All the talk surrounding the need for more investment into Michigan’s higher education institutions is starting to pay off — at least a little bit.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2014 budget is proposing a 2-percent increase in funding to the state’s public schools, universities and community colleges. And while any increase in funding is technically a good thing, sources at many higher education institutions in West Michigan say they aren’t relying on legislators’ efforts to help students get more bang for their buck.
As rising tuition costs and scarce financial aid continue to squeeze potential students out of degree paths, institutions are looking for more ways to efficiently graduate students, reduce outgoing debt and provide more experiential learning opportunities.
With the price tag for an advanced degree rivaling the cost of some luxury vehicles and beyond, students and parents alike are questioning the value of such letters.
Specifically, business schools around the country are up against an overqualified job market resulting from job cuts driven by the economic downturn, as well as online, for-profit institutions offering quick and convenient degrees at a fraction of the cost.
Moreover, a discussion surrounding a performance-based appropriations system is starting to get attention from legislators calling for not just butts in seats, but more degreed individuals graduating with in-demand skills.
The current 2013 fiscal year state budget gave a 3-percent increase to higher education, but the funds came with a number of social caveats in addition to enrollment numbers, caveats that weren’t exactly well-received, said Eric Kelderman who covers state policy for the Chronicle of Higher Education. For example, the state Legislature said Michigan State University would not qualify for increased funding if it kept a requirement that all its students have health insurance upon enrollment.
“In covering what has changed over the past five years, the economic downturn is forcing more radical thinking around higher education, who should pay for it and what the value is,” Kelderman told MiBiz.
One person who has seen plenty of higher education initiatives come and go is John Reifel, interim dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University. The longtime economics professor said the big picture that universities and colleges across the country must face is that the nation has a shrinking population of young, college-bound students. Michigan’s college-bound population is shrinking more than the national trend, he said.
“There is pressure on colleges all across the U.S. to recruit students,” Reifel said. “While enrollment (at GVSU) went up incrementally, enrollment at the business school has stayed about the same. At the graduate level, our part-time MBA has shown some decline and has for several years, which is another national trend.”
Rising degree costs and drops in employers underwriting tuition for students are just a couple of the reasons for the decline in graduate-level enrollment, Reifel said.
Prior to the economic downturn, a growing number of individuals sought MBA degrees, he said. But as the job market contracted in response the recession, the market became flooded with highly qualified individuals. Wages then dropped and companies’ abilities to attract that talent faded, he said.
Since that early period just after the recession, employers unable to recruit top talent and leadership changed gears and decided to train internally. Instead of hiring MBA-level talent, they decided to take on undergraduate degree holders and advance them slowly through the ranks, Reifel said.
While this strategy stretches the payroll dollar, it doesn’t address the experience gap, he said. This is where programs such as GVSU’s full-time integrated MBA program can help.
The program is a recent addition to the Seidman College of Business and is designed to get students immersed within a company while also working through a full credit load. The program is 14 months long and includes an 11-month paid fellowship with an area company. Tuition and fees total roughly $34,000 for Michigan residents and approximately $42,000 for out-of-state residents.
The Seidman College of Business is one of less than 5 percent of programs worldwide accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), an accreditation that gives the college one more leg up on the competition to attract participants. B-schools often tout that kind of outside accreditation as part of their value when talking to undergraduates. The Western Michigan University Haworth College of Business and the Michigan State University Eli Broad College of Business also have the AACSB accreditation.
In addition to the exclusive accreditation the GVSU business school received, the university is also changing up the idea of a traditional MBA with its focus on integrating the individual disciplines across the degree. By combining multiple fields of study from finance to accounting, Reifel said the college is aiming to produce multifaceted graduates.
“The program is really for individuals who know they want an MBA, but also want something to differentiate themselves from the flooded job market. (The integrated degree) gives them a leg up with slim opportunities,” he said. “It gives students a better feel about how an entire business fits together from leadership decisions to executing and order. The point is to give students a better position to move up in the management chain.”
Other efforts to align with the local economy and the growing health care sector caused GVSU to introduce a health care management discipline into the college’s part-time MBA program. The college also recently introduced a master of supply chain management degree.
For professionals seeking to further their knowledge or their careers, the college is also fleshing out the programming for its new Center for Leadership and Innovation that will be housed in the new, $40 million L. William Seidman Center facility downtown.
Starting out small, Reifel said the center plans to provide more than just leadership training to mid-level executives at local companies.
Ferris State University’s College of Business Dean David Nichols is looking to drive down costs by examining the benefits of competency-based systems, bolstering service to niche degree markets and reducing redundancy in programming.
“With the cost of education, what it really comes down to is how do we balance that reality in a form that is mutually beneficial in maintaining integrity to the learning experience and ensuring we’re not adding anything extraneous,” Nichols said.
Like GVSU’s full-time integrated MBA program, Nichols said Ferris State is focused on the experiential component of a university education. There is a movement toward one or multiple internships before graduation, he said.
Ferris State is also in the early stages of identifying partnerships for a startup business incubator and recently launched a Latino Business and Economic Development Center in response to the university’s growing ethnic base.
Carlos Sanchez, formerly the president of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, heads the center.
Other regional schools, including Aquinas College, aren’t resting on their laurels when it comes to program development, either.
The small Catholic college continues to see more interest in its master’s program in sustainable business, which launched in 2010 as an extension of the school’s undergraduate degree and is quickly becoming a hallmark for the school, said Brian Divita, director of graduate management programs at Aquinas.
The rise of the program is reflected in the increasing introduction of sustainable business strategies and triple bottom line best practices at companies locally and nationally.
A recently established advisory board that consists of local executives from Saint Mary’s Health, Spectrum Health, Amway, Steelcase and Wolverine Worldwide is helping Aquinas stay in step with the needs of the business community.
“We want to make sure we’re hitting (the needs of business) at the curriculum level,” Divita said. “Now we’re looking at some of our concentrations and building on them.”
Degree concentrations such as marketing managment and organizational leadership are expected to grow up to 15 credits, covering the subjects more thoroughly, he said.
“There is an awful lot to understand (in these disciplines),” Divita said. “We should have deeper dives in these area, not just skim the surface.”
The move is slightly contrarian to the greater trend of institutions “trimming the fat” or removing seemingly extraneous courses from degree paths to streamline the route to graduation. Still, Divita said it isn’t like the university is adding years to student’s time in college. The changes amount to eight additional weeks and strategically, the decision to get more embedded in the material differentiates Aquinas from other institutions, he said.
Both the Master of Managment and Master of Sustainable Business now offer study abroad trips to Munich, Germany and Costa Rica respectively, which should give students a first-hand introduction to understanding a global marketplace, Divita said.
“We’re aligning to the global marketplace,” he said. “Frankly, I think this is what employers want. What it is we’re selling is the experience of expertise.”
Beyond the efforts of colleges and universities to adjust programming to the realities of the global economy, the demand and usage of digital resources is changing the classroom as well as the way students work.
With texts and even full courses moving to online formats and other digital forms, higher education is quickly becoming just a mouse click away. The University of Wisconsin and Southern New Hampshire University are two institutions that Kelderman of The Chronicle pointed to as schools moving full bachelor’s degree programs to online competency-based models. Eventually, the online and at-home coursework culminates in a test that determine college credit, he said.
“A larger percentage of college students are likely to take at least one class online,” Kelderman said. “And there is a lot of movement in that direction.”
Yet both Nichols and Reifel don’t see the role of traditional institutions being replaced anytime soon — or at all, for that matter. Online versions of courses at both institutions’ B-schools are below the 30-percent level of the total courses offered. Further, neither of the deans ever see their colleges competing with the for-profit University of Phoenixes of the world.
Nichols and Reifel both pointed to the vastly different resource structures between the all-online model and the traditional university model, which draws strength and identity from its roots in the community.
“I think we’re fast moving away from textbooks as we know it,” Nichols said. “Faculty now has an increasing opportunity to develop and customize course material. I think it makes for an interesting environment, but I think it will all eventually benefit the education system.”
At GVSU, social media has been a game changer for the marketing department. With the business community almost entirely aboard the social media bandwagon, the topic is getting more attention as it relates to companies’ business models. The university recently hired five new Ph.D. faculty members to replace retiring department professors. The new professors all bring new skills sets to the table, Reifel said.
Just as technology must be kept up-to-date to be effective, so too must higher educational departments ensure that their professors are attuned to how companies use social media.
According to Divita, the key point for online education is that it’s just a modality or a distribution channel.
“We’d be remiss if we all tried to pretend we’re back in the ’60s,” he said. “We appreciate the modality, but there is limit to that learning process.”
At Aquinas, students are limited to taking 15 percent of their courses in an online format.
While the schools push hard to preserve the quality of their educational offerings, they must also come to grips with the savings presented by moving to digital and online resources, sources said.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that higher-education spending was cut by 14 percent in the 2011 fiscal year and has fallen by more than 19 percent overall from 2007 to 2012, according to data from the Grapevine Project at Illinois State University.
So while higher education advocates see Gov. Snyder’s proposal for a 2-percent funding increase next year as a step in the right direction, they’re cautious because of the size of the gap remaining to be filled.
In a recent editorial board meeting with MiBiz, Business Leaders for Michigan President and CEO Doug Rothwell said increased state funding would help ease tuition increases at the state’s 15 public four-year universities and take the financial pressure off parents now forced to cover the state’s funding shortfalls.
“We’ve shifted the burden to parents from government,” he said. “We need more kids in the state to get a higher education.”