Where does higher education go from here? Four school presidents, students among those trading ideas

The constantly changing landscape of higher education has created an environment that is forcing educators, administrators and students to do what they can to make their education goals possible.

But what does that mean for those in higher education in 2019? And what does it mean for the future of higher education?

Several college presidents, others involved in education and students came together for a PennLive Reader Panel on Thursday to discuss the state of higher education. Joyce Davis, PennLive’s editorial editor, served as moderator. Here are five takeaways from the discussion:

1. Student demographics are changing and so are their needs

It has become a necessity for universities to understand that their students are no longer the 18-year-olds fresh out of high school, looking to build on their education.

Central Penn College President Dr. Linda Fedrizzi-Williams said 93 percent of the school’s students work, even residential students. Their students come in a wide variety in ages and from a wide variety of circumstances.

Harrisburg University President Dr. Eric Darr talked about how all of the schools represented offered programs for non-four-year certificates because all schools understand that the traditional four-year education isn’t for everyone anymore.

Whether it’s a change in careers later in life, or a younger student who wants a program to specifically get them one type of job through a certificate, these are things each institution must consider to bring in students.

But when students are at the school, there are still hurdles many are fighting to complete their education.

Fedrizzi-Williams said they have to look at everything from making sure their students eat to understanding that classes might need to fit around their work schedules.

But with that said, each institution needs to adjust to the changing demographics in ways that work for them.

2. Higher education cannot be seen as a one-size-fits-all industry.

Penn State Harrisburg Chancellor Dr. John Mason Jr. wasn’t the first to say it, but he said it most succinctly.

“Higher education is not monolithic,” Mason said. “You can’t say something that actually maps across all institutions.”

With Penn State Harrisburg being a public research university that is a “land-grant” university, Mason said it’s responsible with “creating new knowledge” and the dissemination of that knowledge. The school’s funding depends on these goals being accomplished.

Meanwhile, Harrisburg University, which focuses on STEM programs and careers, brings in students to focus on development of technology education. Its money comes from labor and industry grants but also from the students themselves.

Some of the school’s students will have a four-year degree while others will stick to their technical programs.

Similarly, with HACC, students have options and flexibility to choose how much of an education they want.

In the end, this means that each institution is going to handle the changing landscape in whatever way works for the types of programs and students it brings in.

3. A cultural change is in order for how people talk about post-secondary education.

Jake Miller, a Cumberland Valley teacher who’s running for Cumberland County treasurer, said it has become clear to him that he needs to change how he speaks to students about their plans after high school.

“In the beginning of my career, I said ‘Where are you going?’ I think culturally we need to rephrase that,” Miller said.

Going back to the technical schools and certificates, there are career options that don’t require degrees but still require a degree of expertise, Miller said.

Deputy State Treasurer Julia Peachey agreed and said that reason is part of why some of the savings programs the state has created have had name changes to keep from emphasizing it as a college savings plan to a more general post-secondary and career plan.

“Certainly at the Treasury, we believe somebody should go onto some type of post-secondary education,” Peachy said. But as to whether it should be a four-year program, Peachey said, “I don’t think that makes any difference.”

But in talking about savings plans, the fourth takeaway becomes a focus.

4. Students can’t afford any level of education on their own.

Five college or university students attended the panel, and not a single one of them was attending their school without the aid of scholarships and loans. And in some cases, a job.

Harrisburg University student Tiffany Smith said she had to take a year off from school because she couldn’t afford college, until someone told her about the great scholarships available at Harrisburg University.

Jade Robledo, a Penn State Harrisburg student, said she had to transfer from the first school she attended, Messiah College, when she lost her scholarship. From there, she didn’t get a scholarship to go to Penn State Harrisburg, so her debt from both schools will stack.

Robledo said part of the issue was the competition for the scholarships available. It’s never going to be one or two students fighting for a couple scholarships; it’s thousands of students fighting for some scholarships that could not possibly cover every student, she said.

And moving forward, almost all students agreed that they aren’t confident their careers in the long run will allow them to live in a way that they are comfortable with the amount of debt they will have acquired.

The state’s 529 savings plan, or the College and Career Savings Program, are two programs started recently to help new families plan ahead.

The Guaranteed Savings Plan allows residents to purchase college credits at the cost they are currently, that can be used years from now. This is an effort to fight against rising tuition costs, Peachey said.

The Keystone Scholars program is a program that puts $100 into a college investment fund once a child is born in Pennsylvania and parents sign up for it. It’s an attempt to encourage families to add to that savings fund throughout the child’s life. Even $25 a month could add up to $10,000 by the time the child enters college, Peachey said.

“The real point of it and what we’re going to do is change expectations,” Peachey said. “Change parental expectations.”

The money can be used for any type of post-secondary education, with the emphasis on helping parents see that saving the money is a manageable goal.

5. Education institutions must engage with their communities

HACC President Dr. John Sygielski said it has been in the fabric of community colleges since their inception to be engaged in their communities, but even the definition of how to do that has changed.

“We’re using less traditional faculty, more part-time faculty, who are willing to do a certificate; putting pressure internally to bring the external into the institution,” Sygielski said. “As a college president, we are much more town ministers than we are academic philosophers.”

Mason said with Penn State Harrisburg’s goal of dissemination knowledge, the hope is that students work with local companies, in local industries, and have the students return to the local community to share what they’ve learned.

“Today when we talk about the dissemination, the technology transfer, you’re creating new knowledge that industry will pick up on,” Mason said. He said he doesn’t see any Pennsylvania institutions that are not engaged in the public and private sectors.

“We are definitely engaged,” Mason said.

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