With Changing Students and Times, Colleges Are Going Back to School

At Edinboro University, clockwise from top left: Amanda Espin, a 20-year-old sophomore, uses sign language during a therapy program for preschool children with hearing loss; senior nursing students Rachel Ackman and Jennifer Butlin practice on a mannequin; freshmen Cierah Jackson works on a project during chemistry class; Professor Karen Ernst helps Jed Micek, a 21-year-old junior during an upper level woodworking and furniture design class.

H. Fred Walker stood before his Edinboro University community on a recent snowy day and issued a warning.

“We have been very insular in that we have not looked beyond the boundaries of Edinboro,” the college president told a group of staff and students who had gathered at a meeting in this town tucked away in Northwestern Pennsylvania to hear the details of the college’s strategic plan. “When we’re judged against our peers, it’s a punch in the eye for us.”

While it was difficult for many in the room to hear, it was a reality years in the making for Edinboro, a four-year public university with an enrollment of about 6,000 students that is part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. In the last decade, enrollment has plummeted, faculty salaries have caused expenses to skyrocket and completion rates have dissipated.

No longer is the school’s most promising pipeline the average teenager going to college for the first time, but more likely the adult who may need to go back for a second or third. After 160 years as an anchor of rural Pennsylvania, the university is becoming obsolete.

“There’s a reckoning that has to come,” Mr. Walker said in an interview in early March.

For Mr. Walker, the reckoning came just a few weeks later. He resigned on March 27 after he enraged faculty and students with comments he made about his reform tactics to the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It is one of the most striking, but not unusual, signs of tumult gripping higher education institutions across the nation as they look for ways to thrive in the next century. Edinboro is among many colleges and universities facing a gloomy picture — painted by polls, politics and population shifts — that are forcing an overhaul of campuses. Amid a growing disillusionment with higher education, thousands of institutions are seeking ways to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape that has been destabilized by skeptics, an impatient work force and a fierce conservative populist streak.

For colleges, that means re-examining centuries worth of practice. At Edinboro, that means gone are the days of educating for education’s sake.

Edinboro’s provost, Michael J. Hannan, who started as an assistant professor at the university 30 years ago, will lead the school on an interim basis, and he has signaled that he plans to follow the course set by Mr. Walker. “I have every confidence that we will address our present challenges, guided by our values and an unwavering commitment to our students,” Mr. Hannan wrote in a statement to the school community following Mr. Walker’s resignation.

Mr. Hannan said the university had been ignoring signs for at least a decade when, even amid a demographic downturn, it was building new dormitories instead of bracing for the market changes. “Unfortunately, in our case, there was no concerted, strategic effort and we’re trying to change that at this point,” he said in an interview as provost. “I don’t know if we thought we’d be the exception.”

In Washington, congressional Republicans have set their sights on the Higher Education Act — the law governing the nation’s roughly 4,000 colleges and universities — to dismantle what they see as bloated, liberal-leaning bureaucracies that have left 6 million unfilled jobs and over $1 trillion in student debt. Elite institutions like the Ivy Leagues have already experienced the effects of the backlash, after they were targeted with an endowment tax in a sweeping Republican tax bill passed by Congress in December. President Trump has even called for vocational schools to replace community colleges.

Credit...Photographs by Dustin Franz for The New York Times

The efforts are driven in part by a 20-point divide between Democrats and Republicans in their confidence in colleges, shown in the most recent Gallup Poll that assesses attitudes in the country toward higher education. The results are clear: no longer is a college degree the crucible it once was.

“Too many Americans, particularly working-class Americans, are not sure that the return on investment is as high as it could be anymore,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “And that’s where we have to do a better job.”

[READ MORE: Middle-Class Families Increasingly Look to Community Colleges]

Among both political parties, the chief reasons for losing faith in higher education are a cause for concern. Democrats cite college’s rising costs while Republicans, 58 percent of whom said that college has had a negative impact on society, think colleges are too ideological.

“The effect of this divide on views of higher education — a pivotal element of the American dream for so many — raises questions about the future of higher education in this country,” a Gallup analysis said.

That is particularly true for universities like Edinboro, which have thrived on their ability to convince white, working-class families that their limited resources were well spent sending their teenagers to be shaped into the next generation of great thinkers. Now, with shifting demands, Edinboro and other universities are looking at eliminating several programs that have traditionally carried that goal, a move that some call the next war on the liberal arts.

This shows the self-referential style of higher education driven by faculty with Ph.D.s is waning, said Mark Schneider, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who wrote the study “Saving the Liberal Arts” with Matthew Sigelman, chief executive of Burning Glass Technologies.

“All of a sudden, you woke up one day and students were dropping English majors because they want jobs,” Mr. Schneider said.

Among the programs being cut at Edinboro are degrees in music, geography and a master’s in social science. The university will add programs like a master of business administration and a bachelor’s of science degree in health sciences.

Mr. Hannan said the school was sensitive to preserving liberal arts majors — like political science and history — in its review, though some specialties would be discontinued. “Without some of those programs, you have to question whether or not you are a university,” Mr. Hannan said. “But for better or worse, many students are career-minded, and we have to respond to that.”

The university plans to emphasize co-curricular activities, leadership and life skills, and experiential learning opportunities in its new plan. It will also double the size and budget of its career center.

Nationally, Gallup polling shows that colleges have been particularly slow to recognize the demand for work force preparation said Mr. Schneider, pointing to the 16 percent of students who reported using career centers on college campuses, and found them useful.

While the evidence of the benefits of higher education has never been more pronounced, the prevalence of stories about the lack of jobs and high student loan debt have put colleges on notice.

But it wouldn’t be the first time. The demise of colleges and universities has been forecast time and again, Mr. Hartle said. And higher education is often targeted as a culprit of societal misgivings, usually during the most politically divisive eras — they emerged in narratives during the Communist hearings and Vietnam protests.

“Anything that’s been around in the same place, doing the same function for 150 years has shown it can change,” Mr. Hartle said. “But nobody can be comfortable, and any institution that assumes that past success guarantees the future is being foolish.”

Besides, higher education is facing a new threat in the business of creating and transmitting information.

That keeps Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Boston, up at night. While other presidents in local college towns worry about competing for endowments and enrollment, Mr. Aoun sees another threat: robots.

More than the latest polls, he is driven by a 2013 Oxford University Study that predicted that nearly half of the jobs in the United States are at risk of being taken over by computers within the next two decades. “We said if robots are going to replace human beings we need to help students to be robot-proof, and we built a strategic plan around that,” Mr. Aoun said.

That thinking positioned Mr. Aoun on the fringe of higher education strategizing just a few years ago, but he is now called on weekly to advise other institutions on how to help their students outsmart the workers of the future.

He calls this strategy humanics — a staple of Northeastern’s program that requires computer science majors to take theater classes. The idea is to give students the ability to solve the world’s most pressing problems in a way that robots cannot — with empathy. Or as he puts it: “I haven’t seen a computer that weeps.”

During his 12-year tenure, Mr. Aoun has essentially turned over the reins of the institution to students and employers. The school’s acclaimed cooperative education and career development program, called Co-op, sends more than 90 percent of its students into paying jobs around the world. Students complete two Co-ops, sometimes three, over the course of their college careers, for six months at a time.

While other colleges are trying to get their students to use the career center, Northeastern has students in companies in 136 countries and on every continent, including Antarctica. “The students are the ones who are in tune with the world,” Mr. Aoun said. “They’re bringing the experience to us, and getting us out of our comfort zone.”

The urban campus is described as having a “workaholic” vibe, and a running joke is that nobody looks twice at a student walking around campus in a suit. Chaitri Gulati, a third-year student at Northeastern, was drawn to the school because of the Co-op program, and because “sitting in class would not just be for the sake of taking examinations and intellectual enrichment.”

Ms. Gulati, who is studying economics and political science, is at Wellington Management’s London office, where she is working with an investment team, and more important, applying theoretical concepts learned in her classes to understanding the investment process. “The more such experiences I have, the more I learn what role I wish to play now but also later in life,” Ms. Gulati said.

Northeastern is not hurting for students: it has posted record application numbers for the past nine years and last fall got 62,000 applications for 2,800 freshman seats. But Mr. Aoun is hoping to meet another demand — what Northeastern calls the lifetime learner. For too long, Mr. Aoun said, lifelong learning had been deemed a “second-class operation.”

A recent poll conducted by Northeastern and Gallup found that only 37 percent of workers said that if they lost their job to a machine they would turn to a college or university for retraining. Mr. Aoun hopes to lure more of those potential students.

Where others see a challenge, Mr. Aoun sees an opportunity. “There’s a lot of anxiety right now,” he said. “But I believe we’re in the golden age of higher education.”

Edinboro University, on the other hand, is trying to climb out of the Dark Ages. The overhaul will touch virtually every corner of the college, starting with who walks through the door.

The school toughened admissions requirements to weed out local students who have traditionally turned to Edinboro as their only education option. It is a painful reality, but so are their outcomes. Though the college has accepted nearly everyone who applied, its enrollment has plummeted nearly 30 percent in the last five years. It has a 38 percent attrition rate, and poor four-year and six-year graduation rates, at 27 percent and 49 percent.

The admissions move seems counterproductive, given that it is sure to result in fewer students. Already, Edinboro stands to be among the hardest hit in its region by demographic shifts that will see declining high school graduates and fewer births. But the school has set its sights on a new group of students — specifically, the 100,000 adults who have been identified by a state analysis who are living in the region who have completed some college but not obtained a degree.

Marc Sylvester, president of Edinboro’s faculty union, said the faculty supported key elements of Edinboro’s plan forward, including raising admission standards and overhauling program offerings.

But, Mr. Sylvester said, more important than a plan was for the campus to have faith in the leader implementing it. “There are changes that need to be made,” he said. “And we also need to respect our traditions. Otherwise, we’re losing our identity.

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