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Since its introduction to the Faculty Senate in January, tenured faculty at Drake University have expressed both optimism and skepticism at the institution’s plan to offer associate’s degrees by fall of 2021.
John Dee Bright College is structured to target Pell Grant-eligible high school graduates of the Des Moines metro area, thereby expanding access to higher education for residents of lower socioeconomic status. Drake’s strategy mirrors higher education’s nationwide scramble to diversify revenue streams as the industry awaits an impending enrollment cliff in 2025.
Many faculty laud the university’s efforts to open Drake’s resources to traditionally underserved students.
“It’s ambitious,” said Chip Miller, professor of marketing and a member of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee as preparations for Bright College progressed. “… They’ll probably succeed in doing what they want to do, which is reach out to a group of students that typically wouldn’t be going to Drake.”
Drake University President Marty Martin announces a new two-year college, the John Dee Bright College, on Sept. 1, 2020, in Des Moines. Aimed at expanding access to higher education, the college will offer associate’s degrees across multiple disciplines, with an expected start in the fall of 2021. (Photo: Brian Powers/The Register)
But others have raised questions about whether the university is prepared to adequately support a profile of students who often struggle to succeed in college. Moreover, some faculty ask why there wasn’t a more rigorous, institution-wide conversation on a project that critics fear could strain existing faculty and detract from services to Drake’s four-year students.
“It’s going to be an investment of faculty time, at least some faculty,” said Jennifer McCrickerd, a professor of philosophy. “It’s going to be an investment of money. It’s going to be an investment, metaphorically speaking, of the Drake name. I would have preferred if there had been a broader discussion about whether this made sense, what we were thinking about it, what were the pros and cons.”
The enrollment cliff
Enrollment in Iowa colleges and universities has gradually declined since 2010, according to the 2016 Condition of Higher Education in Iowa report. Moreover, during the economic crisis of 2008, the United States’ birth rate deteriorated sharply, a nosedive expected to manifest, 18 years later, in significantly fewer college-eligible high school graduates. From 2012 to 2029, Iowa is expecting more than a 15% deficit in college-bound students, one of the sharpest in the nation, according to the Higher Education Demand Index.
To counteract the anticipated loss in tuition revenue, many Iowa institutions are planning to woo nontraditional, underserved students — students who would otherwise not consider going to college for socioeconomic, personal or academic reasons.
Craig Owens, founder and dean of Bright College, said that Drake’s decision to offer an AA degree was only in part motivated by the enrollment cliff.
“I came into this project with, not panic, but certainly an awareness that there was an impending crisis that had been clear to me” since the 2008 financial crisis, Owens said.
There have long been concerns that the 200-year-old model of college in America is too expensive, too transformative or not transformative enough, Owens said. And the pandemic has exacerbated the need for change, affecting “the nature of employment, and the nature of social organization, and the nature of access to college and the way we even deliver college,” he said.
Owens’ urgency was reflected in the college’s timeline.
In April of 2019, Drake President Marty Martin asked Owens to develop a proposal for implementation of an associate’s degree by fall 2021, saying, “I want to do this right now and right away.” Faculty Senate, a legislative body comprising representative faculty members at Drake, was informed about the process in January 2020, but only after Drake’s Board of Trustees had approved the proposal to seek accreditation. At that point. some professors felt that their input would have very little, if any, influence in the decision-making process.
“It does feel like we’re being told a lot what’s going to be happening instead of being included in on the conversation,” McCrickerd said.
Owens said he opted for timeliness at the expense of universitywide collaborative input.
“I don’t see that the value of engaging more people earlier in the process would have been worth the slowdown in the process,” Owens said.
University bylaws, he added, do not require Drake administrators to seek faculty or student input on the creation of new degrees or new colleges. But faculty, including McCrickerd and Rachel Paine Caufield, Drake professor of political science, said that the degree program would have benefited from more collaborative discussion.
“The whole point of university governance is to vet those ideas and allow for a robust conversation to take place before a decision is made,” Caufield said. “Oftentimes, deep thinking will yield a superior outcome to expediency … I think it’s fair to say that the current decision-making structure at Drake is not one of shared governance.”
The question of student services
Wider critique of Bright College may have ensured vetting of logistics some faculty see as not only vital for the success of these new students, but also to clarify exactly what type of student Bright College is likely to attract.
Martin said that Bright College students are expected to skew “particularly low-income.”
“Seventy-five percent of the students in the Des Moines Public School System are on free and reduced lunch, and this program is explicitly designed to be an attainable and affordable path to a Drake education for low-income students,” Martin said.
Low retention rates are a risk factor with this demographic of student. According to the Condition of Higher Education in Iowa report, Iowa students growing up in poverty, as measured by eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch, are 13% less likely to finish high school and 43% less likely to finish college. For its financial projections, Bright College aims for a two-year graduation rate of 55%.
“You can’t want to be it if you haven’t seen it before,” Bre Johnson said after her speech at the unveiling. The new college seeks to expand access to secondary education.
Des Moines Register
“The fact that this is their projected graduation rate should potentially raise some eyebrows,” Caufield said. “It should raise some eyebrows about student services — how are we supporting these students and making sure that they’re set up for success. … It should raise some eyebrows about cost. What are we asking them to invest, and what are they getting in return? I found that a striking number.”
Other numbers say Drake has the ability to exceed that rate. In 2018, 541 Drake undergraduates had Pell Grants — roughly 17%. And from 2010 to 2016, the graduation rate of Pell Grant recipients at Drake was 80.6%, the second-highest in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In 2019, Drake’s graduation rate for bachelor’s degree students was 78.1%.
The structure of Bright College will be similar to that of Loyola University’s Arrupe College in Chicago, established in 2015. Arrupe College, which occupies separate facilities to Loyola University, offers associate’s degrees in liberal arts, social and behavioral sciences and business administration.
Of Arrupe’s 260 associate’s degree students, 74% are Pell-eligible. According to its website, the average high school GPA of first-year students is 2.85, about a point lower than Drake’s own GPA acceptance threshold. Arrupe’s graduation rate is 52%.
Arrupe provides its students many unique support services: separate facilities, a rigorous and comprehensive student orientation, social workers, free laptops and breakfast and lunch for all students.
So far, Bright College plans to pay for the students’ meals and technology needs with ongoing fundraising, and Owens is developing an immersive orientation for both students and faculty. But Bright College will share Drake’s campus, and the services provided by social workers are expected to be shouldered by existing Drake faculty and staff.
“[The availability of resources] would be a concern of mine,” McCrickerd said. “Most of our students at Drake would definitely benefit from smaller class sizes, would definitely benefit from having more support. So, there’s that question of why we are putting the resources towards [AA degree] students as opposed to [bachelor’s degree] students.”
Backfilling for Bright professors
Bright College will seek to enroll roughly 80 students separated into two cohorts, where each cohort is team-taught year-round. For the first three years, Bright College instructors will be tenured Drake professors who volunteer to teach the AA degree in exchange for an annual stipend of $4,000 on top of their salaries. If the program is successful, Bright College plans to hire its own full-time faculty.
While Owens anticipates relying on only three professors each semester, the impact on the departments from where the professors come could lead to offering fewer bachelor’s degree courses, distributing the course load among the other faculty, hiring adjunct instructors or some combination thereof.
“It either puts additional pressure on existing faculty, or it requires that we hire adjunct faculty to cover those course needs,” Caufield said.
Alternatives could include hiring tenured faculty from the start, like Arrupe, which sought long-term stability in faculty advising. Caufield, McCrickerd and other faculty said they are concerned that adjunct instructors, who are paid substantially less than full-time faculty and receive little to no benefits such as health insurance or a retirement plan, would not be in a position to provide that stability, thereby detracting from the education bachelor’s degree students can receive.
When asked why Bright College does not intend to follow Arrupe’s hiring model, Martin said it’s because the investment, and by consequence the risk, is too high.
“This way we can use existing resources as a means of mitigating risk, but also as a means of ensuring the quality of the [AA degree] program upon launch,” Martin said.
About the cost
A rough estimate for tuition for Bright College was originally set at just over the maximum Pell Grant plus the Iowa Tuition Guarantee — which totals around $12,000 a year — a strategy intended to open Drake to students from low-income Iowa families without thrusting them into debt.
In the last few months, that price jumped to $18,500 a year, or over $600 per credit hour. The price tag is high for your standard associate’s degree. Des Moines Area Community College, for example, offers classes at $160 per credit hour.
In response to the price jump, Owens said that in addition to government grants, students can rely on donations to scholarship funds, institutional discounts and federal student loans to attend Bright College.
But another economic question surfaced at Faculty Senate meetings and a virtual town hall held in April. Several faculty voiced anxieties about the emergence of a “second-class student” complex — an obvious socioeconomic divide among bachelor’s degree students, who receive an education valued at $40,000 annually, and associate’s degree students.
“I do think there is a possibility that if we do not manage this carefully, we could very well end up with a cohort of students who are paying less, who are in an AA as opposed to a BA degree program, who, by our own admission, have been underserved in some form, who are not living on campus, who are fundamentally distinct from and therefore treated as different than our existing student body population,” Caufield said. “That, by definition, could create a two-tiered culture.”
McCrickerd said that Drake has the capacity to assuage these dynamics. But Owens said he’s not under the impression they could be problematic.
“I would be very disappointed and surprised to learn that Drake students — and I’m not unwilling to learn that this is true, but I would be surprised and disappointed — by and large consistently act in overtly classist and racist and other kinds of -ist ways toward one another,” Owens said. “If it’s a problem at Drake, it’s a problem I have to confess I’m not aware of, except when one or two incidents occur that get high-profile coverage.”
One such social rift occurred on Drake’s campus as recently as November 2018, resulting in the #PaintItBlack movement that made statewide headlines.
“Discrimination does not have to be overt to be nonetheless very real and very damaging,” Caufield said. “Even if a culture of difference starts to build up around these students, the program, that has the potential to have harmful effects on the cohesiveness of the student body.”
The COVID-19 pandemic jumbled and thwarted more than a few of Drake’s overall plans for 2020 and beyond. Faculty retirement schemes were put on hold, and their salaries were cut. Even the president took a pay cut. But despite an anticipated investment of $400,000 in the next year, Bright College pioneers forward.
“I think as the project comes to life, and as it begins to serve the students it intends to serve, and we see what they accomplish and we see what their experience is like, I expect that skeptics will increasingly get on board,” Owens said.
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