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A President’s Perspective: The Value of Higher Education

Pioneering a new higher education requires forging ahead with new priorities, technologies and a common mission to put students first.

I will be transitioning this spring into retirement after serving fourteen years as president of Pueblo Community College. As one can imagine, this is a bittersweet time of reflective thought and an opportunity to offer my perspective on some key trends higher education leaders should look out for in 2024.

The value proposition of higher education degree continues to be under tremendous scrutiny, e.g., measuring the cost of attendance vs. return on investment vs. debt accumulation, uneven career preparation, racial inequalities and other factors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the college-going rate of recent high school graduates has declined by 11% since 2016, yet we recognize that an educated community lends itself to economic stability and global competitiveness, not to mention a healthier environment and a safe place to work and raise a family.

There are several emerging constructs influencing the not-so-new constructs of access, affordability, retention and completion. The needs of today’s learners—academic preparedness, student wellness and the adoption of artificial intelligence—each pose opportunities to challenge higher education leaders of a student-centric institution. I would argue that these constructs are not happening to us but are certainly influencing the sort of disruption that higher education is not accustomed to. I am confident, however, that higher education leaders are primed to pioneer a new world of educational innovation!

To compound the issue of the declining rate of high school graduates, those who do matriculate will be less prepared. Our K-12 partners report quite regularly that the pandemic negatively impacted student learning, particularly, the middle school math student. Higher education leaders must prepare now for this emerging trend of lacking academic preparation, as these middle schoolers enter colleges and universities in four years. The gateway math courses have always been a stumbling block for student success, especially for students of color. Closing the equity gaps may be even more difficult if higher education leaders do not put an emphasis on equity initiatives and student support services going forward.

Another alarming trend in student success (retention) is the significant decline of student wellness. A 2022 Gallup/Lumina survey, as presented in The State of Higher Education 2023 Report, states that “emotional stress, mental health reasons, cost of attendance, coursework too difficult and skepticism of career value” are the top five rationales for students stopping out. Most importantly, anxiety and depression among students is significant and concerning. I would go even one step further and suggest that these same constructs are impeding operational stability in our employees as well. Promotion, prevention and interventions for self-care, clinical care and crisis intervention are a must.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly becoming a staple in everyday life and a trend growing at an exponential rate, so embrace it! When there is so much pressure to do more with less, think about the possible efficiencies to be had in critical thinking and problem solving, creative design, technical coding, ethics and risk management, and communication, to name but a few skills AI can enhance. I would suggest higher education leaders look to embed AI in curriculum as an asset rather than viewing it as a threat to academic integrity. Preparing students to be proficient in AI use will give them a competitive edge when they enter the workplace.

In conclusion, the world of pre-pandemic higher education is in the history books. Operating as we once did will not lend itself to sustainability. Higher education leaders need to assess what their institutions do best and focus on initiatives that will yield the greatest return. Bigger is not necessarily better. Finally, higher education leaders need to be bold, embrace the new normal and remain passionate about higher education being both a right and privilege that all students deserve.