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Higher Education 'Big Agenda' Requires Staffing

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The Chancellor of Higher Education, Hamid Shirvani, threw down the gauntlet when he announced that he would ask for 30 additional employees to help develop a progressive 'big agenda' for the North Dakota University System.

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The $8 million for the additional staff is buried in the $84 million increase requested by the Board of Higher Education in its budget proposal to the governor.

While the Chancellor's initial blueprint for higher education was greeted warmly by policymakers, the staffing proposal will be treated with some skepticism by legislators who have spent years restricting the number of employees working for state government and institutions.

Chances are good that the Legislature will treat the request as a negotiable number and will likely propose cutting the figure in half. But half won't do if we are serious about major initiatives in higher education. Half will make the 'big agenda" a 'small agenda'.

According to Board of Higher Education Chairperson Duaine Espegard, the 'big agenda' is daunting and will require a variety of new investments and programming changes. He recently summarized the major components of the agenda as follows:

1. Better quality education and outcome assessments

2. Better graduation and retention rates

3. Better resources to serve students

4. Better access and quality of services

5. Better oversight of management

6. Better connection between higher education and the needs of the state

7. More transparency for taxpayers and citizens

8. More accountability and efficiency.

Every one of these ambitious goals requires staffing. They will not come to fruition simply by passing a bunch of admission standards, mandates and governance rules.

Take the first item on Espegard's list as an example. How is better quality education going to happen? And how are the assessments going to occur? Quality needs to be defined for scores of courses before it can be measured and measuring will be no small job. This item alone could use 30 staff members.

There should be another item added to the 'big agenda'. The list should include oversight and evaluation of online courses being offered by all institutions in the state as well as the for-profit "universities" offering more than they can deliver. .

All courses do not lend themselves to online teaching and yet they are being used because it is a hot new trend, because they appeal to the students, because they're easy to offer, and because they improve enrollment numbers.

We should be most concerned about exploitation of students by the "for profit' so-called universities. To protect gullible students, the Board should assume some responsibility for monitoring the quality of online courses, with a priority going to the practices of the for-profit organizations.

National studies have sent up enough warning flags about the for-profit online promoters to warrant a look by our own Board of Higher Education. Many young people in North Dakota are being short-changed by the promises of online education. Full transparency should be required.

No doubt, there is plenty of work to do if we are serious about moving higher education to the next level. Strengthening the central NDUS staff is probably the most important first step.

(To the 44 friends waiting for me on Facebook: I already have too much to ferret through. Sorry. No Facebook.)

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