Creating a New Paradigm for Higher Education

Thank you to our Chair, members of the Board of The City Club, members of the Cleveland State University Board of Trustees, Foundation Board members, faculty and staff who are here, and my colleague President Proenza.  I appreciate his presence.  And, of course, all of you in the room.

The individual who unfortunately is not here is my wife, Patsy, who is helping her parents with some health issues over the last couple of weeks.   When I was appointed, there was a Board member after meeting Patsy who said, “I think the University is getting two for one.”  I actually think the University got 2 and a half for one, given how much energy she has brought to Cleveland and to the University, and how she has supported me.

The first time I addressed this really venerable forum—and it is true that there can never be another thing like The City Club, and its preservation is part of the great legacy of this city—was in January of 2010, just six months after I became President of Cleveland State University and in a moment when I thought I knew something. Now, five years into my tenure, I am glad to have this opportunity to speak to you again.

I want to begin by affirming the enthusiasm I have for Cleveland State University, and the enthusiasm I have for the position.  I really feel that it is where I am called.  As you might expect, much has changed at the University since the last time I spoke.  And, of course, much has changed with the city.

Higher education today faces a myriad of new challenges, which I will discuss in the course of my talk this afternoon.  Cleveland State’s response to these challenges is an attempt to change the paradigm, and I believe that it is essential for any public, urban university seeking to address these challenges to address the challenges of paradigm change in higher education.

This shift requires that we free ourselves from the fallacy that universities would be fine if only everyone else would get their acts together. If only the students came prepared to succeed. If only the government funded us the way we should be funded. And if only all of you recognized how much you need us.

Rather than imagining this perfect world gone by, I think that really given these considerations, it is important for us to think about how we change our business model to respond to these challenges. 

We must reconstruct our operations to serve students where they are, adapt our curriculum to address their needs, and in doing so, respond to the external needs of the community.

The approach can be disruptive and difficult, as most changes are. And it has its detractors in higher education. But in my estimation, it is necessary if public, urban universities like Cleveland State are not only going to survive, but thrive.

Let me talk first about the challenges on the national stage.  At least in the course of my career,
I have not seen a period in which the debate and dialogue about value and about the very nature of what we do in higher education is so pronounced and so profound. 

And there are very real, justifiable issues plaguing universities and students. There are the challenges of cost and affordability, which is perhaps the most significant and critical hurdle to completion.  There is the serious issue of graduates finding or not finding the employment they desire. And there is the reality that relentlessly changing technology continues to transform how our students communicate and how our students learn.

These concerns culminate in a gnawing skepticism about the value of higher education. Americans are asking a question today they have not had to ask for decades: And that question is, “Is college worth it?” 

The scrutiny is valid, and, sadly, evidenced by an abundance of unsatisfied customers.  Ask around and you are just as likely to hear of a student dropping out of college as you are to hear a story about a student celebrating graduation.

A Harvard Graduate School of Education study completed in 2011 found that just over half of Americans who enroll in a baccalaureate program finish within six years. A year earlier, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that only 46 percent of Americans who start college ever finish, placing the United States dead last among the countries who belong to the OECD. 

Despite these somber realities, on one level the debate still seems misguided.  Based purely on a graduate’s employability and future earnings, there is no doubt that it pays to go to college. 
The PEW Research Foundation recently found that college graduates ages 25 to 32 working full-time earn nearly $17,500 more each year than those with a high school diploma.

I quote the study: “On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full-time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers.” 

Of course, this evidence is not lost on the public because we see enrollments at universities and community colleges are actually at an all-time high. Today, however, when almost as many people have tried and failed as have succeeded, earning a college degree is perceived as a risky proposition. Add to this the issue of rising costs and it is no wonder the value of higher education is under assault.

For public universities like Cleveland State, part of the growth in tuition costs has been due to dwindling state support over the past decade.  In 2014, Cleveland State will receive about 29% of its operating budget from state subsidy.  So while we are called a public university, our funding from the state directly is 29 percent of the cost of educating a student.  In 2001, we received 49.3% of our operating budget from the state of Ohio.

Indeed, if not for the federal government providing subsidies on the financial side, the entire higher education enterprise would likely collapse.  A very small percentage of our current college students—particularly our students at Cleveland State and at public urban institutions across the nation—are able to afford the cost of college tuition themselves.

Earlier this week, NPR’s “Morning Edition” reported on student financial need.  They noted that, today, 70 percent of college graduates leave college owing money, owing an average close to $30,000.  Two decades ago, less than half of college students needed loans for college, and their average debt after four years was $9,000.  So in two decades the average debt of students has risen from $9,000 to $30,000.

In 2012-2013, Cleveland State awarded $157 million in financial aid to our students.  This underlines the critical importance for universities to be able to develop scholarships through philanthropic contributions.  51 percent of these freshman students received Federal Pell grants, given to those with the highest financial need.  33 percent of our freshman students who received Federal Pell Grants also received merit-based scholarships. 

These are bright, talented students.  But their education hinges on financial aid.  They cannot pursue college without high levels of support. 

While it may sound daunting, I think it is really an energizing moment to be in higher education.

During my tenure as president, our efforts have been geared toward creating a customer-service orientation. Students and their families are recognized as consumers choosing from a growing list of options to buy our product, and demanding a return on their investment.

This shift is supported by two strategic components, which I will talk about in a moment: the development of external partnerships and our commitment to engaged learning. But this all begins with a fairly radical idea in higher education circles: the student as customer. There are many who would argue this designation, preferring to see the student as a “learner” and avoiding the terminology of the marketplace.

But the softer language buffers us from the harsh reality that we are, indeed, competing against a host of new educational enterprises.  To give you some idea of this level of competition, recent data show that the Greater Cleveland market is number 7 nationally in college advertising spending. 

When I talk about developing a student-centric culture, I am talking about a deeper level of service to students.

At Cleveland State, this starts with an appreciation of who our students are. We are a university of preference for many high academically achieving students.  However, the reality is that we are also a destination for students who may not have a lot of choices.

I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with many of our students.  A large number of them are the first in their families to go to college.  This year, forty-seven percent of our current undergraduates are actually the first in their family to go to college.  For those who are the first in their family to go to college, you understand that it is a different trail, a different challenge.

And our students are not all 18 years old, fresh from high school.  They are men and women who have overcome difficult circumstances to get to college.  Single parents.  Students working hard to support their families.  Approximately 800 veterans and veteran dependents.  Their stories are at once sobering and inspiring.

The fact is that our students come to us from a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons.  But they all share a set of attributes I like to think of as the Cleveland State student profile:  They have solid work ethics, most of them 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.   They embrace the diversity of the city and the diversity of CSU. Arguably, Cleveland State is the most diverse four-year university campus in the state of Ohio, with now 34% of our students representing some racial or ethnic minority group. 

Cleveland State is called to invest in each of these students, no matter their background, no matter their level of college preparedness.  Not out of charity. But because this region desperately needs them to be successful—to stay in Cleveland and invest in Cleveland.  And that requires us changing the way we do business.

This starts with easing students’ financial burden. We started this year a Graduation Incentive Plan which rebates 2 percent of a student’s tuition costs—plus $100 per semester in book expenses—if he or she completes the full academic year with 30 credits in good academic standing.  We also eliminated extra costs for students who want to take and are able to take more than 16 credits per semester—a savings of nearly $400 per additional credit hour.

We have made structural changes to help students follow a streamlined path to completion and also lower costs.  In the fall of 2014, with the help of the faculty, the administration, and so many people at the University, we will complete the conversion from a predominant 4-credit hour system to a 3-credit hour system, aligning CSU with the rest of the universities in the state of Ohio.  Coinciding with this switch is a new 120-credit hour standard for graduation.  Our average student last year graduated with 142 credits—which often meant an additional two years of college and an additional of two years of tuition.   

These changes are wholly beneficial to our students.

We are the first state university in Ohio to allow students to register for the entire year.  As many of you may remember from your own experience, semester registration was an episodic experience and a mysterious one from semester to semester.  The ability for our students to see the fall, the spring, and the summer at one time and be able to make a plan is enormously important for students involved in a balancing act.

Public institutions like Cleveland State—nestled against a revitalized downtown, anchored in proximity to diverse neighborhoods, and here in the midst of a resurgent economy, are using partnerships to simultaneously produce institutional change and community change.  I think that may be the definition of a partnership—the ability for both parties synergistically to make those changes.

One of our first changes—and it was part and parcel in our quest to develop a neighborhood around campus—was to create a public school on campus, known as the Campus International School.

The School currently holds grades K through 5, with plans to add an additional grade each year, It is a school that we choose by lottery, and it is the only school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District—that is not a charter school—that has a waiting list for entry.  It will be a K-12 accredited international baccalaureate school and offers a world-class international baccalaureate education.  The kids in kindergarten take Chinese every single day.  It is a remarkable learning platform.

In addition to that, we recently entered into an extraordinary partnership and housed the District’s MC2 STEM High School on the campus of CSU.  

This was made possible through a $1.25 million donation from KeyBank Foundation.  It was an extraordinary gift, and I give Margot Copeland credit for directing this gift and creating this seamless transition and path for students studying science, technology, engineering, and math in a wonderful school.

We also have a collaborative partnership with NEOMED, the Northeast Ohio Medical University, to develop a program that will allow 35 students to enter a new and different pre-med program—focused on urban health, focused on interdisciplinary care, focused on community-based care—and have 50 percent of their clinical work and coursework done here on the campus of Cleveland State University.  So now, to all of our students, we add a cohort of medical students.

This was made possible by grants from The Cleveland Foundation, Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation, Myers Foundation, and Saint Luke’s Foundation, a recent grant from the National Institute of Health, and a recent grant from the Association of Academic Health Centers.  We have admitted our first class.  One of our challenges in this endeavor was to also diversify those who choose the physician path or want to become physicians.  I am really delighted that 30 percent of our first class was composed of minority students.

Being an anchor institution, as we are, is not only about where you are; it is about what you do where you are. And what Cleveland State is doing is intentionally driving new housing, new commerce, and new cultural opportunities, and igniting improvements.

The other partnership that I do not want to neglect is our partnership with Playhouse Square.  It is a wonderful opportunity for our students—our art students, our dance students, our theatre students—to be housed in the midst of this wonderful performing arts center in the midst of this wonderful city.  It is an extraordinary opportunity. 

So finally, let me talk about what we see going forward, and what we see as we approach our 50th anniversary.  The University was chartered in 1964, and its first class entered in 1965.  50 years is a short time for a university—sometimes I call it a “higher ed teenager.” 

But it is clear on this anniversary that it is not only Cleveland State’s anniversary.  It is Cleveland’s anniversary.  It is a milestone for the city of Cleveland.

And so we celebrate it together, as we have done so much together.  The true advantage, of the most important value added for our students, is the city of Cleveland.  And our quest is to make the city of Cleveland, with its incredibly rich resources, an extended classroom for our students.  We have about 2,500 students this year who are doing internships, co-ops, work with alumni, and work with cultural organizations, and I truly hope that before I leave that we will have double that number of students working in the city of Cleveland.

I will end by saying that everything I do, and have done, as the president of Cleveland State University—and it has been such an honor to be the president of CSU and to at least be a small part of spreading the message about what this city has been and will be—is with deep intention to both better the university and better our city.  And I think that they will happen synergistically.  And, above all, my paramount intention is to serve our students—to provide them with a best-in-class urban education, to see them through to graduation day, to prepare them not only to succeed in their chosen career but in all of their endeavors.

I cannot adequately express my pride in our students: in their character, their grit, their determination.  They inspire me each and every day.

I will do everything I possibly can—with the support of an incredible Board of Trustees and Foundation Board—to help them achieve lifelong success.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time, and I look forward to your questions.