Higher education is facing “a new normal” as financial challenges are not likely to go away soon. At least 35 states anticipate revenue shortfalls for fiscal 2012, when $54 billion in federal stimulus funds will expire. Public institutions are falling victim to decreasing state budgets, which means higher tuition and less financial aid for students. Private colleges and universities are under increasing scrutiny, as parents and students carefully weigh the cost of tuition against outcomes like a graduate’s career trajectory and salary. Katharine Brooks, director of the liberal arts career center at the University of Texas at Austin, told the New York Times in 2009, “The phrase drives me crazy—‘What are you going to do with your degree?’—but I see increasing concerns about that. Particularly as money gets tighter, people are going to demand more accountability from majors and departments.”
Accountability is never a bad thing, but this is a troubling trend for an enterprise that for years has been able to say truthfully, “Trust us,” to the public, especially to parents who will take on a significant financial burden to ensure that their children can participate in the American dream.
In Michigan, the current economic challenges are not so new. For more than a decade, higher education here has faced significantly greater financial challenges than most other places in the United States. We’re no longer alone. We see higher education systems across the nation grappling with the same issues, as state legislatures look for expedient ways to cut budgets.
The paradox is that the public still purports to value higher education as a means to a better standard of living. Even President Obama has set forth ambitious bold goals for education, aimed at regaining U.S. standing as the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
What does that mean, exactly? College graduation is not just a numbers game. The term higher education is a catch-all for a variety of educational programs that may lead to an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a graduate degree. In terms of reaching the president’s goal, does the degree matter? Which areas will students seek to study, and does that matter? As educational leaders, we must answer these questions convincingly—as there’s no question that we must prepare our students to compete in a global economy. What and how students study and the nature of the degree they ultimately earn matter a great deal.
No More ‘Either-Or’
While short-term economic fixes, such as layoffs, salary freezes, hiring freezes, benefit reductions, and furloughs, might be expedient to address immediate budgetary needs, we as leaders in higher education need a fundamental shift in our thinking: a paradigm shift. In a 2009 speech to the TIAA-CRE F Institute, David Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership, said the “new normal” means that “we’re not going to spend our way out of this budget crunch. We’re not going to tax our way out of it. We’re going to have to innovate our way out of it as a country.” No single innovation is going to solve the dilemma, either; rather, in a Darwinian fashion, colleges and universities should find ways to stimulate innovative thinking and encourage and reward bold thinking. Many already are.
At Albion College, for example, we determined we were in a competitive higher education marketplace without having the level of distinctiveness we desired. While we have a 175-year tradition of offering liberal arts education, we recognized that we could not rest on that reputation any longer. Our market was too narrow (today, only 3 percent of American college graduates are educated at a residential liberal arts college) and shrinking (based on demographic trends in the Midwest). We faced particular challenges in Michigan as we recruit the majority of our students from in state—a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.
To address this challenge, we looked at our external environment and were highly attentive to four trends: increasing financial pressure on our families; a growing need to demonstrate what was value-added in an Albion education; increasing competition from lower-cost institutions; and a longstanding imperative to carve out a distinctive niche.
We developed what we call the Albion Advantage, an intentional, four-year educational model blending a liberal arts foundation with career readiness. Our liberal arts foundation prepares students for multiple career changes; our career readiness focus prepares them to secure their first professional position or to advance into a graduate or professional school. We are offering the timelessness of a liberal arts education, with the timeliness of career preparation.
We broke away from either-or thinking. Some critics allege that an institution is either a pure liberal arts institution or a career-readiness institution. Can’t we be both? Indeed, at Albion we have been doing both for several decades, but were reluctant to claim it. Now, we’re not only talking openly about it, but also doing so with enthusiasm because we see this integrated approach to undergraduate education as the surest path for students’ career success and for their ability to make meaningful and sustained contributions to society. At Albion, all first-year students, starting with our class that entered in fall 2010, are on a four-year track to prepare them for their next step after graduation. By connecting students with alumni mentors, we can expand their professional opportunities in a given field. For example, an Albion graduate who is a physician opened the door for one of our premedical students to conduct research in rheumatology this summer with a colleague at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Liberal Learning and Career Outcomes
Experiential education is a key part of our approach. Most colleges and universities offer internships, research opportunities, and study abroad, but Albion takes it one step further: We want to provide our students with opportunities not just for exploration and experience, but also for deep reflection with faculty, staff, and alumni. What do students learn about themselves, their values, their assumptions, and their own culture when placed in a different environment?
Such conversations are the genesis of critical thinking, which is at the heart of liberal learning—they extend personal and professional growth, increase the adaptability of students, and provide an opportunity to have an informed discussion about ethics and social responsibility. An Albion College junior, majoring in history, recently reflected on a seminar held by our Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service in the heart of Detroit, during which the seminar students met with citizen-activists, young entrepreneurs, and social service workers, all contributing to the city’s revitalization. She commented that change often comes from the grassroots level, rather than from politicians and business leaders. “We all left inspired,” she concluded, “to take on a more active role in shaping Detroit’s future.”
We are so convinced that these types of experiences, provided through the Albion Advantage, will yield long-term career benefits that we offered the incoming class a pledge of further support (for example, tuition-free classes, an internship, third-party career services, or a research assistantship) after they graduate if they cannot take that next step to advance their career.
Other institutions, both private and public, are taking similar steps to sharpen their focus on career outcomes. Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, for example, touts Career-Related Experiences that strengthen alumni networks and ties to affinity groups, by having students shadow alumni in the financial sector and other fields. Hamilton also posts video and text stories weekly on the front page of its web site, profiling student and alumni successes and challenges with job searches and networking efforts. A separate series of videos and podcasts features interviews with alumni, employers, and campus speakers advising students on a variety of career topics. In addition, the college funds internships during the summer, allowing students to accept career-related opportunities that would otherwise be unpaid.
Some campuses have begun integrating entrepreneurship education into the general curriculum to get all students, even those in the humanities, thinking pragmatically about how their skills and knowledge can translate into a viable enterprise. The University of North Carolina (UNC ) at Greensboro has been one of the most visible advocates of entrepreneurship education across the curriculum. The university recently added a major in entrepreneurship and a minor in the field for students of any major, with 38 classes across 20 academic disciplines. UNC – Greensboro has also launched a post-baccalaureate certificate in entrepreneurship for anyone with a bachelor's degree in any subject. In addition, for the past several years Texas A&M University has hosted an annual Aggie 100 event that brings the leaders of the 100 fastest growing businesses started by Texas A&M alumni back to campus. Many of the Aggie honorees spend up to two days on campus, networking with students and giving seminars and in-class presentations to pass along the lessons of their success to current Aggies across campus, from any major or discipline.
Responsiveness and Risk-Taking
This type of innovation recognizes that colleges and universities have a responsibility to help their students continuously cultivate their career paths. We as leaders need to do more to instill an entrepreneurial attitude across campuses. It is not just our students who need to be stimulated to think boldly and creatively—it is our entire campus, faculty and staff included.
As a former business school dean, I am impressed with the ability of some businesses to quickly adopt best practices from their competitors and mimic success. We in the higher education community need to adopt the same level of responsiveness and reflect a true willingness to take risks. Only then will we show legislators, governors, and the general public that we get it. Sticking with the same old message—“Trust us, because you cannot possibly understand what we do or how we do it”—will not work as we move forward in an uncertain, and rapidly changing, economic landscape.
Donna Randall is president of Albion College.