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UND plan: Keep, grow star students

By Mark Kennedy

In 1950, the U.S. Air Force designed its aircraft cockpits, including the placement of the seat and yoke, based on averaging the measurements of pilots across a range of dimensions. The result? Good pilots were having uncontrolled crashes.

A study revealed that none of the 4,063 pilots used to derive the averages met the average for all dimensions. The conclusion: "If you've designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you've actually designed it to fit no one." The Air Force adapted by fitting the system to the individual. Higher education would be wise to follow suit.

Fitting higher education to the individual begins by acknowledging that a bachelor's degree is not meant for every student — associate degrees or technical certificates may be their best option. Earning a bachelor's degree on campus or over a four-year period may also not be their best option.

The fact that 36 million Americans over age 25 have some college but no degree suggests both that college is not for everyone and that there is a big need for degree completion programs, especially online. Earning any degree only marks a milestone along a path of lifelong learning to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. Universities must adapt to meet the diverse needs of students throughout their lifetimes.

As part of our One UND Strategic Plan, the University of North Dakota is adapting by adding more online programs for undergraduate degree completion and differentiated master's degrees. Several of these programs will be targeted to meet the needs of members of our military around the world.

UND is also adapting to prepare individuals for the careers of the future, not the past. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 65 percent of today's schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created. This attests both to the need to redouble our efforts to foster critical thinking through a strong liberal arts curriculum and to continually update our degree offerings to meet emerging needs, like analytics and cybersecurity. It also affirms the need to redouble our efforts to create those new jobs right here in North Dakota through investments in research and discovery.

Yet perhaps in no place is the need to fit the system to the individual greater than in our effort to

increase the percentage of our students that graduate. Studies suggest that college graduates earn a million dollars more over their lifetimes than high school graduates, nearly a 40-to- 1 payback on the average debt from a university like UND. The best way to make college affordable is by making the necessary investments and adaptations to help students graduate and realize the benefits of having a degree.

Graduating depends on academic success, financial resources, wellness and a feeling of belonging. No serious person would dispute that our students vary dramatically in academic preparation, financial means, and wellness. Yet some have criticized UND's efforts to engage diverse populations. Critics seem to imply that all students should be force-fitted into universities designed for the average student. That sounds like a sure recipe for good students to suffer uncontrolled crashes.

As leaders of the public schools in Dickinson and Williston have told me and as projections confirm, the population of future college-aged youth from North Dakota will increasingly be diverse. Our goal at UND is to serve all North Dakotans, to attract students who will stay in the state, and to do everything possible to support their paths to graduation. This requires both addressing their unique needs and encouraging their unifying around One UND.

The lesson the Air Force learned in 1950 about the need to adapt the system to the individual is even more true today. Universities must meet the expectations of today's students or they will take their dreams to other schools and states, taking the opportunities they will generate with them. Dedicated to being the chief opportunity engine for our state and students, UND's new plan focuses on keeping and attracting more star students to blossom and grow right here in North Dakota.

Mark Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota.

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