Answering the Big Questions of Higher Education

Ten regional college presidents weigh in on the challenges and triumphs of a 21st-century education.

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.

photo: Shutterstock

Money Matters
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.”



Combating Assault
In addition to attracting students, the region’s schools are doing more to keep them safe once they arrive.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 23 percent of female undergraduate students and 5 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault. To remain compliant with Title 9, a law prohibiting discrimination at schools including any form of sexual harassment or assault, any college or university that receives federal funding must establish grievance procedures and designate someone to handle violation reports, among other requirements.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Michael Driscoll

Leaders say there has been extensive cooperation and collaboration among the region’s schools in this area to obtain proper training for faculty and staff and disseminate information to the student body. Driscoll says the key is making sure students both know what resources are available and feel comfortable talking about any concerns they have. 

“What had maybe been a hidden issue on many college campuses … is now more visible in a constructive way that helps us make further progress in protecting students and, better still, educating all of our students about how to behave appropriately and how to address situations that could get out of hand,” he says.

​Gormley says it is the responsibility of leaders to foster “a campus culture that is based on respect for all.

“One effort that can and should be taken is to start educating our children at an early age so that we lay the groundwork for a lifetime of treating others respectfully,” he says. “By the time students reach college, many of their attitudes and behaviors are set — so the earlier we educate them the better.”

Grove City College President Paul McNulty

Dealing with assault is a responsibility that can no longer be handled solely within the halls of a campus. “The reduction of reporting barriers coupled with staff training, effective communications and partnership among and between local advocates and law enforcement help keep students safe,” McNulty says.


Pledging Safety
For many, the college experience includes involvement in Greek life, a community capable of offering both the student and institution many benefits — but whose role in higher education is widely debated any time a tragedy related to hazing or alcohol abuse surfaces, such as the February death of a pledge inside a Penn State fraternity house.

Leaders say members of fraternities and sororities tend to be more engaged overall as students and more generous donors as alums. They also agree that fraternities and sororities belong on campus, provided their actions are properly supervised.

Robert Morris University President Christopher Howard

“Greek life is very good in theory,” says Robert Morris University President Christopher Howard. “It speaks to camaraderie, friendship and togetherness. But you have a bunch of 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds. When left to their own devices, it can be problematic.

“The key to making it work is supervision from alumni and faculty and staff who are helping them make smart decisions.” Howard explains that problems can arise when those in charge look the other way on Greek traditions. “You have the mishaps when the alumni, staff and faculty say, ‘We’re not going to show up. We know you’re going to do one of our traditions that we’ve always done and don’t talk about anymore, and we’re not going to be there in the place. You guys go off and do it and be careful.’ No. You have to be there with them.”

​Gormley says that two of his own children have been involved in Greek life at Duquesne.

“For both of them, it was a fabulous experience,” he says. “It is [up to] campus administrators, resident assistants, advisers, and yes, the Greek students themselves to actively engage in educational and other efforts to ensure that the high expectations for respectful and accountable behavior are met — not just on our campus, but on all college campuses.”



Protecting Players
As the medical community’s understanding of brain injuries continues to deepen, campuses face an added responsibility: Changing methods and procedures to ensure safety among student athletes.

Howard, a former athlete, remembers the days when even water breaks were discouraged. Today, “we’re just smarter,” he says.  

“Campuses across the nation are committed to using cutting-edge information when it comes to concussions, traumatic brain injuries [and more] to make wiser decisions about how to play whatever sport,” he says. “Knowledge is power. We’re getting there. We’re wiser, smarter and more aware. The culture is changing.”

Driscoll says as new information comes to light, “it is amazing to see what we haven’t known or haven’t talked about.

“It’s very clear to our coaches that the student’s health and well-being is the first decision, and the athletic trainers and the physicians get to make those calls,” he says. “I think the important thing has been to make sure student athletes understand they need to step up when something happens that maybe wasn’t observed directly, or if they’re having a bit of an issue with concentration or focus or headaches or any of those kinds of symptoms.”


Keeping Pace
With technology’s potential to change drastically over the course of a four-year degree program, higher ed institutions are finding innovative ways to keep up. Quintin B. Bullock, President of Community College of Allegheny County, says technology is “driving how we provide the delivery of instruction.

“You have to now integrate technology into the total teaching and learning experience,” he says. “Everyone generally has an iPhone or some form of technology. In fact, they have multiple pieces of technology — which is really encouraging institutions to ensure that we offer broad access to all [devices].”

The use of technology to enrich the curriculum extends well beyond supplying students with accessible WiFi, academic leaders say. For instance, educators in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s developmental mathematics classes use computer supported instruction capable of diagnosing gaps in student knowledge. If a student is having a tough time remembering algebra, the software will pinpoint the issues and help him understand the concept. He can then move forward without having to relearn an entire subject.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in success rates,” says Driscoll. “Faculty are doing very different work in that they’re engaging directly with students about the topics they need the most help with, while the technology is providing baseline instruction and diagnosis of what’s needed. That’s a remarkable transition in thinking about how to deploy the most expensive and most important resource we have — the faculty — in the areas where they have the biggest possible impact.”

Technology is not just changing how professors teach; it’s changing what they teach. Schools such as Point Park University are offering undergraduate and graduate courses in social media, acknowledging that social networks continue to shape the way companies communicate.

Point Park University President Paul Hennigan

“Social media right now is like the Wild West,” says Point Park University President Paul Hennigan. “Everybody’s just out there doing their thing. Companies made up of people who are not digital natives don’t really understand social media, so they’re picking the youngest person in the room to be their head of social media. But there’s no well-developed college curriculum on the management of social media. We want to be on the forefront of that.”

There is probably no aspect of the student experience that hasn’t been impacted by technology. Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Take Flight program has simplified the orientation process; rather than inundating new students with information over several summer days, the school now provides them with digital accounts immediately upon admission. The university then provides incoming students with regular updates via text messages, emails and videos.


Digital Draw
Technology also has allowed colleges to reach students outside the classroom. Many institutions are expanding online offerings as they see an increase in “hybrid students” who take both in-person and online courses.

Online classes allow institutions to reach a much wider audience, whether they are students living in smaller communities nearby or cities thousands of miles away, while not greatly affecting the bottom line.

Quintin B. Bullock, President of Community College of Allegheny County

“Some adults would prefer to have the online format because of family or work responsibilities,” says Bullock. “If they have a job, it’s a way that they can continue to advance their education and complete a credential or degree. I think we are all now getting on board to do more, as more and more (students) are embracing the online pathway as the way to complete their studies.”

For a generation that grew up multitasking on smartphones, the attention span required for sitting through a traditional lecture is not always there, says Finegold.

“If you can put that info into something they can review at their leisure then make the time you are together really interactive, that’s just better pedagogy,” he says.

However, most leaders also agree: online isn’t everything. Traditional-age undergraduates still want to be in the classroom, says Hennigan.

“They want the interaction,” he says. “We applaud that, because so much of growing up and the socialization process happens during those college years. Online is best for non-traditional-age undergraduate students and graduate students.”

St. Vincent College President Br. Norman W. Hipps, O.S.B.

​Hipps says he believes technology and software is going to improve, “but right now it takes a pretty disciplined young man or woman to do an online program.”
No matter what new challenges colleges and universities are facing today, one thing remains the same, they will continue to adapt, Hipps says.

“Always the same and always changing,” he says, reflecting on how his school has evolved in the 21st century. “I think the really exciting stuff that was part of college 20 years ago, 10 years ago, is still the exciting stuff today: It’s learning new things, meeting new people, discovering who we are.”  

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