College presidents address link between education, jobs

Chamber members hear from leaders of Clark State, Urbana U., Wittenberg, Cedarville and Antioch Midwest.

How area colleges and universities can educate the workforce and how the community can help them do so was discussed over breakfast Tuesday at a “Meet the Presidents” event sponsored by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

A crowd of more than 150 listened to the area’s five new college presidents at the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Springfield.

Moderator Jim Lagos said that along with Clark State Community College and Antioch University Midwest, Cedarville, Urbana and Wittenberg universities constitute the “very rich post secondary education community.”

He also said that with Ohioans’ education lagging and demand for a more educated workforce, the future of the area and state “is very much in the hands” of the presidents, adding: “and they need our support.”

From a wide-ranging session that included opening remarks, responses to Lagos’ questions and questions from the audience, here is a selection of the panelists comments:

President Thomas White said Cedarville will continue to be a “non-ashamed faith-based university” where “a Biblical world view is integrated into every classroom.”

A primary goal is to help students “see their lives as bigger than themselves,” said White, and to teach them “to think well, to respond well and to do well in society” and to open their eyes not only to the local community but the world.

White wants students exposed to a third world country but added that if students graduate and cannot find a job, “we’ve done them a disservice.”

The use of technology in the classroom and in online courses will grow, he said, “but our primary focus is going to be on campus.”

It’s through the influence of teachers “that you change a life,” he said. In education as in business, he said, “it’s all about relationships.”

Wittenberg University President Laurie Joyner said that employability is an important issue, “we don’t think of what we do just in terms of workforce development.”

Joyner argued that “narrow vocational training” won’t prepare students for the varied career paths they’ll face over their lives and that “helping students discover who they are” is part of preparing them for their futures.

Coupled with better communication and problem-solving skills, the ability to work with diverse others and a “deep sense of personal and social responsibility,” knowing who they are will prepare them for their future, she said.

Joyner added that as Wittenberg tries to develop a financially sustainable model, all in higher in education must help people see through the “sound bites” and criticisms to show off the true and lasting benefits of a college education.

Jo Alice Blondin, president of Clark State Community College, said that while Clark State will continue to be a leader in online education, “we need to be intentional about what we put online” and what can be effectively taught in that format.

She said Clark State will focus on keeping its programs aligned with areas that will lead to good jobs, and it plans to sort through its 90 plus programs to determine which are the best on that score.

Blondin said one measure of education’s failure to do so is shown in the fact that just five qualified applicants are available for every 10 manufacturing jobs in the United States.

She added that the role of education in addressing that kind of need is made clear by reports that by 2020, 60 percent of jobs will require some post high school education, if not a four-year degree.

To improve its graduation rates, she said, Clark State needs to do two things. One is “to refocus the conversation” on the quality of education offered and not just the low cost of about $4,500 a year.

Also, while affordability, the ability to transfer to a four-year college and employability are goals, she said Clark State needs to “rethink the student experience” so that “rather than being baffled by the beginning” of the experience, they can see what they’ll achieve at the end.

Kirk Peterson, interim president of Urbana University, said his institution is now “much more committed to serving the needs of the community” and is “aggressively looking at regional programs” to bolster its position.

In addition to RN and bachelor’s and master’s of nursing programs, Urbana is working on accreditation of more online offerings and exploring programs in agriculture and aviation education aligned with the needs of the economy and the resource available at the city’s Grimes Field.

With 1,200 high school students involved in its programs for earning college credits, Peterson said Urbana has “students of promise” and “students that otherwise may not go to universities.”

Among the challenges for the university and its students, he said, is “just covering the costs of education. It’s still the cost. It’s still the sticker shock” that’s a barrier. He said that, contrary to its own interests, the university sometimes has to advise students to consider other alternatives.

President Karen Schuster Webb said Antioch College Midwest’s goal is “to become the a destination for the adult learner” looking to complete a bachelor’s degree or add a master’s.

One of the biggest mistakes higher education made “was to insulate itself from business and the real world,” she said, and Antioch is looking for partnerships that “bring a real world focus to our programs.”

She asked her audience to “show us those opportunities, help us understand the needs, so we can broaden the accessibility of the work force” to further education.

One of Antioch’s challenge is “help shape the expectations” of students “to the realities” of what their educations can achieve for them, she said. “Aligning those” will be an important goal.

Webb said Antioch will continue to make “leadership in change a primary focus” and to educate leaders who will “advocate for social, economic and environmental justice.”

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