In a panel during the annual meeting of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities Monday, college leaders from around the country agreed: the biggest challenge facing public higher education today is the dwindling state support for the enterprise. Beyond that, however, finding ways to reassert the value of the degrees they offer was the top concern for many.
Stephen Jordan, president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, said at his institution, staff members are “having to reconcile in our minds that the likelihood of increased state support is zero” — they expect that “somewhere around 2025, there will be no funding in higher ed.”
Increasingly, institutions are being required to turn to “public-private partnerships to sustain the growth of our university,” said Jordan. At Metropolitan State University, one such example is developing a growing hospitality program — complete with a university-run hotel which will deposit $2.1 million back into the institution this year.
But funding has been a persistent challenge for years, and one most prudent leaders have begun to account for. But as University of Maryland System Chancellor Bob Caret said, the biggest challenge is that the decreasing state funding is forcing a change in the business model.
“The real challenge for us is to reinforce and re-establish the trust and belief in us as an enterprise,” said Caret, who pointed to “simple answer” proposals like free college for everyone as “killing the enterprise.”
Caret, who said he views himself “very much as a change agent, but also as an academic traditionalist,” also decried the current trend towards stackable credentials as replacing the traditional higher education model.
“If you look at just credentials, you’re not producing a well-educated” individual, he said. Though credentials do indicate mastery of specific skills, Caret believes it leaves a lot of the traditional academic functions by the wayside.
“We’re putting out people with 120-150 credits who can’t read and write. There’s something wrong with that model,” he said.
Karen Stout, who served as president of Montgomery County (MD) Community College prior to her appointment as president/CEO of Achieving the Dream, said, “We’ve been so focused on the completion agenda that … we’ve lost relevance to some.”
“In the past,” she said, “we looked at engagement as just an internal function.” Now, however, Stout said she’s come to view “college completion as not just [an individual] college issue, but a community educational attainment issue.”
“The relevance of our degrees is the most critical issue we need to address,” said Jordan.
“We’ve got to re-think what does the bachelor’s degree mean,” he said. “We’re sitting there with a model that we’ve had for a very long time. … How do you array both the theory and practice of a major” and combine them into an academic experience that is valuable to both students and employers?
The way to begin that conversation, he said, is to “spend a lot more time listening and asking [industry leaders] what are the hard skills and soft skills they need, take that to faculty [as they develop curriculum], and take curriculum right back to business” to make sure everyone is in agreement. “I think if you do that, you start to address some of the issues around the relevance of our degrees.”
“For too long, we’ve sat in our ivory towers and said ‘this is what you need’ without really asking them what they need,” Jordan continued.
Or as Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area President John Cavanaugh put it: “The best way to build bridges is to start on both sides and everyone’s got the same blueprints.”