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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Shari McMahan: EWU redefining success to help students, community achieve better futures

Shari McMahan

By Shari McMahan

Higher education institutes across the country are seeing drops in enrollment, and the value proposition of a bachelor’s degree is being tested. To remain relevant, institutions must re-evaluate what success means for students, create greater flexibility in course offerings, strengthen support services and build relationships that lead to opportunities for hands-on learning. These are necessary steps in order to cater to diverse student aspirations and prepare graduates to begin making an impact on day one of their new career.

Student success is the oft-used buzz phrase within education circles, yet a definitive explanation of what it truly means remains elusive. Traditionally, success in academia meant you earned a diploma. Yet, the future demands skills that go beyond just the classroom – students must grow and develop a blend of technical knowledge, essential interpersonal skills, creativity, emotional intelligence and problem-solving abilities. The landscape of higher education is evolving, and so too must our understanding of what constitutes success for students at the university level.

It’s far past time to rethink our educational approach. In understanding this need, institutions must re-evaluate their curriculum, embracing cross-connected studies, while also fostering innovation and integrating practical experiences that mirror real work environments. Higher education needs to embrace the necessity to narrow program offerings to workforce demands and provide unwavering support for students to reach their educational goals.

Moreover, the new approach to success cannot be a solitary pursuit by students alone. It requires a robust support system. Many students face financial, mental health or social barriers that impede their journey. Earlier this year, during my Investiture ceremony, I shared the story of a student who experienced homelessness and food insecurity while enrolled in a graduate program. Only with robust outreach and individualized support did this student remain enrolled, secure an apartment, fill his pantry and still find the time to study, finishing the quarter with a 3.7 GPA. With increasing student needs and challenges, institutions, EWU included, must improve comprehensive support services – from mental health counseling to career guidance and financial aid – to nurture an environment where every student feels empowered to persist through challenges and thrive.

For the past year, Eastern Washington University has been conducting a comprehensive examination of both academic programs and university services to determine how best to allocate our resources to meet the needs of our regional workforce, our students and our future as an institution. “Strategic resource allocation” will result in both reductions and reinvestments as EWU reshapes itself for the future. When I’m out in the community, I hear about the growing need for skilled employees, filling roles in health care, education, business and the growing STEM fields. EWU will always be rooted in the liberal arts, but our workforce needs in the next 10 or 15 years are evolving, and so we, too, must evolve.

And, strong community partnerships to fulfill this obligation is critical. Local businesses and nonprofit organizations must come alongside higher education to help ensure graduates not only earn a diploma, but also develop the breadth of skills necessary to arrive and thrive in today’s workforce. Regional comprehensive universities, like EWU, historically are positioned to build the local economy. Alumni of these institutions, whether first generation or third generation college students, are more likely to remain in the area after graduation. Investments in time and resources by the local workforce pay dividends in recruiting from graduates who already understand regional needs.

The time is now to redefine student success, and the process will involve hard decisions. It’s not merely about the diploma at the end of the tunnel but about nurturing individuals who are creative, innovative, and equipped to adapt and grow in an ever-evolving world. To achieve this, higher education must reimagine degree pathways and course offerings, align them with the demands of tomorrow’s workforce, and provide unwavering support to every student on their unique path to success. Only then can we truly prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of the future.

The community’s voice is critical to his process, so EWU invites the public to give input on our vision for the future by visiting

Shari McMahan is president of Eastern Washington University in Cheney.