Capital Region college presidents agreed during a Thursday discussion that strengthening enrollment and providing affordable access to diverse student populations remain among the biggest challenges facing higher education.
The panel of six area college presidents — from community colleges, private universities and the University at Albany — was hosted by the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce and brought together leaders as varied as Robert Jones, president of UAlbany, and John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College.
In their discussion, the presidents painted a picture of overlapping efforts to reach more students and provide the programs they seek, while maintaining the core mission at the heart of the different schools.
Jones said UAlbany is pushing to become an elite research university — adding engineering and emergency preparedness and homeland and cyber security programs to its offerings — while the presidents of smaller, private schools talked about leveraging popular programs to a wider audience.
“There was an issue of the university not having the degrees young people want, particularly in science and technology,” Jones said. “The question was: How can we stand up the program employers tell us are needed at the same time keeping up the core mission of the university?”
The challenges are undeniable, the presidents said. Enrollment numbers have declined over the past decade and demographic trends don’t appear to be improving anytime soon. And the economic forces that have stagnated middle class earnings — intensifying the challenge of paying for college — have made it even harder for people to sustain work as a college student.
Siena College President Brother Edward Coughlin said the school’s leaders are looking to what it will become in its newest phase, adapting to sliding enrollment and reverting to more of a commuter model.
“It probably won’t be as residential; it probably won’t be as large,” he said. “We are adjusting to that as best we can, because it is an absolute reality and the assumptions we have been working on for the last 40 or 50 years are shifting.”
But those same economic forces have also driven students back to school, often community colleges or online schools. And the increasing need for workers to have advanced skills provides schools a chance to make their programs available to a new set of students.
“This is a population that is exploding,” Ebersole said of students in their 30s looking to develop advanced skills. “This is a population that needs to continually be going to school to remain competitive.”
Greater collaboration between the schools and within the community can also help improve the schools’ ability to meet their broader goals, they said.
“If we are in competition with Siena and if we are in competition with UAlbany, we are all going to lose,” College of Saint Rose President Carolyn Stefanco said. “The world is a lot bigger than that.”
The community college presidents said they face a slightly different environment than the four-year schools do, with enrollment trending counter to unemployment and the strength of the economy. The community colleges are also the front line for keeping college education affordable and accessible to all potential students.
“Years ago, public education was thought of as a public good,” said Kristine Duffy, president of SUNY Adirondack. “Now, it has shifted to a private good — if you can afford it, it’s for you. We need to really have a national conversation about that.”
The colleges and universities in the region also have to be more sensitive to the access issue, Jones said. For decades, he said, higher education leaders have employed disparate strategies for maintaining students, but they haven’t done a good job of engaging with the challenges at the K-12 level, where achievement gaps persist for minority and low-income students.
“Higher education has spent decades if not centuries working upstream of the enrollment problem,” Jones said. “We have to do something about closing the achievement gap. . . . We need to make sure they graduate from high school and ready for college work.”
The presidents also showed off their senses of humor, returning throughout the discussion to an ongoing joke about encouraging procreation as a potential strategy for bolstering enrollment in the coming years.
“I have to apologize,” Coughlin said as the panel wrapped up. “I’m a celibate Franciscan, so I haven’t contributed much to the population.”