Week of September 23-27, 2013

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This post was intended for last week, but an embargo on the public release of Regents fall enrollment data prohibited us from publishing this until September 27, 2013.

Leaves are falling this week and this has put me in a reflective mood.  This week we will report the university’s official Fall, 2013 20th day enrollment data to the Kansas Board of Regents.  It’s an important data point in Kansas as a great deal of significance is attributed to Fall 20th day enrollment data in comparing institutions.  These data are used for everything from public relations to internal resource allocations to legislative research and many things in between.  The importance of this agricultural calendar model is deeply rooted in the history and traditions of Kansas…more so than spring and summer session enrollment data.  A quick read of George Mehaffy’s 2010 article entitled “Medieval Models, Agrarian Calendars, and 21st Century Imperatives” helps put this into a larger context.   Why put all this importance on a single data point?  As graduate students and working professionals, we learn that a single data point taken out of its larger context without analysis can be a dangerous thing.  Yet, annually, these Fall 20th day data points are what administrators lose sleep over.  Despite the fact that higher education has become much more fluid with students entering and leaving our university at different times of the year, we still place great comparative value on this date.  This is an academically flawed approach, but academics do not make decisions about university funding levels and other such important matters.

The good news for the FHSU Graduate School is that we are up this year. This is the year we enrolled over 2000 graduate students.  As far as anyone can recollect and without diving deeply into the historical archives, that is the first time this has ever happened at FHSU.   Graduate students represent about 15% of the university now.  Take our cross-border partnerships out of the enrollment equation, and that percentage rises to around 20%.  Knowing full well that current and past performance is no guarantee of future returns, it’s definitely a high point for the university, especially when the other data that drive our FHSU operations, with the exception of undergraduate distance education learners, are essentially flat or posted a decline.  One way of looking at it is that the Graduate School’s increase of 158 students over last fall’s data exceeds the overall increase in 2013 for the university (131 students).  Think about where the university would be without the Graduate School this year!  The obvious answer is that without these new graduate students, the university would be posting an overall decline this year which would be the first time that has happened in over a decade.  In percentage terms, we grew this fall by 8.5% which exceeds our 5-year rolling mean of 5.34%.

The reason for our success is a simple marketing trick learned years ago – at the graduate level, programs attract students.  Add convenience to that and two of three parts of the equation are there.  The third part is quality.  Believe it or not, price is actually quite low on the list of marketing concerns!  We’re getting some good press lately about our online graduate programs and that is helping, but this third area of marketing is the one I feel the least confident about as we move forward.  Not that our professors aren’t excellent instructors and working hard to improve their programs each year, but rankings and perception of quality matter a lot these days with distance education programs.  Our courses and support systems for these students have to be high quality.  The perception in the general public is that distance education programs are still not of comparable quality to programs offered on campus.  We have to find a way to mix the best of distance education with the best of face-to-face instruction.  That’s our challenge and I’ll try to write more about this in future posts.  As Provost Gould teaches his deans often and well, distance education has entered the age of brands and it has become a competition not for who can “get there the firstest with the mostest” (quoting Nathanial Bedford Forrest) [we have already won that battle in our service region], but what brand with the best publicly perceived quality is in the marketplace.  Stanley Drucker’s timeless 1994 Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Theory of the Business” should be on every academic leader’s desk for reference.

On the more practical front, the Graduate School has this week published an update to its thesis and field study guide.  The major addition to this is the requirement for IRB or IACUC protocal approval documentation to be included with the thesis or field study, if appropriate.  Thank you for sharing this with your students who are working on their thesis or field study this fall.

Enjoy your week ahead.

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