College presidents consider which courses to chart for change

In this May 10, 2014 file photo, a graduate of Northwest Florida State College wears her cap during commencement in Niceville, Fla. (AP Photo/Northwest Florida Daily, Nick Tomecek)

Not surprisingly, public college and university presidents look at 2015 with pangs of trepidation, realizing the possibility of increased tax support is remote, at best, knowing that further recessions in budgets are possible and that a heavy load of greater fund raising will land on their collective backs.

And they will face a heated national debate on whether to keep the historical college experience much as it has been for generations or shift to a more practical and affordable curriculum that takes into account the knowledge and technical skills that lead to early and employable skills.

They expect no early consensus on the prickly subject and a lot of divisive and hardened statements. According to 10 university presidents we polled in early January 2015, the right answers lie somewhere in between the great divide with respect for tradition and the realities of the day. They were quick to point out placement remains strong in the sciences, computer science and mathematics, engineering, business, accounting, and the mix of medical specialties. Four of the group predicted an uptick in law, education and the languages.

There is a decline of interest in the humanities because of limited employment opportunities, but no one in the survey questioned their long-term value and importance. They are committed to them. One of the presidents predicted no end to the blame game between the traditional campuses and the statehouses, with state lawmakers pointing to community colleges as “the practical answer to many economic ills.” She further said lawmakers regard the two-year colleges as “bargains that lead to early employability.”

Eight of the presidents pointed out that half of the current crop of collegians are enrolled at two-year institutions and a high percentage of them want to go on and eventually earn a baccalaureate degree. Both types of institutions have a vital role to play and widespread understanding and cooperation are essential for the years ahead, the 10 officials agreed.

Six of the presidents said they cannot afford to be split on fundamental values with community colleges. The cost of higher education at the public four-year level schools has grown faster than health care, approximating more than $9,000 a year and the figure for private universities exceeds $30,000. Increases in tuition and fees, especially at state schools, has been stifling at state universities.

Seven of the poll respondents are in the throes of major fund-raising drives with targets of more than $1 billion, and the newest president is seeking at least $900 million over four years. Increased student financial assistance, faculty awards, needed research support, and incentives for economic development are the campaign priorities. In an effort to underscore the importance of a college education, renewed emphasis is being given to energized students with special skill sets, seven of the presidents revealed. These students will be important in helping to explain the true value of college to prospective students. Half of the presidents are reaching out for funds to help transfer students, primarily from the two-year colleges.

The 10 leaders were quizzed about the state of athletics on their campuses and the replies were muted, at best. One of them bluntly asserted, “That horse left the barn a long time ago.” Another five questioned whether they will be able to keep stadiums and arenas near capacity with cost-sensitive students.

Eight of the 10 presidents believe their new students are well prepared for college level work and the other two were optimistic. Six of them said their students are more motivated than ones in the past and more determined to graduate on time.

After Gordon Gee, an academic leader for some 40 years and once Time Magazine’s College President of the Year, reviewed the findings he observed:

“Their thoughts are truthful and deserve careful consideration.

“Being a successful university leader today is both complex and sometimes maddening. Few things are as they once were.

“The road to meaningful success is difficult and treacherous, but always rewarding. The bond between two- and four-year colleges has never been more important.”

Gene Budig, an Isle of Palms resident, is past president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and the University of Kansas and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president at the College Board in New York City.