By Erik Ness, Associate Professor of Higher Education
In late February, less than one month before the pandemic would reshape so much of our professional and personal lives in Georgia, the State Higher Education Executive Officers association (SHEEO) and Arnold Ventures awarded Sean Baser (PhD student) and me with a grant. Our team proposed to study how states authorize postsecondary education programs, including public and private colleges, for-profit institutions, and technical/vocational programs.
This topic has been increasingly of interest to state and federal policymakers as a means to maintain quality and accountability. The project proposed to build a 50-state inventory of state authorization efforts, to identify a classification of states’ varying approaches to authorization and renewal of programs, and to conduct case studies of a few state approaches. As with so many other things, we adjusted these plans in response to COVID-19.
Sean served as an instructional assistant in my State Systems of Higher Education course during the spring and led a class session that discussed recent changes in the federal regulatory process that affects how campuses are authorized. We both sensed strong interest in policy and a growing curiosity about authorization. We had planned to spend the summer launching the preliminary inventory and brainstorming how our project could involve other IHE students.
In the meantime, I prepared to lead a policy seminar course in Washington DC during Maymester as usual. Then, with travel restricted and summer courses moving entirely online, I considered needed to shift quickly and develop a new educational opportunity for our students. While I regretted not be able to provide the Washington DC experience, the grant offered an obvious plan B.
In addition to evident student interest on the grant topic, research team experience has always been a strength of IHE graduate programs. As such, I followed an Applied Project approach to this new Maymester summer course. Students spent the first week perusing many policy reports and journal articles on the topic, then the class of ten divvied up the state authorizing agencies and inventoried the key aspects of these agencies and their authorization processes. We had multiple research team meetings via Zoom to calibrate our efforts to ensure that we were all following similar systematic approaches. For the final project, each student, wrote a research proposal based on our authorization project.
In the end, I could not be happier with how the course turned out. The class discussions were engaging and informative, even as we battled Zoom fatigue. The data collection provided a full inventory far sooner than Sean and I expected. Perhaps most encouraging, more than half the students expressed interest in continuing to work on the project, which will lead many studies beyond the initial scope of our proposed project and will provide more IHE students with research team experience and, hopefully, conference presentations and publications. Although it started as a backup plan, this summer course experience has left me even more encouraged about our ability to adjust to these strange times.