Four stops into my tour of our 14 university campuses (plus a quick trip to Bloomsburg for dinner with our student leaders), and I can honestly say I have been inspired by virtually everyone I’ve met – faculty, staff, trustees, community leaders, and, especially, our students. It’s not just that our students are bright, articulate young men and women—of course they are—it’s also how much they care, not only about their own futures, but about others as well.
It’s clear they chose the university they are attending because they know it will prepare them for future success, in both their careers and their lives. But there’s much more to it than that. They want to change the world. OK, that might sound a bit much; but, clearly, they want to have an impact on society, to give back to their communities, to “pay it forward.” Just listen to these words spoken by a Lock Haven University student during my recent visit there: “We all came here to help people at some point, one way or another. Physician assistants, teachers; they help people. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I want to help people too.”
How can that not give us all hope for the future?
And yet still there is more. In virtually every meeting I have had with students, the conversation turned to the students who start but do not finish at one of our universities – the students who have stopped out. There are a quite a number of them – more than two in five students who enter one of our universities as a freshman, do not complete a degree. The phenomenon is well known. It touches all of our students’ lives, often at a personal level. In our conversations students describe to me the various reasons that so many of their friends and peers are no longer here. We talk about reasons that are:
- financial (about tuition and fees, but more about room and board, which accounts for more than half the total net average price a student pays towardscollege);
- academic challenges (they will wonder constructively, skeptically, out loud, whether we are doing everything we can to meet the needs of all of the students we enroll – to make ourselves “student ready universities?”); and
- socio-culturally (I have had several discussions with students of color who speak movingly about the challenges they face at principally white institutions).
But my interlocutors never spend too long on problem definition. Not our students. They are doers with empathy and drive. They jump quickly to “solutioning.” They speak of:
- greater student engagement – a means, metaphorically, of wrapping arms around peers who feel lost or alone;
- what it means to live as minorities and majorities in a multicultural community; about macro and micro aggressions; about equity and inclusion;
- an institution-wide commitment to supporting all students, to meeting them where they are with our advising and instructional supports – not expecting them to be the students of yesterday year – a time gone by before with Herculean effort and amazing impact we democratized the face of higher education; and of
- opportunities to turn adversity – for example the appearance on campus of a hate group – into a learning opportunity for the entire community.
This is potent and powerful stuff. It reminds us of our ethical obligation: enrolling a student and taking their hard won tuition dollars entails an ethical responsibility to do everything we can to help them succeed. It provides real and tangible clues about what faculty and staff and our administration can do more and less of to support all of our students, to improve their success. It reminds us that the student voice is well worth listening to as we work together inclusively to chart our future, that there is significant risk in our not listening to and hearing that voice.
Yes, our enrollments are down as the high-school leaving population in the state continues to decline, and yes we do not enjoy the kind of support that is available to higher education in all but three or four states in this great nation. And yes, we face other challenges, as well. But I choose to focus on our students and their future. I won’t let them down. We won’t. I’m optimistic; I can’t help but be with what I’ve seen and heard so far.
In my first message, I invited you to join me in a conversation about the System and its future, either by posting a comment at the end of this blog or by sending me an email with your thoughts. Since then, I’ve received literally hundreds of emails. I’m trying to respond to each one; but, I must admit, I’m falling behind. I will keep at it, though, and hope soon to transition to a social media mechanism that will enable us to have a wholly open discussion with one another, in the light of day. The passion you have for this System, for these universities, for our students – it shines through each and every single one of the many messages I have received from you. It is humbling. Here is one example:
Says it all, doesn’t it? Let’s keep working together for our collective future, for our students’ success.
And for all of you I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with – thank you. Thank you for your hospitality, your welcome, your generosity of spirit, and your creative insights.