As nearly 20 million students head back to college, presidents across the country have delivered campus versions of the annual “State of the Union” address. At Alvernia, I was fortunate to report that despite a weak economy, modest financial resources, and additional improvements to be made, our institution was far stronger than a decade ago.
Indeed, we welcomed the largest, most diverse incoming class in history, even as we celebrated the granting of our first six doctoral degrees.
Yet in the current economic and political climate, no report on the “state” of an academic institution can ignore the turbulent external environment and the increasing, often hostile, criticism of higher education. These unprecedented conditions have caused the “disruption of higher education” and created an urgent imperative for improvement.
Most prevalent of these trends is criticism of the cost of college and skepticism about the value of a degree. The level of student debt has become a public policy issue. There is rising pressure for colleges to demonstrate the success of their graduates, as we confront the worst economy in generations. Many federal and state lawmakers, liberals and conservatives alike, are eager to mandate and regulate and pontificate, but far less eager to fund financial aid for deserving students.
Perhaps an even more disturbing trend is that far fewer people remain committed to the value of a liberal arts education and the civic purpose of the university. Traditional models centered on full-time faculty and the residential experience are undervalued and, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, criticized as high-priced luxuries for the affluent. Higher education has become, for many, just another commodity to be purchased, preferably at a low cost, with maximum convenience, and the guarantee of a good job.
There is, to be sure, ample ignorance in this criticism . . . and some hypocrisy. Abundant data confirms the far greater earning potential of college graduates compared to those with less education. Except at the elite institutions (a fraction of the total number), most students receive need-based financial aid and, often, significant academic scholarships. In reality, a college degree remains an excellent investment.
Even considering these economic facts, reducing higher education to job training is foolhardy and short-sighted. Marginalizing the humanities and other liberal arts and sciences ignores the fact that CEOs regularly cite their importance to leadership and career advancement. Our democracy depends on a broadly educated, humane, and compassionate citizenry dedicated to the common (as well as the individual) good. Character development, including formal courses in personal and professional ethics, has never been more urgently needed.
Yet we in higher education have ourselves to blame for many current attitudes. We ignore them at our peril. There is necessary learning to be done and corresponding actions to be taken.
Higher education leaders have been reluctant to condemn spiraling tuition costs and to demonstrate the value-added, human dimension of the collegiate experience. Especially in the east, many schools have practiced the “Chivas Regal” approach to pricing: charge as high a price as possible so that the public assumes you are worth it!
Pressuring colleges to control costs while improving quality and accountability is a legitimate, even welcome, challenge. At Alvernia, graduate and adult programs feature accelerated formats combining on-line learning with face-to-face faculty interaction. Undergraduates pursue a liberal arts education while receiving invaluable professional preparation. Living-learning communities are expanding. Practical field-based learning is a must. Community service is a given. And students of all ages take at least one course in ethics.
Like other parts of society, universities must adopt best practices. When opportunity arises, they must innovate and move boldly. They must enhance their distinctive missions. And they must always remember “It’s all about our students!”
The Office of the President Staff
Assistant to the President
Francis Hall, Room 212
Francis Hall, Room 212
Mon - Fri 8:00 am – 4:30 pm