From the Front Lines

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Compiled by Wendy Flanagan and Mike Brothers

The education landscape is changing, there’s no doubt about it. Where is it headed? We talked with Drury University alumni and former faculty in the field. The Missouri commissioner of higher education, a former dean and a current business professor offer up their thoughts.

Zora Mulligan '98

Zora MulliganIt’s Zora Mulligan’s job to know higher ed inside and out. As the commissioner of higher education for the state of Missouri, she’s tasked with understanding where the industry is headed and why.

Before assuming her current role in 2016, she was chief of staff for the University of Missouri system, and before that she served as executive director of the Missouri Community College Association. In addition to getting her bachelor’s degree from Drury, she earned a master’s in higher education administration and a law degree from the University of Kansas.

“I’ve been around higher ed for a long time,” she says, and offers some thoughts on what’s next.

A new focus on credentials

Mulligan says anyone who still holds the outdated view that higher ed never changes hasn’t been paying attention. There’s greater integration of technology, shifting demographics, new areas of study and more paths to a degree. Other changes are less obvious, yet just as significant.

“Schools are increasingly seeing the value of providing an experience that prepares students for work and for life,” Mulligan says, “which means they’re now integrating the curricular and co-curricular experiences.”

Hands-on is a must-do

Mulligan says students and families have “an intuitive understanding” of the need for the traditional undergraduate experiences to better prepare young people for life, and not just a job, even if they can’t articulate it in that way. But higher ed leaders are well aware – because employers are telling them so.

“If you talk with employers, whether it’s at a great nonprofit or a great Fortune 500 company, they say what students learn in the classroom is great, but what organizations really need to have confidence in a new hire is to know that person has had an opportunity to apply their excellent classroom knowledge to a real-life setting,” she says.

Value is reflected in what’s required

The key for colleges and universities offering these experiences, Mulligan says, is to “walk the walk and not just talk the talk” and make sure it touches every student’s life.

“Unless you’re really reaching all students, you’re not affecting the perception of your graduates in the world and that’s what’s really important to maintaining the value proposition of the degree that’s being offered.”

Dan Beach

Dan BeachDan Beach knows a thing or two about the higher education landscape. For more than two decades, the former Drury University professor helped shape the school’s education program, growing satellite campuses around the Ozarks. Beach was also instrumental in launching Drury’s Master in Education curriculum. He retired in the late 2000s as associate dean of Graduate and Evening and Online Programs, but Beach is still involved with the school.

Changes are coming

“Higher education is, has always been, and will continue to be focused on helping people succeed. While that core focus hasn’t changed, the overall landscape has undergone seismic shifts. Competition is fierce. Students today are looking for value, placement when they graduate, individual attention while in school and career success they can attribute to college preparation. The changing marketplace is dictating that universities either adapt and innovate or wither on the vine.”

More than a job

“While change is needed, what’s concerning is the nature of the conversation around higher education. Much of it seems to be very tactical and one-dimensional. Get in. Get out. Get a job. Education isn’t purely about gaining skills in a very narrow subject. College is a critical time in a young person’s development. Today, more than ever, students need to be well-rounded, be able to think about things from many angles, and be able to work collaboratively with a variety of people to solve real issues. They need a “T” shaped education. The vertical line representing an academic major or depth of knowledge. The crossbar representing a breadth of knowledge; those things that contribute to critical thinking. Without having both tangible skills and intellectual interests, students can become dull; they know a lot about one particular area but can’t carry on a conversation or relate to people.”

Find your passion

“College is a time of personal, social and intellectual development. Sure, a young person can skip college and get a job and meet basic needs, but they won’t get the power that comes from blending professional and personal passions. There are all kinds of statistics proving people with a degree have more income, more autonomy in their work, more flexibility. Statistics also bear out that college graduates make more contributions to society.”

Sara Cochran '04, MA '06

Sara CochranSara Cochran is passionate about higher education. After working in the corporate world, the Drury graduate worked for her alma mater as the assistant director of the Edward Jones Center for Entrepreneurship and then went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri. She’s now on the faculty at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, teaching entrepreneurship.

Here are a few ways higher education has changed in her view, and how it should continue to adapt.

College has become more expensive

“Or at least it feels that way for many. The economy is doing well but family wealth is different than it used to be. We’ve seen a shift in people’s ability to pay for tuition. We’ve also seen a rise in college costs and a fall in state funding. Some of that may be caused by more people going to school, which is great, but it has become more expensive.”

There’s a growing disconnect

“For large research institutions in particular, I think there’s a huge disconnect between what the research universities produce and the people in their area, the residents. People may hear a professor is only teaching two classes, but what they don’t understand is that professor is also in the lab figuring out life-saving knowledge about that medicine you take every day. We’ve got to do a better job of helping people understand that by translating the research for a general audience.”

Majors will come and go

“There are majors and programs that don’t exist now that did when our parents were students and we have to change with the times. We get very stuck on adding majors but aren’t willing to get rid of any. You’re seeing some universities drop programs because they have to. But people get stuck on seeing that as a loss and bad thing. It can be a good thing. It means that we’re keeping up with the times.”

Technology … ?

“I think we will see some universities close because of technology and scarce resources. We will see the continued shift to online, but I also think some of the shift in technology will be in how we do things on campus. There’s just something very special about being on a college campus and I can’t imagine that going away – but I do think it will change.”