Innovation Makes the Dean’s List: How Ryan Tipton Takes Tech Campus-wide

Image of Ryan Tipton
Cengage Unlimited
Reading Time: 5 minutes

When it comes to scalable access to learning, those who can do, teach.

Dr. Ryan Tipton felt it was time for something new after retiring early. After a fruitful career in which the Lovington, New Mexico native grew his own oil company into an acclaimed group of cross-industry subsidies, Dr. Tipton sold his energy empire and enrolled at Walden University. With a Doctorate in Business Administration, it wasn’t until after founding his consulting company that his career took a (new) pivotal turn—not in the private sector, but to higher education.

The year was 2009. While acting as Lead Consultant on an energy project involving a board of advisors from both the private-energy and higher-education sectors, the Dean at the University of the Southwest’s College of Business approached Dr. Tipton about teaching a class on Economics and Free Enterprise. Having never taught a course before, Dr. Tipton was hesitant.

“I initially replied that I wasn’t interested,” he reveals. “But I ended up teaching a class and I loved it!”

Dr. Tipton’s background as an entrepreneur, combined with his terminal degree, proved a good fit. Six months later, he became Dean of the College of Business. As of May 2019, Dr. Tipton has been promoted to Provost and Vice President of USW.

“The department started very small with 20 undergrads,” recalls Dr. Tipton.

This spring, the College of Business has maintained approximately 300 students—making it the institution’s largest undergrad program, the second largest Master’s program and the only Doctorate program.

“We’ve done a lot in a decade,” says Dr. Tipton.

With increasing costs in higher education and an evolving learning profile, what about the next decade? Dr. Tipton sat down with Cengage to discuss the role technology plays in proliferating student success—not only in his department, but across USW.

Affordability in Focus

As Dean, Dr. Tipton put an emphasis on innovation to solve access and affordability issues pervasive in academia. He says USW serves mainly first-generation students, and many of their parents aren’t prepared for the various pricing options beyond tuition. According to Dr. Tipton, it was particularly challenging for students to afford course materials.

“They say, ‘I’m in college now, I’ve paid my tuition—I don’t have an extra two- to three-thousand dollars for textbooks,’” explains Dr. Tipton.

To many students, forgoing textbooks seems like an easy way to curtail extra spending. With almost 90% of students saying they spend up to a week searching for affordable textbooks, the option to borrow from a friend seems like a money-saving alternative—a decision that, Dr. Tipton says, hurts students.

“They end up failing simply because they don’t have a textbook,” says Dr. Tipton. Poor grades due to a lack of course materials are a common issue, with 20% of students failing a course because they couldn’t afford the textbook.

Dr. Tipton needed a way to make pricing simple, but a traditional campus-bookstore setup made it difficult.

“Schools make money from bookstores, even though you know now there are better ways of doing that,” he reveals, admitting the higher education industry can be resistant to change.

It may be time to embrace change. According to Dr. Tipton, high course-material costs affect more than students. “They hurt graduation and retention rates,” he says.

These challenges and a culture of innovation at USW prompted Dr. Tipton to take action, and he began perusing options to ensure students have their course materials without hurting their wallets.

“USW could require course materials, but there’d be no guarantee students would buy them,” says Dr. Tipton.

His solution? Taking textbooks off the table. Dr. Tipton sought a system that, according to him, is not only “simple and turn-key” for students and their parents, but for USW as well.

“I looked for ways to register students in the LMS to create an online learning shelf, capable of housing their syllabus and info about the instructor,” explains Dr. Tipton. He then sought vendors to embed ebooks into his students’ classes through the LMS, and became acquainted with a rep from Cengage—a move that would help USW avoid paying $50 for just one textbook per student.

The Cengage rep informed Dr. Tipton that he could pay one price per student for all their textbooks—in ebook format, with no need for LMS embedding.

That’s when Dr. Tipton learned about Cengage Unlimited. Though he admits it sounded too good to be true, Dr. Tipton was happy to discover he could implement the online subscription across his department and cover every one of each Business Administration student’s course materials.

Success, Scaled

News of Cengage Unlimited created a buzz across USW, and Dr. Tipton was happy to help spread the word.

“I have the privilege of creating unique space for the College of Business to be the innovation lab on campus,” shares Dr. Tipton. “If it works in our department, it can be pushed out to other departments campus-wide.”

Numbers backed up this push for innovation. With a focus on student success and completion, Dr. Tipton used data to show USW’s then-Provost, President and faculty that externalizing course materials and textbook purchases were an unnecessary burden for students.

As a result, Dr. Tipton drove digital and affordability initiatives to benefit every single student on campus. Now, every department at USW includes Cengage Unlimited in each student’s tuition.

Dr. Tipton’s secret to scalability? Think about more than saving money.

“Too often, people make decisions based on what’s cheaper, and that’s a problem,” he shares. “It’s ‘cheaper’ for us if we don’t pay for each student’s course materials, but if we do, the return is in graduation, retention and student satisfaction.”

Student success is emphasized in Dr. Tipton’s decision-making. “The job for a university is to get students graduated,” he says. “Our students pay tuition, and USW gives them everything they need to be successful.”

USW parlays that student success into meaningful outcomes after graduation. When asked about the new Career Center in Cengage Unlimited, Dr. Tipton shared he has connected USW’s student success liaison with the recently added feature that’s designed to help students build their resumes, explore careers and get interview tips.

“The Career Center will really take off,” beams Dr. Tipton.

Recognizing—and Embracing—the Unknown

As for suggestions to Deans considering digital and affordability solutions, Dr. Tipton says to start now. He reveals, “Any forward-thinking Administrator or Dean can see the writing on the wall: You’ve got to be an early adopter. Some may want to hang on to print media, but in five years (and definitely in ten), anyone not taking advantage right now will get left behind.”

To create a culture of early adopters, Dr. Tipton says it’s crucial to help faculty embrace learning solutions. Often, there are fears of learning new tools and minimizing the instructor’s role as an expert on their subject matter. But faculty are past those fears at USW, where student success is the bottom line—and Dr. Tipton reveals it’s not uncommon to overhear students across campus discussing their satisfaction with digital.

Dr. Tipton says the welcoming attitude towards change means more advanced solutions. “It’s not so much convincing people to adopt technology, it’s, ‘What’s the newest technology?’”

Currently, new decisions being made at USW include virtual reality solutions for the Biology department. By creating a culture of early adopters, Dr. Tipton says Administrators no longer have to “sell” technology—it’s a given, like students’ course materials.


Economics Instructors: If you missed the 17th Annual Economics Teaching Conference, watch these recordings of presentations from thought leaders including Greg Mankiw, Essie Childers and Flower Darby.