Letter from the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies

March 7, 2017

 

Dear colleagues,

This is my second quarterly update for the 2016-17 academic year. Previous letters, including the most recent from December 2016, are online.

Rather than focus on recent activities, let me instead touch on a few undergraduate issues, which are likely to need further study, discussion and strategic action as we move forward. This is not an exhaustive list. But I anticipate that each will occupy more and more of our attention as we continue to strive for recognition as a topmost public research university.

First, let us again acknowledge K-State's remarkable recent gains in persistence and graduation success. I am not aware of another major university that, in the past few years, has enjoyed a five percentage point increase in first-to-second year retention and a seven percentage point increase in six-year graduation. Spurred by K-State 2025, we also are measuring the number of undergraduates who engage in research, internships, study abroad and enrich their educations in other ways. We will not be satisfied until all hardworking undergraduate students are able to maximize learning and growth, and, ultimately, earn empowering undergraduate degrees in a timely, affordable manner.

Mentioning timeliness and affordability raises a key issue: I call it the increasingly "all-in" economics of undergraduate education. While each student faces situations particular to them, students generally benefit — academically and economically — from timely graduation.

Consider that additional years invested in pursuit of a bachelor's degree mean, at the very least, added room-and-board expenses, but also very often the cost of forgoing one or more years of much higher pay associated with postgraduate employment. When students try to get by with 12 credit hours per semester — and thereby on average increase their time-to-graduation by two semesters — data suggests that they also unwittingly increase their risk of not graduating at all. And when they work more than, say 10-to-15 hours per week at part-time job(s) to help with expenses, commonsense as well as national data suggests that they are apt to find it more difficult to consistently perform to the best of their academic abilities. Grades tend to suffer and students too often cope with debilitating stress.

From students' point of view, all-in means making timely graduation a priority. What are the true implications of underloading credit hours? What is the opportunity cost of "part-time" employment? By the way, for K-State, all-in means doing everything possible to help students discover the academic pathway that is best for them as early in their undergraduate education as possible, incentivizing economically and academically sound decision-making, and eliminating unintended but nonetheless unnecessary roadblocks, academic and otherwise.

Let me also note that so-called "enrichments" or "high-impact practices" are not only "must-haves" for students who expect to undertake graduate and professional education; at least one or two are increasingly expected indications of quality for all undergraduate students.

For decades, graduate and professional school admissions committees have been on the lookout for evidence of meaningful undergraduate research, study abroad, internships, leadership and service experience, undergraduate teaching and tutoring experience, etc. But, more and more, even employers scanning resumes for entry-level positions expect evidence of co-curricular learning. This means that a nationally recognized top-tier undergraduate program must facilitate making such opportunities available to all.

For their part, students need to work with advisors and faculty mentors to supplement success in their core degree program(s) with what were once "nice-to-haves" but which are now increasingly must-have enrichments. Standards have changed, but, thankfully, an even more well-rounded and empowering learning experience is the result.

How about one last issue: technology. As we all know, we live in a time when classroom technologies, advising technologies, student support technologies of all kinds, exist and are further developing to help educators better engage and support student learning. What if it were possible to integrate the Canvas learning management system (K-State Online) and KSIS Advisor Center/Student Success Collaborative (SSC)? Imagine the "early alert" system that would be possible if Canvas could automatically share data in this way. Or, imagine how helpful it would be if instructors, advisors, dean's office staff, student life professionals, tutors — anyone with proper FERPA training and the advisor role in KSIS — could access information about, share perspectives on, and effectively communicate concerning, individual student progress. Well, know that we are among the first universities exploring Canvas/SSC integration and that we also are among some 200 leading colleges and universities working to implement the latter SSC "coordinated care network."

Undergraduate education is complex, and every student experience is nuanced and unique. Thankfully, even in down budget years, K-State has made remarkable progress in strengthening its undergraduate programs. As the next several years unfold, I anticipate that we will continue to work to make K-State affordable and increasingly user-friendly as well as increasingly enriching and empowering. That's value. Even in tough times, value provides a solid foundation for recognized academic excellence.

Steve Dandaneau,

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies