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Higher education challenges: From demographics to debt

Friday, July 29, 2016

President Michael Victor

Is the purpose of going to college to be able to secure a job, or is there something more intrinsically valuable to be gained from years spent earning a degree? Are the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) quashing the liberal arts? Is there really such a thing as “free college”?

Mercyhurst University President Michael T. Victor will tackle those questions and more when he discusses the challenges facing higher education at the Jefferson Educational Society, 3207 State St., on Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m.  

In tackling the broad topic of today’s rapidly changing higher education landscape, Victor will also zero in on the challenges specific to private colleges, particularly of the liberal arts variety.

Colleges and universities have always been challenged by uncertainties. In the past, most issues were specific to a particular institution. One might have a problem with accreditation while another might suffer from an enrollment decline. Today, widespread challenges on a national scale are affecting all of higher education.

Among those challenges are a decline in high school graduates, affordability and student loan debt, demands from accrediting overseers, a downturn in government funding, the proliferation of online education, and competition from for-profit colleges.

Many private, liberal arts schools face the struggle of small endowments, which means they must depend on enrollment to bring in tuition dollars. At most private colleges, enrollment-based revenue – tuition, room and board – constitutes 85 to 90 percent of the total revenue. These institutions also have smaller class sizes and can’t subsidize operations with large lectures. They are often in rural areas with shrinking populations. And, they frequently are perceived as being unaffordable.

How colleges and universities navigate the whitewater of this new higher education landscape will have a profound effect on their ability to thrive and, for some, survive.

“One thing I’ve stressed as part of my presidency at Mercyhurst is that higher education leaders can no longer follow a path of misguided optimism, of one’s gut or intuition. The days of informal structures and casual leadership are gone,” he said. “Ours must be a thoughtful, strategic business model rooted in preparedness, research-based problem solving, analysis and best practice.”

Register to hear Victor’s free lecture by calling the Jefferson Educational Society at 814-459-8000, or visit its website at jeserie.org. Once there, you’ll see a description of Victor’s talk, where you can click “Register” and indicate the quantity of tickets you’d like. From there, click “Okay” and the site will take you to another page where you can fill in your name and contact information.