SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher stated her case Tuesday for why college is necessary, answering national critics who say getting a degree is not worth the cost.
Unemployment is high among recent college graduates, who are saddled with an average of nearly $27,000 in debt, according to Zimpher. It is no surprise that the value of a college education is coming under scrutiny, but she pointed out that for every successful college dropout such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, there are thousands more who are failing to try to develop the next big thing.
“While you might have the next game-changing idea in your field, without the educational foundation to bring your idea to life, you are no better off,” she said in an hourlong State of the University address Tuesday morning before a packed auditorium at The Egg.
Zimpher said SUNY can offer internships and real-world experience, in addition to a strong academic foundation.
“Just a degree, just a piece of paper, doesn’t cut it. It’s the experience and opportunities available during and after completing college that gives SUNY students the ability to be successful in life,” she said.
After kicking off her proposal by showing a music video by hip hop artist B. Martin, a SUNY alumnus, Zimpher outlined plans to reduce the number of students taking remedial classes, reduce student loan debt and expand online course offerings.
Almost 50 percent of first-time, full-time students in the state’s community colleges require some form of remedial classes, according to statistics SUNY released last year. Zimpher proposed offering an exam to high school juniors that would assess if they can succeed at the college level. If not, their shortcomings can be addressed before they enter college.
The exam will be rolled out on a pilot basis this fall to the 23 schools that are currently participating in the Early College High School program. Among them are Schenectady and Amsterdam high schools.
“This diagnostic could also be used to steer students toward particular fields of studies that match their talent, reducing the number of undecided majors and shortening their time to degree,” she said.
SUNY officials are working to address educational needs even before children start school. They have developed partnerships including one in Albany called Albany Promise that brings together government, businesses, community groups, families and students to address children’s needs.
Zimpher said SUNY is expanding this year from three sites to at least six.
She also wants to reduce student debt by working with the federal government to implement the Smart Track online program, which assists students in planning out their financial needs so they do not take on more debt than they can handle. She proposed a program to allow students to complete degrees in three years.
SUNY also wants to develop regional science, technology, engineering and math hubs working with business and industry that would be located in each of the governor’s Regional Economic Development Council areas and offer more online classes.
Zimpher wants to increase online course offerings and even allow whole degree programs to be completed online through an initiative called Open SUNY. Her goal is to enroll 100,000 students in the program.
“No institution in America — not even the for-profits — will be able to match the number of offerings and the quality of offerings,” she said.
Zimpher is proposing a program to allow college students who transfer from community colleges without completing a two-year degree but then goes on to earn a four-year degree at one of SUNY’s campuses to get credit for the associate’s degree.
Zimpher added that general education courses are now 100 percent transferable within SUNY schools — two years ahead of the scheduled completion of this initiative, by the end of 2014.
Denise Murphy McGraw, chairwoman of the Schenectady County Community College board of trustees, liked the idea of granting associate’s degrees retroactively. SCCC is evaluated based on how many students graduate, and she believed a large number of students fall into the category outlined by Zimpher.
“They can be enormously successful, but if they don’t get their associate’s with us, we don’t look successful,” she said.
Fulton-Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger said he believes the proposed expansion of innovation hubs could benefit the economy and the three-year route to graduation and online courses would benefit students.
“We have to be more creative to help those students who have busy lives — working, taking care of families and trying to improve their lives through education,” he said.