergraduate residential population since it appears immune to pandemic decline or the future demographic cliff that will impact smaller regional public universities and community colleges. The state legislature continues to provide financial support, but not yet at a rate that supports investments in large-scale online learning or other accessible pathways. And although departments experimenting with online and hybrid programs now enroll thousands of learners, nontraditional students represent just a fraction of the overall student population. Without a potential significant impact on the finances of the institution at-large, there is little incentive to update the structure.

What follows are seven independent ideas and action plans enacted over time at UW-Madison to demonstrate how incremental change starting at a unit level can create stronger connections and pathways between educational programming and nontraditional students without disrupting the overall university culture. Each action was deliberately enacted to impact only those departments and academic units that “bought-in” to the change, thus preserving faculty and departmental priorities and decreasing risk to the overall institution by measuring impact on a linear, versus exponential scale. Despite the slower pace of implementation however, these changes were undertaken in the hope that success would breed success and further adoption across the university. By working within the faculty governance model to build coalitions and support, continued growth from department to department has resulted in thousands of new graduates and opportunities for learners to achieve their goals through higher education.

The strategies presented include:

  • 1.

    Embed continuing education departments more deeply within the credit departmental structure—integrating academic offerings by discipline, rather than credential type.

  • 2.

    Curate small non-degree learning experiences reusing credit courses for nontraditional students.

  • 3.

    Co-teach credit courses for both enrolled degree-seeking students and non-credit learners to expand the reach of faculty-led instruction.

  • 4.

    Build stackable credit-based offerings into academic degrees to reduce barriers to enrollment for working adult students.

  • 5.

    Expand credit-by-examination beyond the high-school-to-undergraduate pipeline to build a pathway to credit from non-credit programming.

  • 6.

    Partner with credit programs to provide mutual marketing to shared audiences, demonstrating connections between complementary programming.

  • 7.

    Concentrate on cost and access to non-degree opportunities for nontraditional students.

The initiatives are detailed in order of cooperative complexity, starting within an individual school, college or division (Strategies 1-2), to a partnership between two units (Strategies 3-4), to policy changes at the institutional level (Strategies 5-7) that can be adopted at the departmental level if desired. Impact on the student experience and faculty is also provided as a guidepost for adoption by other institutions.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA): Validation of learning from a variety of assessment approaches, including standardized exams, credit recommendation programs (primarily from military transcripts), and individual portfolio assessment.

DCS: Division of Continuing Studies.

Digital Badge: A validated digital record of demonstrated competency over and above participation. The record contains detailed metadata about achievements such as who earned it, who issued it, the criteria required to earn it, and as possible the evidence and assessment of the relevant skills.

Microcredentials: A verifiable credential earned after successful completion of requirements that are less than those of a degree or academic certificate, generally focused on a mastery of an individual skill or set of skills.

PDC: Professional degrees and certificates.

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