Interview with Matt Varga, Ph.D. - Chair of the Dept. of Communication Sciences and Professional Counseling at the University of West Georgia

About Matt Varga, Ph.D.: Matt Varga is the Chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Professional Counseling at the University of West Georgia, where he also teaches courses in Higher Education and College Student Affairs, which include the history of and current challenges in higher education, legal and ethical issues in higher education, and doctoral research methodologies as an Associate Professor of College Student Affairs. As Chair, he is responsible for several programs within the College of Education, including the undergraduate and graduate programs in Speech Language, Professional Counseling, School Counseling, and Higher Education Administration.

Dr. Varga’s research foci include prescription drug abuse amongst graduate students, as well as other factors that impact students’ success, such as diversity acceptance, university transition programs, and campus climate. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Religious Studies from Christopher Newport University, and both his Master of Science in College Student Personnel and his Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and what types of careers does it prepare students for?

[Dr. Matt Varga] The Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration is a 60-credit program that we designed to align with the professional competencies set forth by the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators. We designed the program using these competencies specifically to help professionals in the education space to reach advanced competency level for leadership in multiple administrative contexts.

We were very intentional with the layout of our curriculum. The first class students take is the History of Higher Education, because we feel students need to know the historical context of how higher education has developed in this country, and how this history connects to current conventions and practices in the space. The sister class to that is Critical Issues and Trends in Higher Education, which is taught in the spring and builds upon students’ historical perspectives on higher education to examine critical contemporary issues in higher education. These two classes, History of Higher Education and Current Issues in Higher Education, are essentially linked. It’s important for students to understand how history has impacted where we are today and how we should handle challenges in education moving forward. We are really trying to get students to engage in some higher-level thinking and to also be aware of deeper issues in higher education, which translates into well-informed leadership.

In the fall semester, they also take an Advanced Seminar in Leadership, where we get senior-level leaders from the field of higher education to guest speak in an online format, and to help co-facilitate case studies and real-life examples for students to work with. This class also introduces students to theoretical perspectives that underpin higher education leadership. And then we have Organizational Theory, which delves into how organizations work and how to optimize organizational structures and workflows. So for the fall semester, it is really about focusing on leadership skills, the history of higher education, and organizational theory.

In the spring, in addition to taking Critical Issues and Trends in Higher Education, students also take Analysis of Higher Education Literature and Advanced Legal Issues and Policy Studies. Analysis of Higher Education Literature helps students hone their literature review skills in anticipation of their work on their dissertation, while also investigating recent research in higher education that can inform their current work. In Advanced Legal Issues and Policy Studies, students study and analyze how public policy affects education systems in the public and private sectors, and current legal issues affecting higher education.

From these foundational courses, students progress to the classes Diversity Issues in Higher Education, Values and Ethics in Higher Education Leadership, Governance in Higher Education, Capital Projects and Finance Management, and Enrollment Management. Diversity Issues in Higher Education teaches students how to cultivate learning environments that promote diversity and equity, while also finding ways to address issues of prejudice, power, privilege, oppression, and marginalization on a broader scale.

Values and Ethics in Higher Education Leadership explores the principles and values that govern careers in student affairs leadership, while Governance in Higher Education builds off of the Organizational Theory class to investigate the specific structures that are set in place to govern institutions of higher education, which include human capital management, staff performance evaluation, and the allocation of resources. Capital Projects and Finance Management delves into budget management, funds raising, and project management—essentially business development principles that are applied to a higher education setting. Enrollment Management teaches students about the theories and principles of student retention, progress, and graduation.

Students take about 12 hours of research-focused courses, which is a bit unique for an Ed.D program, but the focus on these courses is applied practice. Students learn qualitative and quantitative research methods, as well as methods for institutional assessment and program evaluation. Then the final component of the program is the dissertation, where students take the Directed Doctoral Research course, and an Applied Research Practices class, followed by their Dissertation hours. By the time they are starting on their Dissertation hours, they should have already written three chapters of their dissertation in a workable place.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration program uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Dr. Matt Varga] Our program, which uses the learning management system Desire2Learn, is fully online and 100 percent asynchronous, except for an on-campus orientation where we bring students to campus to meet their fellow students and faculty members. This orientation is based off of a lot of research that shows that in-person meetings help students feel more connected to their instructors and to the institution, and as a result they are more likely to succeed.

One of the first things we do during the orientation is firmly go over faculty and program expectations, review program polices, and the program handbook, so that students are aware of what we’re expecting. Then the other piece of this is to introduce students to the resources that they have as an online graduate student, which is pretty much everything that a residential student has. We find it’s really beneficial for us to show our students, “These are the people that are behind these resources, and here’s how you can contact them.”

Then we give them tutorials on how to use these resources, which include the online library, online librarians who can help them with the research process, additional research tools, writing tutoring, and a career center. We also go over the standards of acceptable doctoral work. Perhaps most importantly, we also do meet and greets with all of the faculty so that students can really start to develop those relationships with the people that they’re going to be working with for the next three to four years.

And these meetings help us, too, by giving us a face to a name instead of just a computer screen. We do have video chats and other meaningful interactions throughout all the classes and students’ work on their dissertation, but it’s still good to sit down with somebody face-to-face and build a rapport with them in-person first, as that provides a strong foundation on which students can build. When you’ve broken the ice in person, it’s also less scary to reach out by email or in online discussion boards.

[] The University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration program requires the completion of a Dissertation. What does the Dissertation entail, what process do students undertake to complete it, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. Matt Varga] So admittedly, I am a traditionalist. I think there’s a lot of value in the five-chapter dissertation structure. For the Ed.D. dissertation, the focus isn’t necessarily on creating new research, but rather on using your research to improve your practice. We want students to be able to find or identify a problem in their practice and then understand how they could go about utilizing the methods that they’ve learned and the resources at their disposal to solve or address this issue. The dissertation is a very concrete way of helping us identify whether or not a student has met his or her learning outcomes.

The structure of the dissertation is thus: Chapter 1 is the Introduction, Chapter 2 is the Literature Review, Chapter 3 is Methods, Chapter 4 is the Results, and Chapter 5 is Discussion. Chapters 1-3 make up the proposal that students submit to their committee, and then Chapters 4 and 5 are what students deliver in their oral defense before their committee.

In terms of topics, we have a lot of students who are interested in social justice issues as they relate to systemic oppression and critical race theory. Other students investigate issues that students encounter on-campus; we have one student who is working with high-achieving students and evaluating their success rate in different contexts. Another student is working with veterans, while another one of our students is working on applying a business model to financing higher education institutions. So it’s really across the board, and it is actually representative of our students because we have everybody from a college dean to a residence director of a small private school.

Students start working on their dissertation the second semester of the program in their Analysis of Higher Education Literature course. That is when they have to start identifying a topic that they’re going to work on throughout the program. Once they’ve identified a topic, then we take that information, and based on the expertise of our faculty, we match students to faculty members in our department who serve as their advisors. We also try to match our students to faculty who we feel can help them with their strengths and weaknesses, to try and maximize students’ success across the board.

Once students are matched, then there is a consistent workload throughout the next two years, through the research courses and the dissertation seminar course. Students start the seminar course the summer after their second year, and they will be working closely with the dissertation chair to start getting chapters one through three ready for their independent dissertation work the following fall.

[] What advice do you have for students for succeeding in their dissertation?

[Dr. Matt Varga] The dissertation is one of the important elements of students’ time in our program. Research is something that’s personal to you, and it really does become a part of you. I always say, “If you want to look into somebody’s soul, look at their dissertation, because it really tells you what is important to them.” So if you can find that topic, then your work never gets old. But if you can’t find a topic that you’re really passionate about, then it can become this laborious process.

And for students who are struggling to find a topic that they are passionate about and can sustain them throughout their tenure in the program, we as faculty members can help advise them. I like to use the Socratic method, where I sit down with the student and I say, “Okay, just talk to me about your interests.” So then they start talking through what has intrigued them in their work, and in their classes, and I continue asking them questions, building off of their responses until we reach a point where they have a good idea of where they want to start, or at least a general idea of the type of research project that would interest them.

The other piece of advice I feel is very important is don’t be afraid to ask for help and take time for yourself. I’ve just seen a lot of students put their health—mental, physical, emotional—to the wayside, and it really ends up taking a toll on them. So I really preach to my students the importance of self-care.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program? More broadly, is there anything you would like students to know about the University of West Georgia’s College of Education, such as its mission or additional resources that the College offers its online students?

[Dr. Matt Varga] All of our faculty are really great about being in tune with our students. At our monthly faculty meetings, we have check-ins about all of our students, asking, “How is this student progressing? Has anybody noticed anything with him or her that might mean they need additional support?” And if we notice something might be off, we reach out to those students and give them the support and resources they need. We want to help our students succeed. And then we like to reach out to all of our students and set up virtual meetings to just check in with them and see how they’re doing.

One of my faculty members actually received a note from a student that essentially said, “Thank you for being there for me. I really appreciate you and your feedback.” Because he reached out and told that student, “Hey, this is not representative of what I know you can do. What’s going on?” So it’s really about that organic mentorship process that we try to do. We all talk about mentors and mentees, but to be honest, if it’s not organic, it doesn’t tend to work.

[] For students interested in the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Matt Varga] Tell us why: be clear in your objectives and how the University of West Georgia’s EdD program is going to help you get there. We are in the process of getting rid of the GRE requirement probably next year, and replacing it with an interview process. We aim to take a holistic approach to admissions. We want to know, “Why are you interested in getting a doctorate? How will it help you achieve your goals? I think that’s where a lot of students go wrong—they just start talking about career goals, but don’t connect it to their desire to earn a doctorate. If I have a departmental associate who is applying to the doctoral program, the question in my head is, “How is this going to help you and not hurt you?” That’s what we need to know, and I think that’s where a lot of students do themselves an injustice is by not properly telling us that.

We ask for three letters of recommendation. One of them should ideally be from a past faculty member; however, what we’re seeing is that for some of the professionals who have been out of school for a while, those faculty members might have moved on or retired. So the letters of recommendation are flexible in terms of whether they come from professional or academic references. We look for recommenders who can speak to a student’s ability to exhibit critical thinking skills, write well, and demonstrate leadership and initiative.

[] What makes the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration program unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in education leadership, including identifying, investigating, and addressing systemic challenges in higher education?

[Dr. Matt Varga] First and foremost, we don’t have out-of-state tuition for online programs. So this is an affordable option for anybody in the country. If they want an online program, they don’t have the cost of having to pay out-of-state, whereas most programs do have an out-of-state online cost. The other piece is that we have broken up our curriculum, to assist the working professional. So even though our plan of study says they’re taking three classes a semester, they’re only taking two classes at a time.

We found taking three classes, working full-time, and having a family and a life was counter to our preaching well-being and taking care of your mental health. So one class is 16 weeks, and then the other two classes are eight weeks, so that each term students are only taking two classes at a time. And then we’re very intentional with which class is 16-weeks versus the eight-week courses. Finally, I’d say the amount and quality of faculty that we have, for being a regional institution, makes us stand out. To have five full-time equivalent faculty members committed to the higher education doctoral program is actually astounding. I know there are some research institutions in the region that don’t even have that for the residential programs.

A lot of that extends from the leadership of our Dean of the College of Education, because she is extremely innovative and supportive of new programs. And that is the leading mission here at the College of Education—to help students build their leadership capabilities and improve education institutions and systems through innovative methods. During a time when many colleges aren’t getting resources, the Provosts Office actually gave us the resources to hire two additional faculty members to help grow this graduate education program. I think it just highlights the commitment that the College of Education and University of West Georgia has to this program, and it spills over to the experience that the students get. I mean, our president even co-taught a class with me last year. The University of West Georgia has really been an astounding place to work for, to see the types of support we receive and the lived mission of innovation, leadership, and student progress and wellness.

Thank you, Dr. Matt Varga, for your excellent insight into the University of West Georgia’s online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration program!