Published January 13, 2015
"The aim of higher education is not merely to prepare students for jobs. It is to prepare them to lead, innovate, and contribute meaningfully to the world around them."
Right now at UB—and at universities across the U.S.—students are heading back to campus as we prepare for the spring semester. Meanwhile, across the nation, millions more prospective students and families are busily weighing their options as they choose where to attend college next year.
As I know from raising two sons to adulthood, this is no easy task. There are numerous criteria to consider in choosing a college—from the excellence, reputation, and variety of academic programs to size, geographic location, and the physical campus environment. And within this complex set of considerations, cost also weighs as a major factor for virtually every family—from examining tuition prices and financial aid options on the front end, to anticipating employment prospects post graduation.
Higher education is one of the most vital investments one can make. Students and families therefore are faced with a wealth of information to sift through in order to ensure they make the wisest investment possible for their needs. Colleges and universities have an equally critical investment to make: our focus must be on investing wisely in the total educational experience we provide our students, so we ensure their higher education investment pays dividends for a lifetime—not only for them as individuals but also for the greater public good.
I am proud to say that UB is nationally recognized among large public universities for our leadership in balancing educational excellence and affordability. Nationally, our tuition rate is low. Our graduation rates are very high compared to the national average among public four-year institutions. And we are committed to ensuring the support our students need to graduate on time.
We continue to make strides in this regard. Over the past few years, in addition to helping students and families plan more effectively for the costs of higher education, Governor Cuomo’s predictable tuition plan has enabled UB to significantly expand our investments in enhancing the student experience—from student support initiatives like our Finish in 4 program to enable on-time graduation for all students, to experiential learning opportunities that ensure our students graduate ready to thrive in the global 21st century workforce.
Importantly, we know these investments are working because our students tell us how valuable these experiences are for their chosen professions, and employers tell us our graduates are outstanding and truly making a difference in their respective industries.
At UB, we are focused on preparing thoughtful, globally minded leaders for the future—students equipped to contribute meaningfully to their surrounding communities, locally as well as globally. We do this through the transformational opportunities we provide our students, from hands-on participation in cutting-edge faculty research to experiential learning opportunities, clinical education, and study abroad experiences. These opportunities open our students’ eyes to worlds far beyond their own personal experience. And these experiences literally change lives—those of our students, and those of the communities they will enrich.
Right now as a nation, we are having a valuable conversation about expanding higher education opportunity and ensuring student success. And UB has long been a leading voice in the national conversation about these vital higher education issues. In fact, in recognition of this leadership, in August 2013 UB was chosen as the site where President Obama first announced his proposal for a new federal approach to expanding higher education opportunity. That conversation is still unfolding as the U.S. Department of Education continues to hone its draft college rating plan as part of this proposal.
As important as this effort is, I believe this is only part of a much larger conversation we should be having about genuine higher education opportunity. Thus far, this debate has focused mostly on the comings and goings of students. We talk, rightly, about the need to open the door wider for students seeking an excellent higher education. And we worry, also rightly, about how to shepherd these students more quickly out the door again, degrees in hand, into secure jobs.
But we are not talking enough about what happens in the vast space in between these two doors—the college experience itself, which I would argue is the ultimate determiner of opportunity, for our students and for our nation as a whole.
Opening the door to higher education is only a first step. And affordability alone does not equal opportunity. Access to a college education means nothing if it does not open other new doors for our students in the future.
Yes, affordability is critically important to higher education access. And graduating in a timely way is critical to ensuring our students are able to enter the job market successfully and with minimal debt. But when we talk about access, “more” and “faster” cannot be the only watchwords. Meaningful access is provided only when students have intensive, hands-on engagement with the kind of transformative research and educational experiences that prepare them to be informed, insightful, and engaged citizens in their local and global communities.
The aim of higher education, as we too often forget, is not merely to prepare students for jobs. It is to prepare them to lead, innovate, and contribute meaningfully to the world around them.
As we discuss as a nation how to help our students and their families plan wisely for their critical investment in higher education, we can’t forget the critical corollary to this conversation: how to ensure our higher education institutions are fully equipped to invest in the transformative educational experiences we provide our students, the future leaders of our world. This is the core of our academic mission, and the heart of genuine educational opportunity.