When Merodie Hancock became president of Trenton-based Thomas Edison State University nearly two years ago, she took leadership of an institution that has a different mission than most four-year liberal arts institutions. Since its inception in 1972 (as Thomas Edison State College) the university has always been less focused on providing a broad-based education for students right out of high school than teaching practical skills to nontraditional students, mostly adults whose careers are already underway.
In today’s economy staying current with the rapidly evolving needs of employers has become a major challenge.
At an upcoming meeting of the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce, Hancock will discuss how she is continuously updating the university’s offerings to meet that challenge, with the help of industry and higher education partnerships and technology-enabled learning. The meeting will take place Thursday, March 5, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Tickets are $75, $50 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonmercerchamber.org.
Hancock (U.S. 1, August 15, 2018) was one of 10 children, raised by an engineer father who served in the Air Force and went back to school to become an architect. Her mother received a master’s degree in social work while she was raising five children. The careers of both parents mirror the mission of TESU, which caters to service members as well as civilians in mid-career.
Hancock, who earned an economics degree from Scripps, an MBA from Claremont Graduate University in California, and a doctorate in urban services from Old Dominion University in Virginia, began her career in adult education teaching classes at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Virginia Beach, where her husband was a military officer.
For the rest of her career she has worked with adult learners, taking administrative roles at Central Michigan University, the University of Maryland University College, and State University of New York Empire State, where she was president from 2013 to 2017.
TESU fits in with the rest of her career in its focus on adult education. “We are a liberal arts university,” Hancock says. “We have liberal arts, but we take a pretty practical approach to it.” For example, a typical liberal arts curriculum for students straight out of high school focuses on developing critical thinking skills over specific job skills. At TESU critical thinking is taught in terms of how it fits into the day-to-day life of a nurse or a member of the military. “We have a liberal arts core, but it is a pretty pragmatic liberal arts core,” she says.
Hancock says that because one of the main goals of TESU is preparing students for careers, a major challenge is constantly updating the curriculum to meet the needs of employers.
“We are working with employers, looking at the data,” she says. “We are working closely with industry to identify what competencies really resonate and what they need.”
Those skills have to be of immediate use, too. “A traditional student is going into the workforce in four years,” Hancock says. “Our students are taking their new skills to work the next day. We have to be completely up to date.” One of Hancock’s goals in speaking to the Princeton Mercer Chamber is to meet employers and encourage them to let her school know what skills they need to develop in their workforce, both now and what they anticipate in the near future. “We really need you to come to the table with educational institutions and help us identify what skillsets are needed so we can constantly stay on top of it,” she says.
In response to the requirements of employers, TESU recently added a doctorate in business administration program, a cybersecurity program, and an aviation program intended to enhance the skills of people who already have aviation training. (One trend in workforce education is to not only offer degrees, but ongoing courses designed to develop skills.) Hancock says that the university has a program for people in military nuclear programs to earn a nuclear engineering degree at TESU. She hopes to add programs in wind and solar power in the future.
Hancock has also sought to form partnerships with other educational institutions. The university recently announced that anyone graduating from a New Jersey community college can apply for free to TESU and will automatically be accepted. “It’s a two-way investment that promotes community college students getting an associate’s degree, and it’s an outstanding feeder of really strong students into Thomas Edison,” she says. The “3+1 pathway” program allows students to transfer up to 90 credits of a 120-credit four-year degree from a community college to TESU.
Hancock says that in her talks with employers, she has heard a great deal of discussion about whether they want to require their recruits to have four-year degrees. Some companies have dropped the requirement for some positions, placing a greater emphasis on specific skillsets. Hancock believes that in response, the education system is going to break degrees down into “microcredentials” that certify training in different skills. For the time being, however, she says the four-year-degree is still “the coin of the realm” and the key to upward mobility for most students.
Higher education has been a hot topic in the presidential race, with Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders proposing a program of student loan forgiveness and free tuition at state universities. Hancock isn’t sure that’s a good idea.
“I have mixed feelings on that,” she says. “I am somebody that likes skin in the game … I think when you get into college learning, you need to be invested. You need to be determined to get some return on your investment, and therefore you need the investment.”
However, she does see the value in making education more affordable. She says many TESU students are making too much money to qualify for a federal Pell grant. They often successfully increase their income by earning a degree, but student loans eat into whatever pay increase they receive. “Going from $60,000 to $75,000 a year is a big increase, but it’s not a meaningful increase in terms of having excess income,” she says. She says the college tries to work with students to keep the cost of a degree down, for example by turning work experience into credits .
Hancock also plans to discuss the role of technology, not only in online learning, but several exotic technologies that might play a role in education in the near future. For example, there has been talk of a “universal transcript” using blockchain. “We see technology really impacting not just the ability to learn in different ways and get learning levels you need right away, but also how to communicate and match skillsets and match employees with employers in ways that are different than indeed.com or something like that,” Hancock says.