Higher Ed Insights

Higher Ed Insights

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Wally BostonA week ago, research firm ITHAKA S+R published the results of its fall 2015 survey.  More than 100 American higher education administrators and experts were invited to join a panel of advisors who have been asked to participate in two semi-annual surveys as part of their advisory roles.  The Fall 2015 survey examined initiatives and strategies to improve degree completion rates, the quality of student learning and college affordability, and respondents evaluated and rated the initiatives and strategies.

The 96 survey participants rated the current state of U.S. higher education slightly better than neutral. Degree completion, student learning quality, and affordability were rated as roughly equivalent in their importance to achievement in order for the sector to improve.  Guided pathways and proactive advising strategies were deemed to have the most potential for improving degree completion with average responses of 5.71 and 5.93, respectively, out of 7.  Adaptive learning technology received the nod for having the highest potential to improve the quality of student learning (mean response 5.60), while systematic assessment of student learning was viewed as a high- potential intervention to improve learning (mean response 5.15).

Competency-based education (mean response 4.95) and tech-focused faculty development (mean response 4.90) were not far behind assessment, but only ranked as a top- two initiative in 30 percent of the responses, versus 52 percent for systematic assessment. Unbundling college courses for credit and other services was selected as the activity with the highest potential for making college more affordable.  Institutional risk- sharing was second, and income-based loan repayment plans last.  Universal free tuition for two years drew widely contrasting support, with participants distributed across the entire range resulting in a mean response of 3.93 out of 7, but with 23 percent of respondents rating it at the top, and 29 percent at the bottom.

Respondents were asked to list up to three obstacles for successful innovation on college campuses. A total of 267 obstacles were submitted, organized in six common themes.  Institutional culture and structures (cited by 80 percent of respondents) was the most frequent selection for obstacles.  The next category, funding and resources, was cited by 45 percent of participants.

Two thirds of the panelists were administrators at colleges and universities, with approximately 57 percent from public, 40 percent from private, and 3 percent from for- profit institutions. Those who were not administrators were affiliated with foundations, research institutes, or associations.  On average, they reported having 28 years of experience in higher education and 80 percent reported having taught at least one undergraduate course in their career.

Given that college and university administrators comprised nearly two thirds of the advisory panel, their responses were very similar to my own perspective. It is not surprising that some of the projects, such as income-based loan repayment and universal tuition, were last even though there are politicians in America that support these initiatives.  I believe it’s important to remember that the average length of service for the administrators surveyed was 28 years and that politicians running for office are interested in votes and not necessarily in the best initiative that will improve college completion.  This was an important benchmarking survey, and I look forward to reviewing the results of the next one.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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