Answering the Big Questions of Higher Education
Ten regional college presidents weigh in on the challenges and triumphs of a 21st-century education.
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photo by Chuck Beard
Each generation brings with it a new set of expectations, but the demands of college students are perennial. Students of every generation want to learn in new ways, both within classroom walls and beyond. They want to become critical thinkers and emerge enriched by a range of diverse experiences. They need to know their investment — of time and, yes, money — will pay off.
While those goals may endure, modern students have new perspectives on how to achieve them.
Duquesne University President Ken Gormley
“Many of today’s students and parents are much more educated about college than in prior generations and are looking to determine the ‘best fit’ school,” says Duquesne University President Ken Gormley. “They’re looking at academic programs, career and job outcomes for graduates, institutional reputation and academic quality, hands-on learning and real-world experience in the curriculum and on campus.”
Area institutions are working to meet these 21st-century challenges. Some are growing physically by adding or upgrading infrastructure. Most are expanding academic offerings in growing areas such as data analytics, cyber security and communication. And all are focused on attracting and retaining Millennial students as the higher-education landscape becomes increasingly competitive.
As Americans continue to struggle with student loan debt, many are questioning whether an undergraduate degree remains worth the investment. According to a recent Federal Reserve report, the average person paying on a student loan owes close to $33,000.
To lighten that load, institutions are prioritizing fundraising for financial aid while keeping a close eye on budget lines.
Carlow University President Suzanne Mellon
“Ten to 15 years ago, you could continue to increase tuition rates. Those days are gone,” says Carlow University President Suzanne Mellon. “Providing more support and financial aid for students has been the very mantra for what we need to do. Then it’s about looking at efficiencies [in] our cost structure, so that we’re delivering education in more streamlined, efficient ways.”
The biggest challenge, says St. Vincent College President Br. Norman W. Hipps, O.S.B., is the cost of labor; higher education depends on dedicated, accessible faculty.
“It’s not like an industry where those individuals can be replaced by robots,” he says. “We can take advantage of technology, but it’s still the key role that the faculty member plays in the education of students.”
Still, Grove City College President Paul McNulty says universities need to remain focused on keeping administrative costs low. “We avoid padding our sticker price to cover an ever-expanding administration or unnecessary luxuries ... We have ramped up efforts to raise substantial merit- and need-based scholarships. Investments are closely monitored and expenditures managed with a laser focus on controlling costs.”
Creative solutions are emerging. Chatham University is developing a “three on, one off” incentive, in which students would be offered savings and a guaranteed price of tuition for all four years if they agreed to study on campus for the first three. The fourth year could be spent studying abroad or online, or learning in a co-op program.
Chatham University President David Finegold
“With the growth we’re having, this would allow us to add more students without having to build new buildings, and it would lower the cost of a degree for the students,” says Chatham President David Finegold. “We’re trying to think out of the box.”
There also is widespread effort to improve financial literacy among both students and parents.
“We try to reach out to all of them and explain the options available to help them finance their college career,” says Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Michael Driscoll. “We do more and more of that now than we ever have before, and we’ll continue to increase that educational component before anyone actually walks in the door as a student here.”
What Millennials Want
Today’s students aren’t simply focused on the bottom line.
“A big issue for students these days is thinking about, ‘Where are places I can go where I won’t just get a great education but where they are really trying to make a positive impact in terms of the future?’” says Finegold.
“The Millennial generation is focused on making a difference,” says Mellon. “These individuals are not just saying, ‘It’s all about me.’ They want to do what’s good for the whole world.”
To succeed in attracting such students, colleges are developing courses of study that focus on pressing, global issues. Chatham has done so with an innovative approach to sustainability education, including its 388-acre Eden Hall Campus in Richland Township; on that pastoral campus, students learn cutting-edge strategies for tackling environmental and ecological challenges.
La Roche College President Sister Candace Introcaso
La Roche College offers short-term travel courses (to both domestic and international locations), which are included in the price of tuition; these opportunities are designed to broaden perspectives, according to La Roche President Sister Candace Introcaso. “Our hope is that our students get to see there are more similarities out there than there are differences, but then also to understand those differences and what [they] mean.”