Thursday, August 28, 2014

Higher Education Programs and Public Comprehensive Institutions

Prior to joining the faculty at UNC Wilmington, I worked on two papers that examine public comprehensive institutions. When I started these projects, public comprehensives were just part of a panel dataset. I had never attended one of these institutions as a student, and my professional career had been confined to a single public research university. Over the past few months, I have thought about public comprehensives frequently, and my study of them has intensified. A number of questions have surfaced as I experience first-hand the unique features and challenges of what have been called America's forgotten colleges and universities.


One such question is the nature of higher education programs at public comprehensives. Without looking at the data, my sense is that there are many graduate programs in higher education at public comprehensives, despite the attention the concentrates around the big-name programs. As is true of all public comprehensives, these programs may be the workhorses of higher education credentialing nationwide. And they may increasingly employ graduate students seeking faculty positions in higher education. I offer below a few tentative observations on what it means to work and study in a higher education program at an institution like UNCW. My hope is to investigate some of these observations systematically in the near future. In the meantime, perhaps they will spark thought and conversation.

1. Were are a small island in a teacher preparation sea. This strikes me as common to many higher education programs in schools and colleges of education. Higher education programs are usually one small slice of a pie that spans all levels of education, and teacher preparation absorbs much of the limelight for good reason. Nevertheless, there are two reasons why the higher education islands at public comprehensives might be especially small and isolated. First, many public comprehensives began as normal schools, meaning teacher preparation is not simply a course of study. It permeates the history, identity, and mission of the institution. Teacher preparation may be one of the primary ways the institution serves the region, and K-12 education majors may be numerous. Second, there is a good chance that higher education programs are small in size relative to other programs or departments. What this means is that, when you work and study in a higher education program at a public comprehensive, many of the speakers and similar opportunities are geared towards K-12 issues. Other faculty have little sense of the research that you do or what careers in higher education entail. And even the dean, who may heartily support the program, rarely showcases your program. None of this is a travesty, of course. There is value in existing off the radar sometimes. And, thankfully, we're talking about educators here, and even if they don't "get" your work, your colleagues tend to be inclusive and sociable. You simply become accustomed to blank stares when asked to discuss your research or courses.

2. We are the only show in town. This observation is contingent upon the geographical location of the public comprehensive. But let's assume that many public comprehensives are, as their name often indicates, regional in nature. There many not be a plethora of other institutions nearby. This means that higher education programs at public comprehensives may well be the only credentialing body for professionals in the field. This is not at all problem. In fact, it may justify the existence of the program in the first place. However, it is possible that these programs become the go-to professional development service for campus employees looking to advance their careers. Depending upon the tuition policies for staff, this may mean that programs with a large number of campus employees bring in less tuition money. It may also mean that curricula skew towards practice and away from policy. On the flip side, having large numbers of campus employees enables a great synergy between the institution and the program. At UNCW, we have been able to work with current and former students to develop practicum sites, internships, and applied learning opportunities. Another dimension of being the only show in town--one that I had never considered--is that higher education programs at public comprehensives may well educate large numbers of community college leaders. As is true at other colleges, a terminal degree is increasingly necessary to assume high-level positions at community colleges. For many community college professionals, even those coming from strikingly different disciplinary backgrounds, a doctorate in higher education opens doors. This is a fantastic way for higher education programs to be engaged in local communities, but also has ramifications for curricula and advising. It strikes me that the curricula of most higher education programs features theories and research based upon institutions other than community colleges. Courses in community college leadership may need to be offered. And faculty (like me) may not have as much experience with community college career options and, therefore, need to do some homework to offer advice.

3. In a field with strong national organizations, we are regionally-inclined. I was trained at a public research university where the norm was that graduate students attended national conferences like NASPA, ACPA, and ASHE. Not only did we attend, many of us, as graduate students, worked to present papers and become involved. Public comprehensives tend to be regionally-oriented, partly because of their missions and partly, I suspect, because their budgets can't support travel to national conferences. As an applied program in a professional school at a teaching institution, research expected of graduate students differs from programs at larger universities, making presenting at a national conference more difficult. This observation may be specific to UNCW, where our program has only existed for a few years and the reality is that students are not expected to attend national conferences, often because there is not readily available funding to help them cover the costs. Those that are employed while working towards a degree could pay out of pocket, as many graduate students often do, but salaries in a smaller city could make travel to a large city for 5 days feel like a luxurious vacation. With this in mind, it does appear to be the case that our program is tapped into regional professional conferences, which provide rich opportunities for networking and development. The pull of increasing the program's profile over time may shift the culture such that participation in national organizations becomes more popular among students.

These are but a few observations as I ponder the nature of higher education programs at public comprehensives. Over time, I'll continue to give thought to what it means to be a new faculty member in a new higher education program at a public comprehensive. I'll also flesh out some of distinctions of graduate preparation programs in higher education at public comprehensives. One day, I'll start to collect some data to evaluate whether these observations are relevant outside my bubble. I invite others to share their experiences as students or faculty at public comprehensives to better develop this account.

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