Dalton State Adapts to Meet Changing Needs

I have spent a great deal of time in recent months reflecting on the role of Dalton State today and in the future as we approach the celebration of our 50th anniversary next month. There is much to consider in the 2016 book from New York Times’ Foreign Affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Acceleration.”

One of Friedman’s key points is that technology and the world are changing at an exponential rate, and that the rate of change in the world has exceeded our ability as humans to adapt. He asserts that we must look for ways to bridge the gap between the changing technology and our ability as humans to evolve: “…when the pace of change gets this fast, the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning.” In other words, we must prepare the next generation to be lifelong learners so that they have the capacity to take on the jobs and problems of the future which do not yet exist.

This struck me perhaps also because it is something Dalton State embraces in our mission statement which we refreshed this past spring. Our mission states, in part: “Through challenging academic and rich collegiate experiences, we promote lifelong learning, active leadership, and positive contributions in Northwest Georgia and beyond.”

One of the things we recognize as an institution is the importance of ensuring that our graduates learn a number of essential life skills in addition to the specific content necessary for their career choices. We believe the ability to learn for the rest of our lives is an important skill for the world we inhabit today and for the world in which our graduates will live.

Memorizing the periodic table of elements is no longer critical for a chemistry student because such information is at the fingertips of every student via their hand-held devices. Rather, Dalton State helps our students develop the ability to understand the significance of the data, to critically analyze the value of different sources of information, to interpret the data and to use information to create new solutions to both old and new problems.

As issues such as value of a college degree, return on investment of a college education, rising tuition rates and employment opportunities for college graduates are debated at the national level, Dalton State is working with area employers to ensure that our curriculum continues to evolve to meet the needs of our community. We are also very aware of the need to ensure our students are readily employable after graduation and that they do not graduate crippled with student debt.

Recognizing that Dalton State cannot be all things to all students while maintaining our affordability, we have increased our partnerships with local companies and organizations as well as other higher education providers. Our collaborations with Georgia Northwestern to provide career pathways or “stacked credentials” in fields such as chemical technology from a high school certificate to a college associate degree and baccalaureate degree is just one example of our efforts to change to meet the needs of our community.

Nevertheless, even as we recognize the importance of adapting to meet the current and future needs of our students and community, I am struck by the realization that the core mission of Dalton State has never changed. We have evolved to meet the needs of the modern world but our core mission remains the same.

Over the past 50 years, we have changed the name of the institution twice, developed many new degree programs and discontinued others, updated the curriculum of ongoing degree programs, renovated and constructed new buildings and many more things. We have even updated the wording of our mission. But we have always existed to serve the needs of Northwest Georgia by providing opportunities for a high quality, affordable college credential without leaving the region.

This is the delicate balance we must continue to seek as we move toward the future: to maintain our core mission of serving the educational needs of our region while upholding our academic rigor and affordability and ensuring that our graduates remain competitive in the employment market. This is not an easy challenge. With rising costs of operation, increased requirements for accountability and declines in state and federal revenues to help support public higher education, we must work harder and smarter to serve the needs of our students and to prepare them for a changing world, a world that is changing faster than most of us can easily adapt. We are grateful for the support of our community in this work and we look forward to the next 50 years together.

Dr. Venable is the president of Dalton State College.