Higher education in Indiana is facing a turbulent future. Fewer Hoosiers are graduating from high school, and a declining percentage are going on to college. There are many reasons, including the pandemic, a strong job market, high sticker prices, growing student debt and a belief that many good jobs don’t require a college degree. The bottom line is that higher education needs to change, and fast.
What are colleges and universities to do?
First and foremost, we need to put students first. This may sound obvious, but it can’t be taken for granted. We need to offer academic programs and experiences that students and families value and that prepare our graduates for first jobs that pay well and equip them for long careers in rapidly changing times. We serve our students well when we prepare them to serve their employers and communities well.
For Manchester, this means creating new programs with direct lines to high demand and emerging careers. Our new future-focused programs in nursing and physical therapy prepare graduates to fill high-demand jobs in northeast Indiana, and cutting-edge programs in esports management, pharmacogenomics and nutrigenomics keep graduates at the forefront of growing industries.
At the same time, we need to continue to control costs and debt for our students. Many colleges and universities offer legacy programs, academic majors with few students but deemed indispensable because they are part of a longstanding tradition. Students in other majors bear the cost of staffing and supporting these low-enrolled programs until colleges make the difficult but courageous choice to end or redesign them. To that end, Manchester is streamlining several programs and creating new opportunities in others.
Only institutions with billion-dollar endowments can afford to be ivory towers.
Finally, colleges and universities must be grounded in their local and regional communities. Many of Manchester’s students hail from northeast Indiana, and a high percentage want to stay in the region. Developing and retaining talent is a top priority shared by colleges and universities, civic leaders, economic and workforce development groups, and employers across northeast Indiana. Our students are extraordinary, and we should do all we can to help them call Indiana “home.”
Manchester pivoted a decade ago from being a small rural college in North Manchester to being a major regional university with the addition of our health sciences hub in Fort Wayne. Our vision for the future is to continue offering exceptional programs rooted in the needs of our neighbors and launching new programs that match the ambitions of the region. That pivot, that change, has been hard at times – all change is hard – but it has allowed us to put students and neighbors first.
Our mission is to produce graduates who improve human conditions. They are community-minded servant leaders. They roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They draw on their skills and values to make their communities better.
Northeast Indiana is blessed to have strong colleges and universities. We are different from one another in significant ways, but at the end of the day, we are all committed to serving our students and communities well. To do otherwise would be to let the turbulence take us under.
Dave McFadden is president of Manchester University.