Testimony to the Higher Education Reform Committee

Testimony delivered to the Ohio House of Representatives Higher Education Reform Committee on September 9, 2013 by Provost William M. "Mike" Sherman at Columbus State Community College


Good evening, Chairman Rosenberger, members of the Higher Education Reform Study Committee. I am Mike Sherman, senior vice president, provost and chief operating officer of The University of Akron. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Before I begin and for context, I would like you to know I am a first generation college graduate. I am proud of my folks who worked in the public and retail services sectors as a school cafeteria cashier and a meat cutter. They valued education. I am honored for this opportunity and I know they would be proud to know I had this honor.

As a metropolitan university, Akron is experiencing many of the challenges that higher education faces today, particularly public institutions that are inclusive in nature. Because we provide greater access to more students with diverse needs, we have in place programs to enhance the success of all students, including efforts to close the achievement gap that impacts college preparedness levels.

Measuring Success

Of course, how student success is measured is a key question. As President Proenza has stated many times, “We seek to be measured by the value we add in enabling the success of our students, not by how many we exclude.” If an institution accepts only the most-prepared students then it is no surprise that those well-prepared students do well. However, establishing exclusivity as a measure of success artificially and inappropriately penalizes those who include rather than exclude.

There are related problems with measures like graduation rates, in that they don’t count thousands of successful students who earn their degrees because the 6-year graduation rate only includes first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students who graduate from the institution where they first enrolled. On a national basis, fully one-third of all students transfer from the institution where they started and, thus, are not counted for graduation rate purposes.

For example, while the IPEDS data reports that graduation rate for University of Akron is not 20% or 40%, the College Portrait indicates that Akron’s completion and progress rate is 74%; that is, 50% of students who start at Akron graduate somewhere with either an associates or a bachelor’s degree and another 24% are continuing their education, for whatever the reasons are for not completing sooner. The redistribution of SSI on is now based upon completion and progress and recognizes the increased costs associated with students who are at risk for completion.

We all share the goal of increasing the number of students who complete their degree in as timely and cost-efficient manner as possible. Achieving that goal means that we must both increase students’ success and minimize the cost of education. At The University of Akron, some of our approaches include:

  • We are transforming our enrollment strategy to defer – that is turn away - students to partner community colleges, such as Lorain County Community College, Cuyahoga Community College, Stark State College, Lakeland Community College, where we believe, we know based on our data analysis, they will be more successful and less burdened by cost and debt, while providing them a seamless transition to UA to complete their baccalaureate work once they completed an associate degree at our sister institutions. This was/is the right thing for us to do even though it significantly reduced the revenue side of our balance sheet. We think of this as being accountable to our students, ourselves, and to the State.

  • We are working to assure that students take 15 credits per semester because as we know, with 15 credits per semester, they will graduate in 4 years. We give students examples to illustrate that if they work a little less and take a few more credit hours, they are saving at least 10K/year in tuition and they are gaining revenue they would otherwise defer because they delayed entering the job market by taking more than four years to graduate.

  • We are working with the Summit Education Initiative that has data agreements with all public school systems in Summit County to assure the success of students at important milestones in the P-12 continuum are met, so their success is better assured during post-secondary education. So for example, and based upon data, we are able to predict the educational performance that is required downstream in the education continuum to be successful in post-secondary education. In other words, what reading proficiency is necessary in 3rd grade, what math proficiency is needed in 8th grade, what progress is needed in 9th and 10th grade that will produce ACT and SAT scores and other success indicators to better assure high school graduate are more career and college-ready.

This is an aspirational and inspired approach to the education continuum.

Faculty Excellence

Our talented faculty members are a significant reason for student success. We recognize that enhancing the educational experience begins with early and frequent contact with full-time faculty who embrace diversity, teaching and research excellence as well as persistence to completion.

We are pro-actively working with our deans and department chairs, and in consultation with our faculty, to increase the percentage of student credit hours taught by full-time faculty while concurrently reducing our expenditure of part-time instructor expenses. Last year, we worked with our deans, chairs/directors and faculty to modify scheduled course offerings so that more classes are distributed across all hours of the day and days of the week and 6,000 more students are served on Friday.

STEM Education

University-wide, we are restructuring our advising model to target student college preparedness levels. An aspect of this model, often referred to as “intrusive advising” has resulted in remarkable success for STEM students in the Choose Ohio First Scholarship program. UA's Choose Ohio First program is now the largest in the state, having grown from 27 scholars in 2008-09 to 620 today. UA receives about $2.1 million annually from the Ohio Board of Regents for the program. Most of them are first-generation college students and many are from underserved populations. All are STEM field graduates.

This highly successful intrusive advising model is now being expanded to more than 3,500 UA students who were not directly admitted to their degree-granting college.

Institutional Collaboration and Partnerships

The University’s innovative approach to enhancing academics and research with collaborations and industry partnerships is demonstrated in many ways: I’ll mention 2:

  • UA’s Corrosion Engineering program is the first of its kind in the United States, incorporating research in corrosion and materials performance into each student experience.

  • A new laboratory at The University of Akron’s Engineering Research Center – the Timken Engineered Surfaces Laboratories – is speeding the path between discovery and commercialization in surface engineering with students, faculty and industry partnered in the process. This approach is unique in that technologies typically applied to ball-bearings are being used in other applications in this open innovation space that will likely result in spin-off and spin-out commercialization and company formation.

Innovation Generation Scholarships

I will end with the Akron Public Schools Innovation Generation Scholarships.

As a metropolitan university, we fully recognize the importance of keeping talented students in the region. The Innovation Generation Scholarship aims to do just that by creating and expanding a diverse Akron talent pool with a scholarship program that is based on academic preparation, performance and service to the community. Qualified Akron Public School graduates who choose to attend The University of Akron can receive a tuition-free degree. You may recall that legislation allows these scholarships to be the source of funds for the University’s acquisition of Central Hower High School, a decommissioned building that is adjacent to and essentially on our campus. I’ve heard of nothing like this in this country.

On behalf of the University of Akron, the Akron Public Schools and the students who are benefiting from this scholarship, I'd like to thank the General Assembly for passing and Governor Kasich for signing the legislation that made this initiative possible.

As you can see, The University of Akron is responding – and, in many ways leading that response – to the complex set of issues higher education confronts. We are focused on the best ways to provide access to a diverse student population, enabling them to obtain the benefits of a college education in as cost-efficient manner as possible. We appreciate your interest in and support of that shared mission. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today.

Questions and comments following:

Chairman Representative Rosenberger: The University of Akron School, and I have been there and seen it, you guys have some amazing things going on. The Corrosion Engineering program has built partnerships with not only schools within your region but also with companies within my district and your digital learning is really really outstanding. And to build a private public partnership actually, quite frankly, making that go forward, very impressive. I’ll open it up to any questions of the committee.

Committee member Representative Hagan: Thank you Mr. Chairman, I will not go on and on, I just wanted to thank you, I don’t know if you know or not, I am a product of the Bliss Institute so I just wanted to say thank you for the cost effective education, in that sense you saved me a little money and you also offered quality, so thank you.

Sherman: I will thank Professor John Green, director of Bliss Institute, on your behalf.

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