President's Notebook

President's Notebook

My View from South Hill

Posted by Thomas Rochon at 11:47AM   |  10 comments
Newsweek cover from September 17, 2012: Is College a Lousy Investment?

This is a time of rapid change at IC and in higher education generally.  We have entered a period in which we are challenged to operate differently in order to continue to flourish.  As a result, there is a great deal going on right now, including IC 20/20 implementation as well as the Effectiveness and Affordability Review that we are conducting with the assistance of Huron Education.  The challenges are serious.  If we respond to these challenges with vision and determination, however, we have an opportunity to create an Ithaca College that is not only financially sound but also better and more respected than ever.

The central challenge lies with our ability in the future to attract students who will be willing and able to pay IC’s cost of attendance (tuition plus room and board) that has now surpassed $50,000 per year.  What has changed, you might ask -- why won't students continue to seek admission to IC as they always have in the past?  We are challenged from a number of directions.  The spread of online learning opportunities -- many of them inexpensive and some of them free -- grabs the headlines. But the bigger threat is one that we created ourselves over a period of decades:  the accelerating cost of an IC education.  We are not unlike other private colleges and universities in having increased our cost of attendance over the last thirty years at a rate of 5 to 6 percent per year – a bit more than double the rate of inflation and nearly double the rate of growth in family incomes.  People value what we have to offer, and so in the past families have been willing to invest their life savings and to take out second mortgages on their homes in order to send their sons and daughters to IC.  Those sons and daughters, in turn, have been willing to take on ever higher levels of debt.

However, willingness to do whatever it takes to be able to attend IC is now changing in ways that our admission and financial aid staff encounter every day.  The loss of home values beginning in 2008-2009 suddenly eliminated one of the major ways that people paid for college.  The growth of student debt has reached what many consider to be a breaking point and has led an increasing number of people to ask if college is worth it.  It does not help that we have faced for several years now a relatively weak job market for recent college graduates (though it is still WAY better to have a college degree in this job market than not to have one!).

The reservations felt by many prospective students and their families are becoming increasingly public.  If you read magazines like Time or Newsweek you will have seen in the last few months cover stories questioning whether a traditional college education is worth it anymore, and lauding new online alternatives.  Public anger about both cost and quality has also been echoed in government, where there have been congressional inquiries into college pricing and into whether colleges are doing all they can to help students complete their degrees.  The cost of college was a presidential campaign issue this past fall, perhaps for the first time ever.

Ithaca College has been part of this cost spiral.  Over time, we have built out a beautiful and attractive campus.  We have added academic majors and minors as well as programs for student services and support.  We have added faculty and staff to support and deliver those programs.  We have offered the best of the best, and been proud to do so.  Students pay for all of it. 

What we did was not wrong and it was not wasteful.  To a considerable extent, it was fueled by student demand for small classes and low faculty to student ratios, the best academic and recreational facilities, and the latest equipment.  If you take a moment to look with fresh eyes at all that we offer -- both the physical facilities and the 1,500 professionals dedicated to providing the best possible educational and living experience for 6,500 students -- then you will feel a well-deserved burst of pride.

But those great accomplishments are no longer enough when an increasing proportion of the college-aged population cannot afford to attend IC.  Even if prospective students feel that IC offers the best possible educational experience, the one they would like to have in an ideal world, they will not come here if they cannot afford to do so.  We have for decades been an attractive option for students despite being three times as expensive (before IC financial aid) as a SUNY campus for a New York resident.  We must in the future be seen as an attractive and affordable option for students despite being 20 times as expensive as the online undergraduate degree programs that are just now emerging.  People still want excellence but to an increasing extent they are also demanding VALUE.

So here is our challenge:  We must increase the value of an IC education.  Value = Quality / Cost, meaning that we must increase our quality and at the same time substantially rein in the growth of cost.  

Please be clear that BOTH parts of the value equation are vital.  We are never going to be one of the cheaper higher education options, so prospective students will not want to come to IC if we are not seen as offering the very best in quality.  But if we continue to add to quality by increasing cost well beyond the rate of inflation, then prospective students will not be able to come to IC. 

Greater quality at a lower cost.  That is quite a challenge!  But we have been working on solutions with respect to both quality and cost for several years now, and many of you have played significant roles in identifying those solutions.  I will discuss those solutions beginning next week.

Posted by Thomas Rochon at 1:52PM   |  1 comment
Independent student research - foundation for a tradition of excellence

The Ithaca College Chemistry Department has more than five hundred graduates, some of whom are today among the most respected leaders in their field. Its faculty care so much about their students that years later they can recount stories about light-hearted moments or intellectual breakthroughs in the lab. The department’s alumni care so much about the faculty, in turn, that they travel to Ithaca years later to give testimony about their mentors.

This tradition of excellence in the Chemistry Department has developed over 50 years. It is marked by such signposts as the over 50,000 cumulative hours of student research undertaken in the lab, and the more than 200 students who have presented their research at regional, national and international conferences. That represents over 40% of all graduates of the department who have had the opportunity to undertake original research and present it at conferences; a rate that is even higher among recent graduates.

Mike Haaf, an associate professor in the department, was recently recognized by Princeton Review as one of the top 300 college professors in any field of study, based on student ratings. He and 299 others (one of the others also from IC!) were chosen from among over 1.8 million post-secondary teachers in the country! Mike is so modest that he deleted the first two emails from Princeton Review telling him he had won this award, assuming them to be spam. They finally had to call to convince him this was a legitimate honor. “I appreciate that the Princeton Review decided to recognize quality teaching,” Mike says. “That is what the faculty in our department live for. This is really a departmental award because we have developed together and over a long period of time the culture of focusing solely on student learning.”

Conversations with our chemistry alumni prove that Professor Haaf is right: quality teaching has a long pedigree here. Grateful alumni of the department have donated five endowed scholarships to be awarded to junior and senior majors. The most recent of these gifts was announced at the department’s 50th anniversary celebration last month. Dr. Marjorie Chelly ’94 is a hand surgeon in Texas whose reconstructive techniques enable people to regain full functionality after accidents. She attributes her success to the opportunity she had as an undergraduate to conduct and present original research; her fund will enable future students to have the same experience. Dr. Chelly named the award for Professor Glenn Vogel, the mentor who created those opportunities for her.

IC chemistry alumni have been successful in many related fields. Gary Kubera '82 is today President and CEO of Canexus, a chemical manufacturing and handling company. He also serves as a director on the Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council and is director and past chair of the Alliance for Environmental Technology, an international association of chemical manufacturers dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of the pulp and paper industry by fostering adoption of chlorine-free technologies.

Dr. Bill Schwab ’68 is professor of Trauma Surgery and former division chief at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Bill served in the United States Navy for nine years, where he honed his life-saving surgical skills. Once in civilian life, he applied what he had learned in the Navy to develop patient transportation networks and trauma center collaborations that improve the speed and integration of emergency care. He also became a leader in pioneering trauma surgery techniques ranging from brain-tissue oxygenation to X-ray tomography. Through his writings – including being co-author of the definitive textbook on surgical trauma care -- and by traveling around the world to offer lectures and consultations to colleagues, Bill has saved untold numbers of lives by spreading his innovations on a global scale. He points to Professor Heinz Koch as the one who introduced him to research and inspired his future career, and Bill has also created a student research fund in the name of his former professor.

The IC Chemistry Department has a distinctive commitment to undergraduate learning that, over 50 years, leaves a remarkable legacy. I am particularly struck by the way our alumni combine technical expertise, business acumen and commitment to making a better world. That is exactly the kind of big picture thinking we seek to develop at Ithaca College.


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