The Educational Value Chain

Western Kentucky University enhances student success by innovating process thinking.

IT’S COMMON FOR businesses to work on improving their value chains when they want to engage partners, innovate processes, and enhance the impact of their firms. It’s rarer for business schools to examine the processes, partnerships, and resources in their educational value chains to ensure that they are doing their best for their students and communities.

But as higher education rapidly evolves, it’s more important than ever that institutions deliver value to their stakeholders. State legislatures, students, parents, and business leaders are increasingly focused on the value of a college degree compared to its cost. Employers are seeking new hires who haven’t just earned degrees, but who have mastered workplace skills and are job-ready. Academic leaders of universities that are heavily dependent on tuition must understand what students want from their college experiences, and they must pay attention to their rates of retention, graduation, and job placement.

The “build it and they will come” model of higher education is not working. That’s especially true for comprehensive regional institutions like ours, Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, which serves 22 counties of south-central Kentucky. At the Gordon Ford College of Business, we realize that providing a robust curriculum and solid classroom learning will not be enough for us to recruit students or ensure their post-graduation success. So we realized that, as Michael Porter suggests in his book Competitive Advantage, we must collaborate with stakeholders all along our value chain to achieve our mission, engage our constituents, and impact our community in more strategic ways.

OUR STORY

Six years ago, during a collegewide faculty and staff question-and-answer session, a senior professor stood up and asked, “Why are our students not receiving the job opportunities that we believe they deserve? What is the college’s leadership team prepared to do that will change this situation?” The question stopped the meeting. All attention shifted to what obviously was a shared concern. The response—that our university’s career services office was responsible for student placement—simply was not enough.

In response, our college initiated a study of the job placement process at our university, including the systems for recruiting and educating students, developing their professional skills, and placing them in jobs. Sadly, we determined that the process was not working well, based on these conclusions:

■ While the vast majority of business students stated their intention to work after graduation, most did not begin seeking employment until the middle of their last semesters. This gave them insufficient time to sharpen their résumés and workplace skills so they would be competitive in the marketplace.

■ There was very little interaction between business faculty at the university and those at high schools and community colleges, leading to a disconnect in how students were prepared for academic and career success.

■ There was minimal planning in place to assure reliable and recurring internships and job shadowing opportunities for students.

■ Students had poor communication skills, according to employer feedback and the college’s assurance of learning assessments.

■ Our college culture was more focused on making sure students graduated and less on ensuring they were professional and poised for career success.

In summary, the college was putting most of its energy into its perceived core responsibility: being a school of business. While the school had provided high-quality classroom instruction, it had paid less attention to co-curricular activities that would promote lifelong learning and prepare graduates for career success.

To expand the school beyond this core responsibility, we knew we needed programming and resources that the college did not have and the university could not provide. A task force of faculty, staff, students, and business partners spent the next semester developing an action plan that not only would take students from high school through college, but also would follow them past graduation and into their careers. Once we began viewing our responsibility as providing a lifetime of education, not just four years of classroom instruction, we were able to establish our vision.

Several of the steps we took might be familiar to other business schools. For instance, we began certificate programs to enhance offerings across campus and to appeal to a segment of the population that didn’t have the time or interest in enrolling in full-time degree programs. We also opened a Center for Leadership Excellence with the goal of providing leadership training and professional development for our community. In addition, in 2012, we launched the Professional Education and Knowledge (PEAK) program, which teaches students how to be professional in the workplace. As part of PEAK, we connect students with professionals through both job shadowing and mentoring systems. PEAK has since been recognized with an Innovative Business Education Award from the MidAmerican Business Deans Association.

But our most innovative tactic was to intentionally reach out to partners who are both “upstream” and “downstream” on the educational value chain. (See “Links in the Chain” below.) This means we have developed deeper relationships with both K-12 educators and future employers. We are committed to being an educational leader throughout all phases of a student’s life and subsequent career—which means we are engaging with students both before and long after they graduate from our institution.

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DOWNSTREAM OUTREACH

As part of our “downstream” activities, we first reached out to K-12 educators, who had been largely ignored by other universities. We began by engaging with every K-12 school superintendent in our region to share our school’s history, our mission, and the opportunities we provide for student success.

As part of this effort, we developed relationships with Kentucky’s branch of DECA—an organization that prepares high school students for careers in marketing, finance, and other business fields—and the regional office of the Future Business Leaders of America. As a result, those programs have recently moved their workshops and conferences to WKU under the sponsorship of the Ford College of Business, which allows us to welcome hundreds of high school business students to our campus each year. While the faculty advisors and student leaders of both organizations are responsible for planning and executing the events, our faculty and students participate in workshops and judge competitions, which further strengthens our relationships.

We also collaborate with the high school educators of these organizations to identify event participants, typically competition winners, to whom we will award small freshman scholarships if they choose to study business at WKU. The scholarships are low-cost but high-impact investments that generate tremendous goodwill and positive public relations for our college. For example, during the regional DECA conference in spring 2018, we awarded six freshman scholarships worth US$250 each, and every graduating senior who received the scholarship enrolled at WKU in business that fall.

A longer-term approach to our downstream K-12 efforts is our partnership with Junior Achievement. We encourage our faculty and professional staff to volunteer with JA, teaching business concepts to students from kindergarten through high school. This outreach not only bolsters the educational value chain, it also provides increased brand name recognition for WKU.

Finally, we have strengthened our K-12 connections by promoting advanced placement (AP) business instruction and enhancing our dual-credit programming. To pilot the AP program in accounting, faculty in our accounting department worked directly with high school accounting educators to encourage successful pedagogy. Students with high enough scores receive credit for Introduction to Accounting, which places them at least a semester ahead of their business classmates.

Similarly, WKU faculty work with high school teachers to create course content for dual-credit programs, which allow high school students to enroll in classes for joint high school and college credit at a greatly reduced cost. WKU’s dual-credit courses have included Introduction to Economics, Personal Finance, and Basic Marketing Concepts.

In some cases, a dual-credit class is taught online by part-time or full-time university faculty. In many other cases, a class is taught face-to-face by a high school teacher under the direction of the university’s academic faculty. To ensure that the classes taught by high school teachers match the standards we set for traditional on-campus offerings, we created a training and communication mechanism for those teachers.

Dozens of high school students take dual-credit programs with WKU every year, which allows them to enjoy significant cost savings—for instance, last fall they were offered a tuition discount of approximately 88 percent. The program also brings many benefits to the business school. We reinforce our brand by building relationships with teachers, guidance counselors, and principals; we prepare high school students to attend business school at the university level; and we make students familiar with WKU, which builds brand loyalty and increases the chances they will enroll at our school.

We also have strengthened our downstream connections by developing better relationships with regional community and technical colleges to ensure that students make easy, comfortable transitions from two-year to four-year programs. Our faculty and staff have visited many of the 16 institutions in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and our professional advisors regularly communicate with community college advisors to update them on changes to our curriculum. We also host students from regional community colleges so we can familiarize them with our faculty and our culture, counsel them on curricular matters, and address their concerns about transferring to a larger institution. In addition, two of our faculty members serve on the advisory board for the business program at the local community college.

We recognize that completing a face-to-face business program is not a viable option for some associate degree graduates, so we have developed our online Plus-2 Program in Business Education. One of our professional advisors works specifically with the online students to ensure we offer the classes they need to graduate. Since the fall of 2014, our numbers of online students have jumped almost 116 percent—to nearly 125 students—because of our efforts to extend the educational value chain.

MIDSTREAM AND UPSTREAM CHANGES

Some of the most important developments within our value chain have occurred right in the middle, with improvements we made at the school level. We wanted to upgrade three areas critical to student success: student development programs and placement services, faculty development initiatives and recruitment strategies, and the infrastructure of our dated building.

To meet those goals, we needed additional revenue, which we have secured by implementing a student fee of US$15 per credit hour. Before putting the fee in place, we consulted student focus groups, student and executive advisory councils, and faculty, who all approved the change. In keeping with the culture of transparent leadership within our college, we formed the Fiscal Oversight Committee, composed of faculty and students, which meets regularly to review fee usage and provide guidance to the dean.

The money from the student fee has allowed us to permanently fund three staff positions, dedicated to career services, student internships, and professional development—all areas that add value to our graduates. We also have used the money to provide students with job-readiness skills, as well as to support travel for faculty who are seeking professional development and conducting summer research. In addition, the funds help cover a tutoring center, classroom maintenance, and the hiring of part-time instructors.

We wanted to upgrade three areas critical to student success: student development programs and placement services, faculty development and recruitment strategies, and the infrastructure of our dated building.

The new funding has allowed us to put more effort into our “upstream” partners by creating a more structured internship program. Within the past two years, we have doubled our contacts with potential employers, which in turn has allowed us to increase the number of student internships that we offer. Internships are available for students in each major, and most of them offer compensation. Almost half of the graduating seniors in both the fall 2017 and spring 2018 semesters have had internship experiences during the course of their collegiate careers.

Additionally, at the far upstream end of the value chain, we have put more emphasis on professional education to create a stronger link between the college and the community. In the fall of 2015, our department of accounting instituted a continuing professional education program for CPAs, internal auditors, managerial accountants, and other professional accountants. The program allows participants to maintain currency in their fields and to obtain the 30 credit hours of continuing education required by the state board. Topics not only cover standard accounting updates, but also ethics and decision making, internet security, and Microsoft Excel tips. Since the inception of the biannual event, program attendance has doubled, engaging accountants who drive as long as four hours to get to our campus. At the event, faculty and students mingle with professionals, creating stronger bonds among all three groups.

Another way we have strengthened the relationship between the college and the community is by having our Center for Leadership Excellence join the Kentucky Medical Association in a conference to bring together physicians from across the commonwealth. The Emerging Physician Leadership Conference saw 35 participants attend breakout sessions led by prominent figures in healthcare, technology, and politics. The professionals who attended this conference still meet regularly with the Center leadership to continue holding discussions.

Finally, we now include members of the business community in our curriculum discussions. Their input ensures that our coursework is both high-quality and relevant to the changing needs of the industry. For instance, we added data analytics instruction because of input from business leaders. They are an essential link in our educational value chain.

IMPACTS AND LESSONS

Our strategy to create an educational value chain has resonated among all our key constituents, resulting in a great deal of support. Not only are alumni and regional business leaders increasing their donations to the college, they’re also looking for other ways to engage with the school, whether by offering internships or participating in events.

Perhaps the most striking result of our integration of the educational value chain is that we have changed the culture among our faculty, staff, students, and alumni. It is now considered common knowledge that our school focuses on professionalism and career preparedness, and the behavior of all stakeholders reinforces this attitude.

When the disparate members of the value chain realize that they will achieve greater student success when they all work together, their commitment increases significantly.

Because we have fully integrated all aspects of the educational value chain into our decision making, our resource allocation, and our culture, we believe that the value chain’s key initiatives will retain momentum even when college leadership changes. Meanwhile, resources provided by our stakeholders will ensure that the educational value chain remains strong and sustainable.

We learned three key lessons in our journey. First, the educational value chain must align with the school’s mission—which in our case is to be a student-centered college that focuses on applied learning. Second, the value chain will require resources, and to acquire them the school will need to engage all its constituents. Third, the story matters. When the disparate members of the value chain realize that they will achieve greater student success when they all work together, their commitment increases significantly—and the value chain becomes a part of the culture for everyone involved.

Stacey D. Gish is communication coordinator, Jeffrey P. Katz is professor and former dean, and Michelle W. Trawick is professor and associate dean at Western Kentucky University’s Gordon Ford College of Business in Bowling Green.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

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