Big and great

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Like the state we were created for, let's start recognizing our public universities as big and great.

How big is too big? As an enterprise that is home to some of our nation's largest public universities, we often are confronted with questions of size and growth, and specifically, how big will our universities become?

The real and legitimate concern being expressed is this - can our universities be both big and great?

That concern has loomed large in recent weeks as Arizona's public universities announced updated strategic outcomes for 2025, including a target to grow enrollment by nearly 50 percent to 225,000 students and graduate the overwhelming majority of those who enroll.

Agreed, 225,000 is a great big number. Yet, interestingly, no one questions the ability of a company to be both big and great (think Apple).  Somehow, we are led to believe that our nation's universities can only be of high quality if they are kept small - or worse, expensive.

From its inception, the public university has existed to grant access to the highest levels of learning for all individuals to pursue their ambitions, no matter what their backgrounds. Our founders put no limits on our universities as a means to deliver on the American dream, nor should we. To do so would be rationing the opportunities and potential of those who live here.

Considered one of the strongest indicators of success among business and industry, growth is an indication of a company's ability to attract capital and meet consumer demand. By similar measures, our universities are proving that size and quality do co-exist. All three of our universities have programs that rank in the top 100 in the nation in their ability to attract research investment from both public and private sources, with more than 25 in the top 50 and several in the top five. Demand remains strong. Unlike other states that have flat or declining enrollments, Arizona is among only four states that continue to attract new students.

While we're pleased with these achievements, we must continue to expand strategically.  Arizona is a growing state, and as it grows, our economy is changing. University economists recently detailed how knowledge-based jobs are emerging as economic drivers of Arizona's future in sectors such as finance, insurance and professional jobs and will require more individuals with higher levels of learning than jobs that existed before.

Higher levels of education won't be required just for those jobs. Within the next two years, two-thirds of all jobs will require some type of post-secondary education. During the next 10 years, we will reach the apex of the retirement of the baby boomers as 550,000 Arizona boomers - about 137,000 of whom have bachelor's degrees - reach retirement age.

We can't assume that individuals will be available to provide the talent or buy the businesses or take over the professional practices that have been built here. We also can't rely on a "bring your own degree" strategy for talent development.

We must actively grow our own educated workforce. While that is not exclusively our job and other players also contribute, we need to embrace the reality that the majority of the responsibility for growing the workforce of individuals with advanced degrees in Arizona will fall to our public universities. Consider that 20 years ago, Arizona imported the vast majority of individuals with bachelor's degrees or higher. Today, it is our public university system that produces the majority of individuals who hold these credentials in Arizona.

While our public higher education system is still smaller than many other states, it is imperative to think very differently about how we grow from here. While we must preserve the student-faculty relationship, it's clear not every student needs to learn on a research campus or even on a campus at all. Much of our new growth will occur in our online student offerings. We are also setting a target to increase the number of community college transfers to build on existing infrastructure and help contain costs for students by allowing them to earn credit that will transfer to their bachelor's degree in a low-cost setting close to home. We are piloting efforts that upend the traditional semester model and allow students to progress as they demonstrate mastery, rather than fill seat time. We are evolving the tradition of closed learning and research networks and thinking of new ways to scale by creating education and research alliances with other universities throughout the country to increase access, enhance discovery and close achievement gaps. We're rethinking our revenue models and taking an enterprise approach by treating our state as an important investor, but one of many. We're also eschewing models in other states that create multiple systems, duplicative programs and burdensome bureaucracies. Instead, we're purposely and more fully differentiating our universities and their missions.

Growing enrollment to more than a quarter of a million students requires us to formally link our size and quality ambitions. For the first time, we are introducing a series of quality markers into our measures of progress at our universities so students know that they aren't just getting a diploma - they are getting a great education. Our students deserve to graduate with a degree that gives them not just subject matter expertise but the analytical and communications skills they need, along with real-world experiences so that they not only land a job at graduation, but hold a job over time - and maybe even help create some new jobs for others over the course of their careers.

Can our universities be both big and great? Absolutely. Not great big, but truly big and great. Like the state we were created to serve, our public universities can deliver both.