Crucial Higher Ed Issues: The Elevator Speech

Can you name the top six challenges facing higher education -- in two minutes? Carl Strikwerda asks.

October 23, 2015

A board member recently asked me, “If you can do two-minute elevator speeches on why someone should give a million dollars to the college, why don’t you give me an elevator speech on the biggest challenges facing higher education? Skip the nuance. No laundry list. Just the top six. You have 120 seconds.”

Here is what I said.

Raising graduation rates. While America is among the most well-educated countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it has fallen to 14th place in the world in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with higher education. What’s wrong? The national six-year -- again, six-year -- graduation rate is 59 percent. If we graduated even half of those who drop out, we’d be number one in the world again. Plus, low graduation rates mean we spend billions on students who quit and then more billions to recruit and teach more students who quit. Higher graduation rates would save us money, restore people’s dreams and help the United States compete.

Setting high standards for our higher education institutions. And we need to do that while still taking account of the widely varying missions and resources of each college and university. Right now, we have a plethora of criteria -- recruiting low-income and first-generation young people, graduation rates, jobs for grads, student satisfaction, a good bond rating, praise from accreditors, low default rates on student loans, research quality, strong financial statements -- many of which conflict. Which ones can be fairly applied to which institutions?

Improving the training of academic administrative leadership. We take smart academics who know virtually nothing about administration and put them in charge of multimillion-dollar operations with almost no preparation. We should be able to do better than learning by making mistakes.

Fostering responsible board governance. The situations that occurred at the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia are the most glaring examples. How do you educate trustees about a sector that they’re unfamiliar with, while helping them steer between micromanaging and laissez-faire?

Meeting the expectations of Title IX, the Clery Act, VAWA, ADA, FERPA, etc. The public needs to trust us and sees federal standards as a guide. If we’re going to keep getting guaranteed student loans, Pell money and federal grants, this is the price we pay. But even if one agrees with its goals, federal compliance is often burdensome, unwieldy, ambiguous and certainly not cheap.

Financing renovation. How can we pay for all the needed upgrades without taking on debt that unhinges our bond rating? Budgets strain just to cover maintenance. Donors dislike giving for fixer-uppers. Even with record low interest rates and construction firms hungry for work, borrowing looks risky.

What about student debt? Students who graduate from a nonprofit institution have just made, for the price of a new car, the wisest investment of their lives. Leaving aside the fact that the for-profits account for almost half the defaults, fixing number one would help students repay loans because they’d graduate. The right measures (number two) and better leadership (numbers three and four) would help us perform better and, like (number five), restore public confidence.

I don’t know if my trustee was impressed, but my thinking became more focused. Try it yourself, and let me know what your top six are. The elevator doors are about to close ….


Carl Strikwerda is president of Elizabethtown College.


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