The University Record, April 9, 2001

Click here for an article on the first discussion of the broadcast, or view photos highlighting the event.

Four university presidents discuss future of higher education

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

Panelists (from left) President Lee C. Bollinger, Jacquelyn Belcher, Jerilyn McIntyre and Michael McPherson discussed issues they face as leaders of higher education institutions. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
U-M President Lee C. Bollinger was among a quartet of leaders from institutions of higher education who discussed the future of their field during the second half of the National Public Radio (NPR) “Talk of the Nation” show broadcast live March 29 from Rackham Auditorium.

Host Juan Williams asked the four presidents whether a “new vision” of higher education in America included schools competing for enrollment and funds by marketing themselves as places for comfortable housing, centers of sports and entertainment, and pipelines supplying skilled employees and research findings to corporations.

Bollinger said the “academic challenge” remains what it has been—“how to make the educational experience of students the best it can possibly be.” But to do so, he said, requires a big and constant fund-raising effort at U-M, since expenditures for students “cost roughly twice what we charge in tuition.” The school, he said, needs considerable donations to supplement its $3 billion annual budget that includes $350 million from tuition, $450 million from the state, and funding from the federal government and interest on investments.

Jacquelyn Belcher, president of Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, faces problems that are no less intense because they are on a smaller scale. The community college system she heads is proud of its “accessibility and responsiveness to students,” she said, but finds its values challenged now by an erosion in federal aid that has made it hard to meet the financial needs of low-income students.

Williams asked how such a cutback in federal support could occur during the recent economic boom. “Values are changing in our society,” Belcher said, making it hard for her students to meet even the $1,600-a-year tuition, since many of them are parents and work full time.

Jerilyn McIntyre, who leads Central Washington University in Ellensburg, said her school is heavily dependent on state funding because it generates limited money from research. Alumni donations are relatively low, too, because a big percentage of the school’s graduates are schoolteachers. Recently, she said, state leaders have “taken money away from higher education,” a trend that she hopes voters will recognize is against their interest.

Michael McPherson, president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., says supplying financial aid funds is his biggest challenge. Although annual tuition is $28,000 at the small liberal arts college, “only a fourth of our students pay that price, and three-fourths receive an average of $13,000 in financial aid.” In raising donations for the financial aid program, he finds that “my biggest challenge is that it is hard to explain to folks why a four-year residential experience makes sense today. There are so many alternatives now.”

Bollinger said that U-M, like private schools that are turning their “extraordinary wealth” into a public good through educational grants, meets the financial needs of its students through “need-blind” admission. “We believe deeply in the value of people being able to attend college and university without regard to their family wealth,” he said. “But that value is now in jeopardy.”

The cost of providing the “level of education people expect” has shot up higher than other costs, Bollinger said, spurred by the revolution in the life sciences field, which requires costly faculty, research facilities and programs.

Although students at the four schools range from those seeking job certificates or other practical career-track degrees to those pursuing an education to prepare themselves for high-paying elite jobs or to become well-rounded “lifetime learners,” the presidents all agreed that higher education has become a necessity for most Americans to “make a living and a life in today’s world,” as McIntyre put it.

Politicians should see the provision of higher education as a permanent duty of governing institutions, McIntyre said. “Jobs change,” she noted. “The technology of jobs like journalism changes. Being able to adapt skills is among the things higher education should prepare you for.”

Bollinger agreed. “We’re talking about the character of society. In order to be a good citizen in the future, one should know about science and the implications of scientific discoveries to society. The way people think about society and the world is affected by these discoveries.”