In his State of the University address last week, Luis Proenza reminded that in January he will begin his 15th year as the president of the University of Akron. Fittingly, he pointed to the many accomplishments, notably, the transformation of the campus, the commuter school giving way to a university community. Most striking has been the way the university has engaged the community surrounding the campus, pushing for change in an aging industrial region in need of the new.
The university hasn’t been alone in the impetus. Consider the efforts of Mayor Don Plusquellic and the city of Akron to drive economic activity. Then, there is the private sector, from Goodyear and FirstEnergy to the leading hospital systems to smaller companies pursuing innovation, the likes of Akron Polymer Systems. For its part, the university has become a wide-ranging partner. A short list of endeavors includes the University Park Alliance, the Austen BioInnovation Institute, the UA Research Foundation, the new Timken Engineered Surfaces Laboratory and the new STEM high school with the Akron Public Schools.
Thirty years ago, the city’s leaders talked about spanning the tracks, linking the university with downtown and beyond. In many ways, the heavy traffic in knowledge and ideas now travels both ways, the university such a critical component in the community as a whole.
What Proenza also reminded in his talk is that the university has a first purpose — higher education. A persistent problem for the city, region and state has been the smaller share of college graduates. The thinking isn’t that everyone must get a degree. That isn’t going to happen, not with the current share of Ohioans at roughly 25 percent.
The aim is that more of us gain degrees, or some level of education and training above high school. That makes for a more talented and attractive work force, or a community better positioned for the competition of the knowledge economy.
In that way, the university has responded with its “pathways” to student success, organizing more effectively around the needs of individual students. On Tuesday, the Ohio Board of Regents unveiled the recommendations of a task force that looked closely at improving the completion rate. It builds on the solid work of the Ted Strickland era. It requires that each college or university craft its own credible plan for delivering more graduates.
Yet for all the promise of such initiatives, one item still receives too little attention: what to do about the heavy burden of college tuition and other expenses, students and their families piling up debt. To be sure, that requires efficiencies and savings on the part of universities, even the symbolic skipping of bonuses by presidents and vice presidents. What has been missing is sufficient public money targeted at higher education to ease the steep rise in college costs.
To repeat, Ohio today spends in real dollars roughly the same on higher education as it did three decades ago — all while higher education has become an even greater priority.