Leaders from various higher ed institutions discuss how to turn out successful graduates while controlling costs.

5 university leaders discuss higher ed’s biggest challenges

Leaders from various higher ed institutions discuss how to turn out successful graduates while controlling costs

The U.S. must produce talented workers in order to remain competitive in an increasingly technological economy. But how, exactly, can higher-ed institutions tackle this formidable challenge as the cost of higher education soars, as student loan debt becomes burdensome, and as many students question the value of their educational investment?

During an insightful hour-long chat, five higher-ed leaders touched on college cost and affordability, the value of a liberal arts education, and how to best prepare students for tomorrow.

Related content: 10 higher-ed IT challenges

Led by Charlotte Talks host Mike Collins, the audience heard from Clarence D. Armbrister, J.D., president, Johnson C. Smith University; Kandi Deitemeyer, Ph.D., president, Central Piedmont Community College; Philip L. Dubois, Ph.D., chancellor, UNC Charlotte; Daniel G. Lugo, J.D., president, Queens University of Charlotte; and Carol Quillen, Ph.D., president, Davidson College.

The full conversation can be streamed here.

1. Does the function of a liberal arts education in 21st century tie in with technical education?

Quillen: “When we think about preparing students for tech-enabled jobs of the future in all sectors, not just in tech but in any sector, you’ll have to have some technological proficiency. How do we do that? … There are programs you can do to get students ready for day 1 of any tech job independent of their major. And then we need to think about how we expand the value of a liberal arts degree, which to me is largely life-long learning and navigating the unfamiliar in an economy where those two things are going to be crucial skills. Our job is to think about how we can deliver that to more and more people, cheaply and quickly, so we can be part of the solution to this broader education challenge our society faces.”

Deitemeyer: “Oftentimes the narrative from years past [indicates] that many [community college] students need to be remediated. We’ve changed things in the community college system that help students advance themselves. They’re more ready than they have in the past and those critical skills are there.”

Armbrister: “In today’s society, with so much being digitized, I’m going to challenge you to think differently about what a liberal education means–not just a liberal arts education. … Just as many of us with liberal arts degrees have had to get to a certain level of a foreign language, should there be some kind of technical language you should understand and appreciate before you graduate and go out into the world?”

2. How do institutions determine how to adapt and fill technology gaps, scale programs, and get students ready for tomorrow?

Lugo: “We’re not producing enough graduates with these computational, analytical, [and] technical skills to fuel the 21st century economy. And I think that we collectively can model how cities can address these needs by thinking about how we can scale up together. At Queens, we’re thinking about how we take our programs and scale them. What are new areas to explore? What can we do with partnerships?”

3. What do businesses say they need/want from graduates?

Deitemeyer: “Critical skills in advanced manufacturing. The technical skills, those employable skills that are soft-skill ready. Come to work on time, do the job you’re supposed to, be a good communicator, have computational and analytical skills. Some of those things we’ve forgotten about as we train workers up are still critical to those individuals and companies.”

Lugo: “I’m hearing that they are looking for our graduates our students to be problem solvers, and that leans very much into liberal arts core. That comes with a greater sense of computational abilities and the ability to work collaboratively in teams.”

4. One of the biggest higher-ed challenges is affordability. Is this more of a problem in public institutions, or in private institutions?

Lugo: “It is an incredibly important question and topic. Affordability drives choice, and it drives the opportunity for us to ensure our citizens have a chance to educate themselves and thrive. I think it’s equally challenging both at the private as well as the public institution. There are ways things become affordable. It has to do with government funding, fundraising from private resources, efficiency, and always being attentive to the model we execute in delivering a great education. I think the diversity of schools on this panel have attacked the issue. There’s affordability in terms of what we think about in terms of a transaction, but truly, some of the question should revolve around value.”

Quillen: “Affordability is actually a national challenge insofar as we view higher ed as a public good. If we believe higher ed is an important thing to invest in for the next generation … then it’s a shared issue we have to address. The kind of education delivered on a residential college campus is expensive because it’s labor-intensive and we want to pay our great people. The cost of it is one issue. Then, who pays for it is another issue. We can have a shared conversation about how we as a society can best ensure that the increasing range of postsecondary options–highly differentiated, serving different populations–how are we going to make sure that range of options is available to everyone so that whatever option is best for you, you can choose?”

Dubois: “The obligation under the North Carolina constitution is for the general assembly to provide a university education as nearly free as practicable. When the recession hit, about 60 percent [of that education] was covered opposed to 80 percent. We’ve tried to do everything we can to keep it as minimal as possible. But it is always a struggle. About two-thirds of our students are on financial aid. Of UNC-Charlotte students graduating, one-third of students will have no debt, two-thirds of them will, and that debt will average $25,000.

Armbrister: “Clearly it is a challenge. I’d concur with Dr. Quillen in that we should look at education as a public good. If we are really interested in making sure society is the best it can be, we should make sure the largest and broadest number of its citizens are educated to the best extent possible. The challenge is how we make the cost affordable for many of our students who are in the least able position to pay.”

Deitemeyer: Community colleges serve two major purposes for students–getting them ready to enter the workforce, and preparing them to go on to a four-year institution. “A student who can come to Central Piedmont in two years can earn a credential for less than $10,000, and then transfer on or go right into workforce with that skill. For many of our students, what we think is affordable is really still a challenge for them. We lose about 50 percent of our students fall to fall, and many of those reasons are financial.”

Laura Ascione