Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Q&A: CPE's Melissa Bell discusses the latest trends in academic affairs

September 29, 2020

Melissa Bell
Melissa Bell, CPE VP for Academic Affairs

Melissa Bell, vice president for academic affairs and student success at CPE, has served with the Council since 2006. She earned a bachelor's in history and political science at the former Cumberland College and a master's degree from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. Bell received her doctorate from UK's Martin School of Public Policy and Administration.

Let's start with an update on college readiness and standardized exams. These issues have remained front and center with the pandemic, and CPE has offered campuses more flexibility this year. What are the latest developments?

A lot of institutions are going test optional nationally – that is a trend. It calls into question whether students will even take those exams if they don't need them. So what do we do in the long run for determining college readiness? CPE sets minimum admissions standards, and those are based primarily on GPA. But standardized exams are still used to determine if students needs corequisite courses at universities or developmental courses at KCTCS. Right now, we are looking at everything. Do we have the right exams? Can we expand to include other types of indicators? The test-optional movement has turned the college readiness discussion on its head, and now we must reevaluate what it means to be academically ready for college.

Is that a silver lining of the pandemic – that it is accelerating these conversations and helping drive innovation?

Yes, we are questioning everything now. We wouldn't have had this conversation several years ago because exams are so ingrained in our culture. The pandemic has also underscored equity issues that have always been a concern with standardized exams. One of the reasons we eliminated standardized tests in our admissions regulation a few years ago was to help advance diversity and equity in admissions. However, we are still grappling with how to best measure college readiness, and we need to expedite the answer because campuses are already admitting and recruiting for next year.

Aside from college readiness, are we learning other lessons from the pandemic that will reshape how academic affairs carries forward?

A big issue is remote learning. We've been speaking a lot with online learning coordinators and the directors of teaching and learning centers, along with CPE's faculty advisors. Most of the conversation focuses on providing quality coursework. Parents and students want to know the value of higher education, and we need to ensure our online learning environment continues to provide that value. And we need to better explain that value as well. This crisis has also highlighted the need to dedicate time in each course for getting to know students and their needs, and letting students develop a rapport with each other. Students need that sense of community, especially in the online and hybrid courses.

That makes a lot of sense. Do you think some of these models – remote learning, hybrid approaches, eight-week courses – will remain common, even after COVID-19 subsides?

CPE is certainly encouraging innovations in delivery, and I expect that at least some of these new approaches will continue moving forward because they offer important benefits like more flexibility and affordability. A lot will depend on how faculty and students respond to these approaches over time. Especially with accelerated courses, breaking them into the eight weeks or even shorter modules, that really is a different way of thinking, with pros and cons. The key is ensuring that campuses maintain quality, and that will require a great deal of input from both faculty and students.

Let's shift gears a bit and talk about CPE's program review. What was the objective there?

We've done a lot of different things over the years with our statutory authority to review academic programs. At one time, we just looked at the number of degrees conferred. Then we made it much more holistic, looking at learning and workforce outcomes. The most recent changes focus on student and market demand, and also how these programs fit with others in the same markets. The university representatives who have spoken to me have been very appreciative of having this sort of data. Fifty metrics are blended together into a one-page scorecard, which provides a lot of valuable information in one succinct format.

This almost sounds like an attempt to answer that value question at the very beginning.

It is. It focuses on market value, not academic quality. But yes. And it is not looking at just one metric like degree production. It provides an aggregate of many metrics that institutions can easily comprehend. That is the beauty of it – it's not just a single metric. It's several indices that provide deep information and a better understanding of what happens to students when they complete a program.

Speaking of completing programs, your team is doing some interesting work on student success initiatives. Tell us about "virtual learning communities."

Stephanie Mayberry, CPE's director of student success, is doing a great job pulling together many communities of practice for regular meetings online. She is working with mental health counselors and academic advisors and military student advisors, and many others – a huge group. We are trying to build a broad network between all these different groups to start talking about one overarching goal: student success. We want to provide a way for campuses to learn from one another and brainstorm solutions. So these virtual learning communities are an attempt to develop new, collective solutions to issues and also just bounce ideas off each other.

Another way you are supporting student success is a new transfer website. What does that involve?

We are in the final phase and hope to have a public rollout soon. The idea is to help students map out a four-year degree plan whether they start at a four-year institution or at a community college. The site will offer degree plans along with market and national jobs data related to different degrees. We plan to work very closely with institutions to keep adding functionality, and academic advisors can use the site as well. We are really trying to get as much data out there as possible so that the students can make informed decisions and advocate for themselves.

Well, sounds like a great project, and you have a lot going on. I really appreciate your time today.

Thanks. It was great to share.

Last Updated: 7/20/2021