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Panelists Discuss Critical Higher Education Issues and Trends

Before an audience of attentive students, faculty, and staff, a panel of experts discussed “Higher Education Trends and Critical Issues in the Academy” in a February 14 event hosted by the Ithaca College Board of Trustees and Office of the President.

Serving on the panel were Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado; Tompkins Cortland Community College President Orinthia Montague; Luke Keller, Dana Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Ithaca College; and Jeff Selingo ’95, former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education and member of the Board of Trustees. The moderator was politics major Grace Elletson ’19 a member of the first cohort of Ithaca College BOLD Scholars.

From left to right: Grace Elletson 19, Luke Keller, Jeff Selingo 95, Shirley M. Collado and Orinthia Montague. (Photo by Stetson Doggett)

Elletson posed questions to the group on such issues as the purpose of higher education and its role in society, how colleges and universities can adapt to changing student demographics, the importance of social capital and networks for students, and the public good vs. the private good.

Especially as the cost of college continues to rise, some have argued that the liberal arts doesn’t do enough to prepare students for jobs after graduation. The panelists unanimously disputed that contention.

Selingo, who writes extensively on the future of higher education, said employers tell him that the kinds of skills college graduates are most often lacking are the very ones that are part of a good liberal arts education, such as teamwork, problem solving, and navigating ambiguity.

“We are preparing for a world where the churn of knowledge is moving so quickly, where graduates are going to have multiple jobs over the course of their lives, and what we’re trying to do, I think, is prepare students to navigate,” said Selingo. “The problem is that too many students are spectators to their college experience. They think, ‘as long as I follow the syllabus, go to class, maybe even participate in an activity or two; as long as I get that piece of paper, I’m going to be golden in this job market.’ The fact is, that might get you your first job, but it’s not going to get you many jobs after that.” 

Collado said that it is critical to continue fighting for the value and relevance of a liberal arts education.

“We’re not shying away from the power of professional education and how that completely intersects and gets wrapped up and should be fully integrated in what it means to be living a purposeful life,” said Collado. “I think we have many students here who would say they are learning by doing. But the foundation of that, the root of that, is the power of being liberally educated.”

Another issue the panelists agreed on was the power of networking and making connections. This applies both within an institution and between institutions.

“We must work across sectors to share resources and be more innovative,” said Collado. “The community college sector has a critical role to play in American higher education, and we need to develop more partnerships between two-year and four-year institutions.”

The changing demographic of the college student population is having an impact on every kind of institution. With more students from underrepresented and socioeconomically challenged backgrounds going to college, it requires being more intentional and creative in thinking about how to best serve them.

“Whether it’s an academic advisor or a faculty advisor or an office of multicultural affairs or the president of the institution, I think the key is having someone that you can connect with,” said Montague. “I think it’s also key for institutions, when they are doing their hiring, when they are doing their outreach to bring people into the institution, to have that at the forefront of their mind."

Keller said that some of his best students have come from community colleges, noting that they often have different needs and expectations from “traditional” Ithaca College students.

“In the STEM fields we mentor students one on one in research as well as teaching them in the classroom,” said Keller. “Those professional relationships are different depending on the expectations of the students, so we have to expand that model to differences not just in age and professional expectation but differences in economic background and culture. We can’t be part of a complex world if we try to be as simple as we have sometimes been in the past.”

Selingo pointed out that it isn’t just the students who are changing, as higher education needs to be prepared for a coming turnover as both faculty and leadership ages.

“Higher education doesn’t do a great job in talent management, succession planning, and training and advocating for leaders,” said Selingo. “If we don’t do a better job of thinking about who is going to be the next generation to teach and who is going to be the next generation to lead, we’re going to have a dearth of talent in the next 20 years.”

A final question, from the audience, asked each panelist for the most important actionable suggestion they could leave the audience with that would result in positive change.

Orinthia Montague: Try to change the rhetoric that’s in the media across the country. Collectively our voices are stronger, and so if everyone is reiterating the message that higher education is a public good, that’s an actionable thing that everyone can do.

Luke Keller: Learn to listen to others with the intention of learning something new from them, more often than we do.

Jeff Selingo: Slow education down. We are constantly just moving on to the next thing. The more you can reflect on what you’ve learned that day, that moment, it makes it much easier to translate that a year later or five years later. The world is moving so fast, that this is the best place to try to slow it down.

Shirley M. Collado: Within the next week, find an individual very different from yourself, and have a real conversation about one of these questions that we raised today and how we’re grappling with it, and take time to really listen and understand that other perspective.