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April 05, 2014

Berkman dispels 'annoying skepticism' about college

By Jordan Gonzalez

President Berkman emphasized the synergistic relationship between Cleveland State University, the city of Cleveland and the importance in continuing the relationship for the benefit of both parties in a speech delivered at The Cleveland City Club on March 29.

While the last of the attendants finished their chicken and pasta and sipped on coffee and iced tea, Berkman began by laying out what he viewed as problems facing higher education.

He mentioned the “annoying skepticism” that many people have in regards to the worth of higher education.

“Americans are asking a question today that they have not had to ask for decades, and that question is, ‘is college worth it?’” Berkman said. “The scrutiny is valid, and sadly evidenced by an abundance of unsatisfied customers.”

He cited some studies, such as a Harvard study, which found that just over half of Americans enrolled in a baccalaureate program finish within six years, said Berkman, and The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that only 46 percent of Americans who start college ever finish.

Much of why higher education is “conceived as a risky proposition” is due to the financial burdens, Berkman said. He noted two sides, with one being the direct burden on the student and the other being the lack of state funding during the past decade. Only 29 percent of Cleveland State’s budget is from state subsidies, he said.

After his speech there was about 20 minutes of a question and answer period.
Jake Wehner, SGA treasurer, asked about whether the State Share of Instruction subsidy (SSI), which comprises 29.6 percent of Cleveland State’s FY 2014 revenue (compared to 37 percent as recently as FY 2009), would negatively affect students now that the formula has changed. Previously the state funded SSI subsidies were based mainly on enrollment. Now, 50 percent of funding will be based on graduation rates, and the other 50 percent will be based on course completion rates from enrolled students.

Berkman said that Cleveland State has to “dramatically change the model” in light of the changing times.

“But we also have to recognize, as you point out, that we have an obligation and a mission to provide access to students from Northeast Ohio,” Berkman said. “So it’s a balance. Access without any possibility of success for example, does not do anyone any service. So we have to provide an open door, but we have to also provide students with the preparation that gives them a reasonable chance of realizing their aspirations.”
And if not for federal funding, he added, the entire higher education system would collapse.

“In 2012 and 2013 – and this shows how important the magnitude of [federal] financial aid – Cleveland State awarded $157 million in financial aid to our students,” Berkman said. “We didn’t award it, we don’t have $157 million. It was awarded through Pell, it was awarded through Perkins, it was awarded through Stafford, it was awarded through philanthropy, scholarships, etc.”

But Berkman said it definitely pays to go to college, citing a Pew Research study that found 25-32 year olds with degrees earned $17,500 more than their high-school diploma counterparts.

His strategy for Cleveland State is geared toward creating a customer-service based structure, with students as consumers who demand a return on their investment. This strategy has two strategic components, he said: the development of external partnerships and the commitment to engaged learning.

Along with these goals, Cleveland State is called to invest in their students, Berkman said, because the region “desperately needs them” to stay in Cleveland.

“The fact is our students come to us from a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons,” Berkman said. “But they all share a set of attributes that I like to think of as the Cleveland State student profile: they have a solid work ethic – most of them are balancing employment with their studies. They know Cleveland, they know the region and they love the region. They want to invest here. They want to stay here.”

Those changes include graduate-incentive plan (that rebates two-percent of the student’s tuition and gives $100 per semester for books if the student completes 30 credits in a full academic year with good grades), the reduction of extra costs for students who want to take more than 15 credits per semester, the four-to-three credit conversion, the new 120-credit hour standard for graduation, and the ability to sign up for multiple semesters.

“These changes are wholly beneficial for our students,” Berkman said.

Berkman noted that despite the notion that some of these changes were rushed they are based off of data and trends that Cleveland State must follow.

“It had to be done. The data shows, there were too many students who were suffering negative consequences,” Berkman said. “[The four-to-three credit conversion] not that it was all done in one year. I talked to the faculty senate for two years before we said we’re finally going to do something. It was a slow process, basically. It was not a one year process.”