As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, university leaders face many challenges, including how to address shifting cultural views regarding expectations of universities, how to incorporate advanced forms of technology into the pedagogy of the institution, and how to prepare students for the changing world of tomorrow, just to name a few.
On a larger scale, university leaders must consider the increasing level of cultural diversity in the United States and how that diversity needs to be reflected in the student bodies of our public universities.
These issues can be tackled when university leaders take actionable steps to enact change and create an environment where students can thrive. Creating a multidimensional plan to achieve success is one thing, but making those plans actionable and holding department leaders accountable is the way to ensure success.
To successfully address these issues, university leaders must have a clear vision for what their institution should represent and understand the steps needed to develop a blueprint to achieve that vision. Too often vision gets sidetracked by unanticipated challenges, but in order to truly enact change, university leaders must work collaboratively with campus and community leaders to move the institution forward. Every student comes to college with their own unique story and background which means it’s important that universities design programs that help support a variety of needs to ensure that students succeed.
Leaders must be dedicated to guiding the institution on a steady, future-oriented course. At the University of Oregon, we examined many of these issues, designed programs to support real-world challenges that students face, and as a result, have seen an increase in graduation rates and a rise in the diversity of the student body.
Tackling real-world issues
From business leaders to government officials, there is no shortage of opinions about how to improve higher education. While all the dialog is helpful to identify serious concerns, ultimately we enhance the educational experience through action. University leaders should conduct research and study issues, but there must also be action.
Over the past several years, we addressed many issues that focus on key areas designed to help students succeed. We established new programs that specifically targeted two areas that shape the student experience:
- Financial support and food insecurity
- Preparing students for a changing future
Financial support and food insecurity
For students who rely on financial aid, it can be an overwhelming task to understand the federal and institutional financial aid processes, while also balancing school, work and money management for the first time. Traditional college-age students may have limited experience in these areas and with rising enrollments of first-generation students, the entire “navigating the college experience” process becomes quite challenging.
We deployed a phone app that alerts students if a university-catered event has ended and there is food available.
Several years ago, we re-designed how we award institutional financial aid by simplifying the process and making the selection criteria more transparent for our institutional aid awards. This enabled much of the mystery about how the financial aid process works to be eliminated and by moving the vast majority of our institutional aid to four-year awards, we promote timely completion of courses to keep students on a path to graduate in four years.
For students whose families are federal Pell Grant eligible—which is generally a family of four earning below $50,000 a year—we redesigned the PathwayOregon Program, which pays tuition and fees for Oregon residents with institutional aid. This program, which was recognized by former Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a model for other institutions to replicate, has helped thousands of students in Oregon earn their degrees.
In an effort to address a growing concern of our student government leaders, we began to examine how to assist students with food insecurity. On many campuses today, food insecurity has become a significant issue. We deployed a phone app that alerts students if a university-catered event has ended and there is food available. This enables students to drop by the facility after the event for free food.
These types of programs and many more are designed to support our students and highlight that there are services in place to address difficult challenges they may face.
Preparing students for a changing future
While research suggests many students are selecting majors based on anticipated salary, this should be one of many considerations. Given the cost of higher education, it is natural to select a major that is influenced by potential income, but our job as educators is to help prepare students for the wide variety of positions that will unfold over the student’s career. Some of the jobs that today’s students may someday hold may not have even been created yet, so preparing critical thinkers and problem solvers is important.
Passion and curiosity should also drive major selection, not just the potential earnings. While every student has their own motivating financial factors, students will be successful in meeting challenges by being passionate about what they study and what career they chose after graduation. Universities must design programs that help students identify what they are passionate about, what skills they will learn and how they can apply those skills when they enter the workforce. Universities need to design a curriculum that prepares students for the changing economy and workplace.
It is difficult to know what the future holds, but teaching and incorporating the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for the coming decades is critical. Today’s students must be prepared to address complex issues such as how a city planner designs cities that use a fleet of driverless cars or how to reduce climate change in a developing world. Understanding and teaching critical thinking and collaboration are skills that will help all students improve the world which they will shape.
Being a university leader is more challenging than ever as students, faculty and administrators focus on creating universities that help prepare the students of today to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. University leaders need to have a vision for the future, build a team to develop actionable plans, measure the impact of these plans and create universities that better reflect the world in which we live.
Roger J. Thompson is the vice president for student services and enrollment management at the University of Oregon. He can be reached at email@example.com.