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Letter to the Community: Accessibility of Higher Education

  • Date: 02/05/2001
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Rarely, . . .

    . . . is "one-size-fits-all" a sign of quality, whether in clothing or in education. Yet, ill-fitting measures are all too often applied to our educational systems in ways that constrain the very diversity that is the strength of American higher education. What begins as a well-intentioned attempt to assess the effectiveness of higher education may instead result in criteria that impose homogeneity rather than differentially appropriate actions.

    Such is the case with several recent reports nationwide, including the recent performance report on Ohio's public universities. In December, I wrote an opinion piece for the Columbus Dispatch touching on some of the challenges we face in that regard (December 23, 2000). Here, I will expand on just one aspect of that discussion, namely accessibility.

    One of the measures of effectiveness that receives simplistic and all too little attention is accessibility. Indeed, accessibility to higher education is an appropriate starting point for Ohio because it is imperative that we improve accessibility -- our state has an educational deficit of some 250,000 of the college-educated workforce necessary to compete in today's knowledge-driven economy.

    Those of you in business know that a fundamental rule is that products and services must be accessible to clients -- accessible in terms of cost, location, time and method of delivery. Thus, if higher education is to be deemed accessible in Ohio, we must pay attention to all of the elements of that basic rule.

    First and foremost, public higher education must be affordable. Ohio's "failing grade" in affordability is no longer a secret, and it is finally becoming a topic of discussion in Columbus. Numerous reports, news stories and editorials have made clear the fact that Ohio has created massive pricing disincentives for its students.

    But what can individual colleges and universities do to help ensure affordability? The University of Akron currently provides its students with more than $111 million in financial assistance each year. That amount includes 5,374 scholarships, 388 of which are full academic scholarships. The key to providing such outstanding opportunities lies in private support, and The University of Akron, even as a public institution, is no exception. Fortunately, the University has set fund-raising records in each of the past three fiscal years and already, with six months remaining, we have surpassed by nearly $4 million our previous record-giving-year total of $15.6 million!

    A second aspect of accessibility involves providing the services that customers require in a convenient place, time, and method. Being part of a central business district provides many distinct advantages to University of Akron students and faculty, including a prime location and others that I will discuss in future letters. The University serves a wide range of student needs through hundreds of academic programs, ranging from certificate programs to those leading to associate, bachelor's, master's, doctoral, and law degrees. The broad array of academic offerings -- supplemented by developmental, noncredit, and custom-designed corporate training programs -- addresses the varying educational needs of our diverse and complex community.

    To help students pursue their educational goals while continuing to meet work and family commitments, the University has expanded its evening and weekend course offerings as well as the distribution of its courses. For example, we are offering accelerated degree programs, through which students can attend classes on weekends and earn an associate degree in only 18 months. Through distributed learning technologies, the University is enhancing its course offerings to serve people who, for whatever reason, are unable to pursue their educational goals on our main campus. Several bachelor's degree programs are now available via distance education to students at our Wayne College campus and at several sites in Medina County. Initially, courses are being offered in business administration, technology workforce development, and education. Future degree programs will include a baccalaureate in interdisciplinary studies and one or more master's degrees.

    The University of Akron also is leading Ohio by aggressively advancing the technological infrastructure and delivery systems that can maximize access to higher education. Specifically, we are now offering (1) high-speed and low-cost Internet access to the University from student and employee homes through a partnership with Time Warner; (2) high-speed, wireless network access throughout the University's main campus and Wayne College campus through a partnership with Cisco Systems; and (3) a pilot project that provides 350 new wireless laptop computers to a representative group of students and faculty as part of a partnership with IBM's ThinkPad University program. Partnerships with these and other leading technology companies have enabled The University of Akron to take a leadership position in the areas of information technology and student service.

    As you can see, the subject of accessibility in higher education is broad and complex, but it is only one among several other similarly complex factors needed to evaluate our state's investment in higher education. Still, the bottom line is simple. If we are to create and maintain the educated workforce that Ohio needs and our citizens deserve, we must meet highly diverse and complex educational needs and goals -- The University of Akron does!

    Having said all of this, let us not forget that some students may still not find college accessible, because they are ill-prepared. All Ohioans must work together to make our Kindergarten-12th Grade system effective in preparing future generations for continued education and gainful participation in our high-technology economy. I intend to address that crucial topic in my next letter.

    With every good wish,

    Luis M. Proenza

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