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SPSU Office of the President
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1100 South Marietta Pkwy
Marietta, GA 30060

SPSU Home >> Office of the President >> Messages from the President >> The national perspective on higher education

The national perspective on higher education

I have just returned from the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, which included two additional meetings for me.  I am currently chair of ACE’s Women’s Network Executive Council, which coordinates activities in all 50 states to help advance women’s leadership in higher education;  the Council met for a full day before the state representatives gathered to share ideas and leverage their experiences so that everyone can benefit.  As a result, I had already been in two-and-a-half days of meetings before the regular ACE conference began.

The American Council on Education represents and advocates for higher education – to Congress, to other government officials, to a variety of stakeholders, and to the public at large.  Southern Polytechnic State University has been a member of ACE for as long as I can remember, along with more than 1,800 other colleges and universities across the country.  Of the 1,700 registrants at this meeting, I would guess that about a third were presidents or chancellors.

ACE meetings are always a good place to take the pulse of what’s happening in higher education.  As we focus on our campus issues and SPSU’s unique challenges, we sometimes risk losing sight of the broader national issues that provide the context for our work.  Here are my top 10 observations from the 2013 ACE meeting.

  1. Every institution is struggling with the mandate for “attainment” (a.k.a., “college completion” or “increasing the graduation rate”).  I’m not the only university president who is troubled by the conflicting messages involved in this effort.  One train of logic argues that if funding will be based on graduation rates, then institutions should increase the admissions requirements and only enroll the students who are most likely to persist and graduate.  Of course, such a decision would drive results in the opposite direction from the original intent of expanding college access and success and giving more graduates a route to better jobs and lives.  One president at the meeting argued that the biggest issue related to college completion was really social justice and access to a secure future.
  2. Even as colleges and universities “embrace the college completion agenda,” all presidents are concerned about where we will find the resources to meet the goals.  This is a particular concern in states like Georgia, where funding for public institutions is shifting to performance measures like graduation rates.  If an institution cannot provide the support that students need to be successful and the budget will be cut because of a low graduation rate, then how does a university ever break out of that death spiral?
  3. Across the country, presidents are increasingly concerned about the role of financial aid in making college affordable, rather than as a tool for recruiting the most talented students.  Nationally, we need a policy shift from merit-based aid to need-based aid.  Georgia is in an interesting position in this debate.  The HOPE Scholarship was originally intended to enable Georgia students who would not otherwise attend college to be able to pursue post-secondary education.   The program quickly became a way to keep Georgia students from leaving the state for their education.  This result is often cited as success these days (“We’ve keeping the best and the brightest right here at home!”), but this was not the original purpose.   HOPE has become a merit-based program, and there has been no legislative appetite for moving it toward addressing student need.  Georgia is likely to be behind the national curve on how scholarship programs are focused.  At SPSU, we need to continue our emphasis on raising funds for endowed Foundation scholarships, which is an element of our current strategic plan, to help meet student need for financial assistance.
  4. Colleges and universities are interested in capturing and reporting a student’s full experience, beyond producing a transcript of grades.  SPSU started moving this direction during the current academic year, although I will need to check on the progress toward a “co-curricular transcript.”
  5. On the whole, college and university presidents do not take good luck for granted.  A closed session (meant for presidents only – and especially no media) about how to rebuild trust on campus after a disaster was well attended.  Everyone knows that we are one news cycle away from being in the headlines – and not in a good way.  A panel of presidents spoke about institutional recovery from student deaths (Florida A&M and Northern Illinois), serious environmental and health issues (St. Mary’s College of Maryland), athletic department scandals (Cal State Fresno), and governance crises (University of Virginia).  We’ve been doing some things right at SPSU, including our emergency planning and drills, but we still have work to do.  I’ll be talking with the Senior Staff about next steps soon.
  6. SPSU is not alone in having a conversation this year about values.  This topic came up frequently at the ACE meeting, in terms of campus culture, working as community, and sharing core institutional values.  We started this discussion here at SPSU last fall, and we need to continue moving it forward.  I’ll be consulting with Meg Dillon (moderator of the Faculty), Bobby Burk (chair of Staff Council), and Kevin White (Student Government Association president) about how we can raise the profile of this issue.
  7. Virtually no one carries a laptop around anymore.  More than half the people attending the conference seemed to have an iPad, which led to serious multitasking during presentations.  Because I do this, too, I don’t see it as all bad.  When one speaker made reference to a specific website that purports to list the return-on-investment for college degrees, I immediately Googled it and checked out the information at SPSU while the presenter was still making his argument against the “monetization of the collegiate experience.”  (The focus on ROI shifts education back to a private benefit and away from being considered a public good, which undermines the argument that SPSU, the University System, and all of higher education have been making for years.)
  8. Printed programs for professional meetings like this one are about to disappear.  ACE published a program that was available at the registration desk, but this is the first time that it was not distributed prior to the meeting.  This allowed a number of last-minute changes (in speakers, locations, and times) that provided more flexibility and more accuracy – although some long-time attendees were disturbed at not having the paper copy in advance.  In addition, ACE offered a free mobile app that allowed attendees to see the entire program, with complete biographies of every speaker, and to build a personalized schedule.
  9. Higher education continues to face a challenge in developing new leaders.  The number of women presidents (for all types of institutions) seems to be stuck at 26%, and over the last decade, ethnic and racial diversity among presidents has actually decreased.  The demographics of the pipeline for future presidents don’t promise major changes in the near future.  A clear message from this meeting was the hunger for mentors, sponsors, and role models who are willing to work with protégés in their career.  SPSU’s Women’s Leadership Initiative addresses this need at a campus level.  ACE has several leadership programs, including the Women’s Network, but the demand for this type of support is huge. 
  10. Everyone is waiting to find out what sequestration will mean for their institutions.  We already knew that the Defense Department cuts will hurt Cobb County, because Lockheed Martin is a major economic driver in our area.  The decision of the Army and the Marine Corps to stop awarding tuition assistance to active service personnel will have a negative impact;  currently, SPSU has about 20 students who will be affected.  This decision will certainly increase the challenges to institutions that were planning to focus on military students to achieve their graduation goals. 

My conclusion from the ACE meeting is that SPSU is in good company in our work to increase student success, to monitor the issues of affordability and student debt, to focus on core values, to be concerned about resources, to embrace mobile computing, to support leadership and professional development opportunities, and to plan for an unpredictable future.

My thanks to the entire SPSU community for your role in pursuing our mission and supporting student success.