Dr. Thomas Stewart: The Changing Landscape of Higher Education 

Dr. Thomas Stewart

This article is based on a 2016 interview with Dr. Thomas Stewart, President of Patten University. As an advocate for high quality yet affordable higher education, Dr. Stewart has a unique history and an interesting perspective on enabling students to reach higher educational goals. He became president of Patten University in July 2013, and has since worked with all University stakeholders to maintain accreditation standards and improve educational programs

In this interview, Dr. Stewart shares his passion and his commitment to the end goal of providing the opportunity for quality higher education to all students.

The Demand Side of Higher Ed

Dr. Stewart, Patten University Commencement

Dr. Stewart, Patten University Commencement

Patten University is transforming higher education. The biggest changes needed in its structure, according to Dr. Stewart, is to recognize the impact of a college degree on families. Families make a financial investment by sending at least one of their members, often a son or daughter, to college. Therefore, success affects the entire family, and student debt is felt by all. Reducing debt and providing a faster return on investment benefits the entire family for the next generation.

Let’s look at a traditional example. In past generations, families purchased a house in order to build equity. This money was frequently used to underwrite the cost for family member’s higher education. In today’s economy, most families can no longer rely upon home equity to sponsor a family member.

When researching schools, families need to ascertain that their choice provides the best investment for their budget. Dr. Stewart recommends that a student should not pay more for a degree than the income they can make in their first working year after graduation.

Today, Patten students’ average age is 38.5. They are mostly working adults, and they are more likely to be students over the age of 50 than under the age of 24. Students attend Patten from each state in the United States as well as from 27 countries around the world. Most students have responsibilities such as work and family. Most students are married, have technical knowledge and receive income from a job based on a traditional education.

The Supply Side of Higher Ed

Dr. Stewart with Kris King- First Online Grad

Dr. Stewart with Kris King- First Online Grad

Patten University’s flexible online learning platform gives adults the freedom to go back to school on their terms, acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to advance, start or change careers. Patten works directly with large private and public sector employers to create affordable degree pathways that address their workforce training and skill needs.

Technology, specifically the Learning Management System (LMS), became a differentiation factor with the reinvention of the online school. Patten considered students’ learning needs and reimagined the role of faculty in order to provide online students with an extraordinary learning experience – taking online learning to a new level.

Gamification, or making the online learning experience intuitive and engaging, along with other cutting-edge features of the LMS were combined with best practices in adult learning. This means both students and faculty have access to dashboards and other tools which help monitor student progress and promote effective student-faculty interaction. For example, students don’t take final exams until after they pass a pre-final, which allows them to solicit faculty advice and support before taking the final exam. The result? A 90 percent final exam passage rate.

Dr. Stewart’s Education Pathway for Low Income and Middle Class Families

Dr. Stewart’s personal experiences with higher education best explains his unique leadership style and commitment to quality and affordable education. His experiences as a graduate of the University of The District of Columbia (UDC) and Harvard University are so distinct, it’s impossible to compare the two. However, together they tell a fascinating story of the path of Dr. Stewart’s education, which explains his capacity to so positively impact education and also provides a blueprint that many students today can follow.

Dr. Stewart’s higher education began immediately after being honorably discharged from the US Army, when he enrolled at UDC. This public university had an open admissions policy, was highly affordable, and an easy choice for him as a first generation low-income student.

Typically, students change his or her major three to four times, which can be a time and financially costly decision for countless students. Dr. Stewart was no exception. He started as a civil engineer and architect major. In his junior year he decided to change to his major to an AA in paralegal studies, but his counselors advised him that political science would be a better choice with more viable long-term opportunities.

His interests were always in basic political studies, such as research, writing and communication, as opposed to public policy and law. In his senior year, Dr. Stewart attended the first annual Dr. Ralph Bunche Institute at Southern and Louisiana State summer political science institute in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This was where he realized that a PhD would unlock career opportunities to realize the passion he had never considered. This experience positioned him for Harvard University, where he continued his education to receive his PhD in Government at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Stewart feels he had an extraordinary education experience, beginning with youthful uncertainty at a public university to a privileged opportunity at an Ivy League school. His education culminated in less than $500 of total education-related debt.

What lesson can we take from Dr. Stewart’s education story that impacts Patten University and provides a smart blueprint for other low-income and working class students and families?

A Pragmatic Approach to Higher Education

Dr. Stewart recommends that most students and families consider higher education as a pathway to a long-term investment. Associate’s studies and degrees are a great first step. They give young students the latitude to figure it all out – particularly those with average high school accomplishments who are unsure of their career goals and may have limited funds. Many high school graduates fall into at least one of these categories. The next step is for the student to carry the discipline learned obtaining his or her associate’s degree and move on to complete their bachelor’s degree work with greater knowledge and direction. From this point on, advanced education has a more beneficial return on time and financial investment.

The bottom line is unnecessary debt is one of the hidden and potentially devastating costs of higher education. Start with quality school options, and pursue more recognized and potentially expensive schools once you are on clear goal-oriented career track. Dr. Stewart advises not to go into excessive debt early on in this journey.

Building a Path to Higher Education for All

“We live in a knowledge economy,” Dr. Stewart explains, “where a college degree is the key to a successful career. At minimum a bachelor’s degree is required to qualify for most mid and upper-level employment opportunities. A growing number of entry-level jobs are requiring a bachelor’s degree. A BA and certainly a master’s degree strongly suggests to an employer that a person has the demonstrated discipline, capacity to focus, and other attributes important to productivity.

Another generational paradigm shift is that years ago, a bachelor’s degree was relevant for about 20 years. Today, due to rapid changes in economies and technology, degrees become obsolete after three to five years. The onus is on students to become life learners by taking courses and participating in other professional development activities to remain at the forefront of their discipline.

Dr. Stewart joined Patten to address these changes. His goal as president is to continuously keep programs updated and easily accessible. Patten University offers regional accreditation, which is one of the highest levels awarded to an institution. Companies that employ Western Associations of Schools and Colleges (WASC) graduates understand how accreditation is shaping institutions of the future.

The Competitive Landscape

Dr. Stewart does not look at other online universities as competitors in the traditional business sense. He feels that the reality is there is a shortage of open enrollment secondary institutions. Collectively there are not enough schools to give students a broad range of degree programs, options, and models to fit their lifestyle.

Dr. Stewart receives Best Value School award on behalf of Patten from Joseph Schmok

Dr. Stewart receives Best Value School award on behalf of Patten from Joseph Schmok

What Patten University does to “compete” is to differentiate their model to meet a portion of the higher-ed community’s need for flexibility, whether a student is balancing school and work, school and family, or all three. Their work has received a breakthrough model grant funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and a grant from The California Endowment to target low-income first generation students. This is attributed to the unique single-course enrollment, without standard semester restrictions. Patten students have the opportunity to complete the same number of courses in the same amount of time, but in a flexible manner. He noted that the traditional model holds time constant and the standards vary. In the Patten model, the standards are constant, and the time varies based on the students need.

Having said that, Patten has been the recipient of a number of recognitions and is honored to speak of them. For the past two years, Patten was selected out of nearly 8,000 postsecondary schools to receive the Best Value School Award, which is issued by University Research & Review. They were recognized as one of the top online Masters in finance for 2016 by GoGrad. Patten University is also proud to be a member of Educause, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

Dr. Stewart shared one final thought on Patten’s ranking among competitors. Online universities are not competitors, but colleagues. Collectively we need to work together to offer the highest quality education and make it conveniently accessible, at a reasonable and realistic cost.

Social Entrepreneur

Because of Dr. Stewart’s lack of education debt, he has always paid it forward as a social entrepreneur. He believes that conducting research unlocks problems in education. It’s an opportunity to see how we can positively impact the education system and improve lives. Dr. Stewart co-founded over 20 profit and nonprofit schools and other organizations, including the Community College Preparatory Academy Public Charter School in Washington, DC, LearnNow, Inc., and The Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Dr. Stewart Dr. Stewart has received a 2016 Pahara-Aspen Fellowship. This elite membership is a group of 20 people from around the world who work on social issues in education through four leadership seminars over a two-year period. Dr. Stewart describes this honorable undertaking as another example of lifelong learning.

Also, new to his list of accolades, Dr. Stewart is proud to announce that he has recently been elected to the WASC Senior College and University Commission. In this capacity, Dr. Stewart will contribute to improving the accrediting process for west-coast postsecondary public and private education institutions. The Commission focuses on education improvements through services to students and the public good.

Since 1944, Patten University has earned a reputation for enriching the lives of students through education and making a difference in our community and the world. They believe everyone deserves a quality college education from an accredited institution, regardless of age, location, ethnicity or financial situation. Patten remains committed to making higher education accessible and affordable so that students can earn a degree without incurring excessive debt.