Campus & Community

Retooling school: DU revamps the student experience to reflect a diverse and fast-changing world

Editor’s note: This is the cover story in the winter 2016 issue of the University of Denver Magazine. See all the stories from the winter issue here.

The past five years have seen a tremendous amount of change in higher education, and the next 10 years promise to bring even more. By the year 2025, college students will be just as likely to be first-generation college students as not, and chances are, they’ll need skills for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.

“To better serve the changing student experience, and to keep pace with the rapidly evolving 21st century, universities will have to do some changing of their own,” says Chancellor Rebecca Chopp. It’s a reality reflected in myriad ways in DU IMPACT 2025, the University of Denver’s new strategic plan that will be communicated broadly this spring.

The student body at colleges and universities nationwide is growing more racially, ethnically and economically diverse. Students and employers alike are demanding more experiential, problem-based learning to ease the transition from school to the workforce. As educational options proliferate — from community colleges to so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs) — traditional residential universities are doubling down on their biggest strength: helping students at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels work closely and connect deeply with faculty and other mentors.

Learn more about the new strategic plan on the Imagine DU page

With the average American worker now changing jobs every four years or so, and with constant innovation creating new occupations and obliterating others, the increasingly turbulent economic landscape has many educators calling for a renewed embrace of a broad-based liberal arts education and a new marriage of liberal arts and professional education that will help students weather all this change. With its many professional schools and a liberal arts approach to undergraduate education, DU is poised to demonstrate the benefit of this marriage to all students.

At the same time, some students are seeking opportunities to develop complex and necessary skills like leadership, compromise and interdisciplinary communication, which haven’t historically been covered in the classroom, while others are striving to personalize their degrees and distinguish themselves from their peers when the job hunt begins.

Here’s a look at how the University of Denver is anticipating changing demographics, shifting economic sands and new student demands to keep its offerings relevant for the next generation of students.


The typical college student is a thing of the past

Five years from now, students at any university are likely to look significantly different from those who roamed the halls just five years ago. Between 2010 and 2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, the number of African-American students attending postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the U.S. is projected to grow by 25 percent, the Asian population by 20 percent and the Hispanic population by 42 percent, as the white population at these schools grows by 4 percent. This new student population is far more likely than their white counterparts to be first-generation college students. That means schools will be challenged to help them pay for college and to navigate the university once they arrive.

“As the whole society becomes more diverse, and as people from different cultures and traditions come into the university setting, we have to think about the tools that they need to prosper,” says Mary Sue Coleman, former president of the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan and an incoming member of the DU Board of Trustees. “Universities are well equipped to change as the population changes.”

For DU to remain attractive to this new generation of students, the school will have to meet their growing financial needs through an increase in fundraising for financial aid. Although more than 80 percent of current DU students already receive need-based or merit-based aid, the school is currently unable to meet the full financial demands of its student body. The University will need to endow financial aid funds to address the growing need and ensure that a DU education is accessible to all deserving students.

Yet DU and schools like it will have to do more than merely overhaul their aid programs: It also is critical to help students adapt to university life and to teach them how to take full advantage of campus resources once they arrive.

Virtually all students struggle when they first come to college, Chopp says, whether they’ve been sheltered and are learning to survive independently or they are first-generation college students navigating the labyrinthine university without a parent’s guidance. Succeeding in college requires more than learning to do your own laundry: Skills like organization and time management are also essential, as is developing a mental map of the university’s resources, from psychological counseling to grants for research and student clubs.

“What would a good transition to the university look like?” asks Jennifer Karas, DU’s associate provost for undergraduate academic programs. “What are the big skills that students need that they aren’t learning in the classroom? And how do we teach them — is it a series of workshops, training that happens in the residence halls, or something else?”


Putting the ‘experiential’ in college experience

Internships, research projects, service-learning opportunities and study-abroad programs are more popular than ever on college campuses nationwide. Employers are increasingly looking for evidence of experiential learning on transcripts, while students and families are seeing such opportunities as transformational educational experiences.

Take the case of Jess Davidson, a senior political science and public policy dual bachelor’s and master’s degree student who serves as vice president of DU’s Undergraduate Student Government. She has complemented her political science classes with an internship in the office of former Colorado Senator Mark Udall; with study-abroad opportunities in South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda; and with participation throughout her college career in DU’s Pioneer Leadership Program (PLP), a living and learning community whose students live together on campus their freshman year, take classes in leadership studies and complete service learning projects. Through PLP, Davidson has designed on-campus stress-reduction trainings for DU students, worked with Denver’s African Community Center to create a booklet of job interview terminology for non-English speakers, and created a program where high school girls in Denver mentor middle school girls on healthy food choices, body image and self-esteem.

For many students, this sort of community engagement helps ease the transition to the “real world” that follows college graduation.

“When you leave campus after college, there is a sense of ‘what now?’ Everything you have done has occurred in the DU bubble,” Davidson says. “For students to apply what they have learned to real problems in the city helps prepare them for the rest of their lives.”

Research suggests that experiential learning may also increase students’ chances of finding satisfying work after they graduate. A 2014 Gallup poll of 30,000 college graduates found that those whose college experience had included forms of “experiential and deep learning” — such as internships, participation in extracurricular actives like clubs and student government or long-term, multi-semester research projects — were twice as likely to be engaged in their postgraduation jobs.

Regardless of how satisfying that first job is, experiential learning also can give students a leg up when it comes to finding work in the first place: Four out of five employers surveyed in a 2010 poll by the Association of American Colleges and Universities said they want colleges to place more emphasis on community-based field projects and internships that give students real-world experience. DU’s employment/post- graduation survey of 2014 graduates showed that students who participated in at least one internship during college earned $10,000 more in their first job than those who did not intern.

Many faculty, like students and employers, are seeing the value of creating “problem-based” curricula that apply academic theories to real-world problems in the cities and towns around their campuses. At DU’s Daniels College of Business, for instance, a new “challenge-driven” MBA program shifts the center of gravity from core courses to real-world challenges that students must confront in order to graduate. Over the course of 20 months, while students gain the core knowledge needed to earn an MBA, they will concurrently work on four core challenges. By graduation, students will have pitched a potential business, helped a corporation solve a complex problem, worked on a social good-focused project around a theme, and traveled abroad to work on the ground in another country on a key business problem.

Yet students don’t have to travel abroad to apply their education to real-world problems.

“Taking advantage of your context is something that I see more and more in higher education,” says Coleman, who in October became president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “And DU is marvelously positioned in the city of Denver. Whether it’s a problem that the Denver public schools are grappling with or a problem that stems from how quickly the city’s neighborhoods are growing and changing, students can use their classroom knowledge to solve that problem, rather than just cramming their heads full of facts.”


Strengthening personal relationships in the age of the MOOC

It’s no secret that over the last decade or so, the growing accessibility of low-cost online learning has transformed the higher education landscape. Among other changes, it’s prompted some colleges and universities to move a portion of their core curricula online, making education more accessible.

Faculty at four-year residential universities have embraced this trend to some degree, offering summer classes online, introducing “hybrid” classes that complement in-class lectures with online assignments and using online tools to track student performance and improve advising. DU, for instance, has more than 12,000 students enrolled in distance and hybrid instruction.

Yet there is much about a residential college experience that online learning fails to replicate, including the chance to forge close, personal relationships with faculty members and other mentors on campus. Today, schools are playing up this comparative advantage to set themselves apart from online learning options.

“Why would a student choose a school like DU?” asks Karas, DU’s provost for undergraduate academic programs. “They want to come because here there are smart faculty. Every student can find a home somewhere — at a community college, in a massive open online course. But when students come here, they come to engage with faculty members.”

This engagement takes myriad forms at DU, and many of them combine experiential education with close collaboration among students and faculty. A few examples: Students and professors partner and use their expertise to help local organizations solve problems in the “Science Shop,” a project of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. Cheri Young, a professor at the Knoebel School of Hospitality Management, trains her students to teach a commercial food safety training course that helps recently arrived African refugees get jobs. And Elizabeth Drogin of the Writing Program leads a service learning class, volunteering alongside students for a Denver organization called SCORES, which offers soccer and creative writing programs to local elementary schoolers.

There may be a good reason for DU to re-emphasize the opportunity it offers prospective students to build relationships with mentors: Many students consider these relationships among the most valuable outcomes of their college careers. A 2014 Gallup poll of 30,000 college graduates found that if a graduate had a least one college professor who “cared about them, made them excited to learn and encouraged them to follow their dreams,” their odds of being engaged and interested in their current job more than doubled.

Mentoring on college campuses doesn’t just mean engagement between faculty and students. Many schools are now working to pair students with role models and guides at all levels of the university.

“Mentoring should be about networks,” says Liliana Rodriguez, DU’s vice chancellor for campus life and inclusive excellence. “Currently, every student is assigned one faculty advisor and has access to administrative academic advisors, but my dream is that each student will have a faculty mentor, a staff mentor, an upperclassman peer advisor, a graduate student mentor and even an alumni mentor.”

For students, forging relationships with young alumni in particular could provide valuable insight into the challenges they’ll face upon graduation — insight that faculty members or administrators are less equipped to provide.

“It’s powerful for a current student to speak with a recent alum who shows them what’s possible,” Chopp says. “One who says, for example, ‘You can major in philosophy and go to Wall Street, and here’s how I did it.’”


Teaching students to navigate choppy economic waters

When today’s college seniors entered school four years ago, the U.S. economy was still limping its way out of its worst recession in nearly 70 years. And although the economic downturn prompted many companies to cut pay, benefits and retirement plans for workers, the stable 40-year career was in decline long before the economy crashed. Today, the typical American worker is expected to change jobs every 4.4 years, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means the average worker will hold around seven jobs during a 30-year career, some of which don’t yet exist and will arise out of technological innovation in the years to come.

For pending graduates, this trend toward profession hopping inspires deep uncertainty about which skills, learned in college, will ensure workforce success. Career services professionals are responding by helping students grow and diversify their professional networks even before graduation, encouraging them to engage with employers, alumni and parents to forge a community that fosters resilience in the face of constant change.

“Career advising is still a developmental process, and the fundamentals of understanding one’s strengths, interests and values are still very critical,” says Mary Michael Hawkins, director of the DU Career Center. “However, advising is also about making and building connections and supporting students’ career development over their lifetime, especially in light of the frequent career transitions this current workforce is experiencing.”

Those frequent transitions — and the climate of general uncertainty that pervades the U.S. economy — are prompting alumni to demand more career support from their alma maters, whether in the form of coaching for their own careers or opportunities to hire recent graduates into their companies. At DU, the “global network” that connects students, alumni, donors and corporate partners is a new area of focus in University Advancement and Alumni Relations.

For all the consternation it inspires, the move toward ongoing career reinvention may be a powerful argument for the value of a liberal arts education, one that honors the trope of teaching students not what to think, but how.

“The liberal arts have always been about teaching students how to be adaptable,” Coleman says. “We teach students how to vet information, how to make an argument, how to write well and how to speak well. What students see as a career path today may not be a career path in 10 years, and in that same time frame, new careers may also emerge. That means students will need to keep learning throughout their lives, and that’s what the liberal arts teach them to do.”

Still, many administrators acknowledge that even the most prestigious and interdisciplinary institutions could do better at giving students the skills they’ll need to thrive in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

“We have to develop managers who know how to communicate across disciplines — how to lead and inspire groups of people from different nationalities, religions, ethnicities and races,” Rodriguez says. “We need to teach them to navigate conflicts and to compromise. Students need to learn to be self-starters, to solve problems and to be creative. Our academic system is very structured from elementary school all the way through college, but the workforce does not necessarily have that same kind of structure anymore. We need scholars who can take the lead in occupations that don’t yet exist.”

Given these changes, Chopp says, Career Services will need to expand and be prepared to help graduates throughout their lifetimes, as their careers evolve and are reinvented. “Graduate and professional programs will need to recognize, too, that job preparedness means something different in an era of constant change.”

Davidson, the DU senior and political science major, agrees. As college becomes accessible to a broader swath of the population, she says, a college degree is no longer the guarantee of a job that it once was. To distinguish themselves in the labor force, today’s graduates need to understand how to work in diverse environments and need technological fluency, enabling them to communicate across media from the PowerPoint presentation to the Twitter feed. Universities, Davidson says, should give students ample opportunities to develop these skills, along with a chance to customize their college degrees in ways that set them apart from their peers. In her work with student government, Davidson routinely encounters students who are building and shaping their individual academic majors to reflect their passions and distinguish themselves when the job hunt begins.

“Almost every student we work with has a central defining element to their college career, and I think that’s new since my parents went to college,” Davidson says. “Back then, they would go to class and maybe be involved in a fraternity or a sorority. Now, students are demanding to have a safe space to try — and maybe fail — at doing what they’re most passionate about.”


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