Monday, September 29, 2014

[110] MTSU president stresses adaptability, funding at higher ed panel; McPhee joined other education leaders to discuss workforce readiness

NASHVILLE — From rising tuition to curriculum innovation to partnerships with business, Middle Tennessee State University President Sidney A. McPhee joined three other higher education leaders Wednesday (Sept. 24) in discussing these and other issues related to better preparing students for today’s workforce.

McPhee shared some of the Murfreesboro university’s ongoing efforts and recently launched initiatives during the Nashville Business Journal’s panel entitled “Nashville Ahead: A discussion on higher education and workforce readiness.”

Moderated by Nashville Business Journal Publisher Kate Herman, the luncheon panel at the Omni Nashville Hotel was attended by a variety of area business leaders. Joining McPhee on the panel was Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville; Kimberly Estep, chancellor of Western Governors University Tennessee; and Jerry L. Faulkner, president of Volunteer State Community College.

The panelists agreed that the state’s higher education institutions must develop strategies to combat rising tuition costs, must adapt curriculums to equip students with the “soft skills” needed to achieve lasting career success while also stressing to state lawmakers the need to make higher education funding a top priority.

McPhee highlighted MTSU’s recent efforts to address rising tuition with last week’s announcement of the MTSU Student Success Advantage, which goes into effect in fall 2015. Under this new incentive, MTSU will supplement by $1,000 the Hope Lottery Scholarships of incoming students who stay on track to graduate in four years – and pay a Finish Line Scholarship to graduating seniors that will return any tuition increases over that span.

“We think that this is doing something … to reduce the escalating costs,” McPhee said, pointing out that many of MTSU’s students are first-generation college students whose families can’t always absorb the annual tuition increases. “The increases in tuition is a model that will not sustain itself.”

Student Success Advantage is part of MTSU’s Quest for Student Success initiative, which was launched a year ago to improve the university’s retention and graduation rates through a top-to-bottom review of curriculum with an emphasis on innovative reforms.

Among such innovations is this week’s announcement by the MTSU Jones College that it has entered an exclusive partnership with Dale Carnegie Training to embed “soft skills” training for students within the university’s curriculum. This means all Jones College graduate and undergraduate students will have taken such a course for credit before obtaining their degree.

McPhee also challenged business leaders to lobby state lawmakers to make funding state higher education a top priority. Higher education officials have lamented state funding cuts the past several years that have reduced the percentage of university budgets funded by state dollars.

“I do think business leaders ought to take the same kind of political action when they lobby other issues, and lobby … making sure that higher education is not the first thing that’s cut, that priorities are funded, even in these tough times,” McPhee said.

He pointed to MTSU’s decision to hire 50 new advisers this fall to support its Student Success initiative even in the face of an enrollment decrease that will require budget adjustments and tough decisions.

Luncheon attendee and MTSU alumnus Jon Sturgeon asked the panel about the alarming rate of HOPE scholarship recipients who lose their scholarships at the end of their freshman year. To him, that’s an indication that more comprehensive mentoring programs are needed between high schools and higher education to properly prepare these students for the transition to college.

Now business development manager at Nashville-based Pathway Lending, a nonprofit economic development lender, Sturgeon has deep roots in the state’s higher education system. He earned his master’s degree in counseling psychology in the early 80s from MTSU, has a daughter that is also an MTSU alumnus, while his son is a University of Tennessee alumnus.

Afterward, Sturgeon said he was pleased to hear about MTSU’s efforts to make the necessary changes to improve student retention and graduation.

“Dr. McPhee is very forward-thinking,” Sturgeon said. “He’s implementing stuff that matters, which you don’t always see in higher ed because it moves so slowly.”

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