Tough Times Call For Aspirational Vision

Higher education is going through very interesting and challenging times. More than ever, we are experiencing national and state scrutiny focused on colleges and universities relating to the rising cost of attendance and other critical issues, including college completion (graduation rates), student success, and workforce development. As president, I try to do everything possible to keep Rio on the radar screen when appropriate. In so doing, it is critical our faculty and leadership speak up even if the discussion is controversial. We have to do this, as many outside mandates and pressures are changing the landscape of higher education – some of them very advantageous; others not so much. Rio must aspire to become a leader at the national and state level; we have to be part of the conversations where decisions are made, versus waiting for others to determine our future.

Let’s take on one high profile initiative – the college completion agenda. Any Rio in-state student from Ohio is classified as a community college student and thereby pays the lower tuition. This is a fantastic benefit and actually responds well to the “cost of tuition” issue. The challenge remains that in Ohio we are required to follow “open admissions” in order to retain our unique private-public partnership. Therefore, as with most colleges, we are finding increased needs to address learners with skill sets that need a lot of extra work to be successful in college. This is true of all colleges and universities, even with selective admissions. Imagine the dilemma – we want these students to succeed because we know that a four-year degree leads to substantial increases in the quality of life and lifelong earnings. However, we have increased responsibility and costs to assure their success. In all cases, the last thing we want is a student to miss his/her chance at a college career. We have, therefore, ramped up our student success programs and staffing. We will need to do even more in the future as the state funding formula for our community college is tied to completion for the first time, versus enrollment. In southeastern Ohio, if our learners leave Rio, they often leave higher education permanently. We are committed to help them succeed.

Another national trend is the push toward accountability in job placement and workforce development. You will read about or hear governors and the President decrying academic programs offered that are not directly tied to gainful employment. But we are not a trade school. A liberal arts education yields a great corporate employee with critical thinking skills. However, there may not be direct links, which are immediately measurable, and it is our obligation to advocate for the liberal arts and sciences as well as technical programs. Again, we have to become well-respected opinion leaders in the academy.

I can imagine it was never easy to head up a college or university. It certainly was not in the Vietnam War era when I attended college. That being said, it is very complex today to navigate the maze we call higher education. Know that the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College are working together to assure our learners are offered every opportunity to graduate with a high quality and affordable education. While the times are challenging, they are also very exciting and promising. Our aspirational vision will take a village, and we appreciate your continued loyalty and support on the journey.

Barbara Gellman-Danley, Ph.D.