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The Biggest Conundrums in Higher Ed

Morgan State University President David Wilson discusses why now is the time to tackle some of the major issues in higher education.
David Wilson
David Wilson teaching at HGSE's Institute for Educational Management

David Wilson, Ed.M.'84, Ed.D.'87, used college as a path out of poverty. Now, as the president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, he wants that to be the reality for other young people, too. But, for too many, getting to college and paying for college is a challenge. After 25 years in higher education leadership, President Wilson grapples with issues of access for students every day. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, he talks about why this is a pivotal time to change higher education and how to tackle issues of rising costs and other financial pressures. Wilson is a longtime faculty affiliate of HGSE's Institute for Educational Management (IEM), which celebrates its 50th anniversary with a convening this fall. 

Learn more about HGSE's Institute for Educational Management and the celebration of its 50th anniversary.


Jill Anderson: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

David Wilson used college as a path out of poverty. Now, as the president of Morgan State University, he wants that to be the reality for other children, too. But, for so many kids today, getting to college and paying for college is a challenge. After 25 years in higher education leadership, President Wilson grapples with issues of access for students and how higher education might change to better support everyone.

I talked with President Wilson about this when he came to town to address higher ed leaders at the Institute of Educational Management. He shared his thoughts about the future of higher education and why we are in such a pivotal moment to change it.

David Wilson: We are in, in my view, the most radical period of transformation in higher ed in my lifetime. Institutions, particularly small, elite private liberal arts institutions, are really struggling. But many higher-ed institutions overall are being challenged, and we are being challenged to rethink some of our academic degree programs. To rethink the relevancy of those programs, in light of what the country now is saying that it is looking for in terms of graduates coming out of our institutions ready for innovation, ready to lead in a different kind of way.

The traditional academic degrees that we have offered are being challenged. We have to think more multidisciplinary. We have to think now about new degrees at a certain level of intersectionality. It's where philosophy crosses science, where history crosses philosophy, and science, and engineering. Right at that intersection is where the new knowledge is, and it's where employers and others are saying, "These are the skills that we want in our employees." These are the skills that give rise to the creation of big ideas and more innovation.

What we are seeing is that some of the institutions are not moving fast enough to bring online some of these new degrees, be they degrees in data science, or artificial intelligence, cloud computing. How do you do that by preserving aspects of the liberal arts? That's a discussion that we must continue to have, and we must come out on the other end with a higher-ed model that will still be true to what higher ed has traditionally been at United States, which is still the model of the world. At the same time, how do we imbue our graduates now with the skills that are needed for the new economy and the new world? I think that is indeed the challenge.

At Morgan, we are undergoing this as well in implementing new academic degree programs. We are bringing online now one-year master's programs, thinking about many BS programs where students don't necessarily have to come for four years to get the baccalaureate degree.

Then, how do you connect more with high schools? You create opportunities where students can accumulate 30 credits or so of college before they even finish high school. When they get to "campus", you can almost shave off an entire year of their college-going experience. What that means, especially for the institutions that have high tuition, is that parents could save $50,000 to $100,000 because they don't have to pay that additional year of college.

We have to think more about what I call "credit for prior learning" and "stackable credentials", where we have so many students now that are swirling ... They start out at a community college back home. They take three or four credits there. Then they move to a certificate program, and they get a certificate over here. Then they move someplace else.

All of a sudden, now, they are 25 or 26. They have accumulated 30 or 40 college credits, but they have two or three certificates along the way. They show up on our campus wanting now to get the baccalaureate degree. How do we assess what they have learned already? How do we bring value to those certificates that they possess, award them college credits? Now they have 60 college credits to their name. They can get their baccalaureate degree in two years.

This is the kind of thinking that we must embrace in higher ed going forward, or else we're not going to be in a good place in about 15 to 20 years.

Jill Anderson: You're right. That's a lot of change. 10 years from now, do you just think higher ed landscapes going to look entirely different?

David Wilson: I really do. 10 years or so ago, I would not have been as certain about it, but now, yes, I think I've seen so much change. It's not going back. I'm just making my way through Jeffrey Selingo's book, I think it's Life After College. The survey data that he went over from his book was very, very arresting.

As I recall, one of the slides there he looked at, he asked a question of Generation X, the 18 to 22 year olds who were in college. The question was, "How do you get your content while you're in college?" I think, at the time, it was like 10 years ago, 75% to 80% of them said, from their professor. Then he asked that same question to the millennials, and it was like 60% to 70% of them said YouTube.

Then he further disentangled that, and indicated that many of the students would go to class, let's saw a biology class, and they are in this lecture on campus. The professor is lecturing on a topic. They are not necessarily understanding the material in the class, and so they Google that material in the class on YouTube. They pull up a lecture that some professor at another institution is giving on that same subject, and that is what they are watching while they are sitting in the biology class.

Our students are gaining content from spaces other than just professors on our campuses, and we're going to have to create, I think, climates and environments on our campuses to understand that we can't put the technology back in the bag.

Jill Anderson: Do you think we're getting anything right in higher ed?

David Wilson: I do. I see real examples every single day of institutions that are providing opportunities for first gens, first-generation college-going students. I still think higher ed is the best way to generate intergenerational mobility and to take individuals from various points in the socioeconomic sphere and move them to higher levels there.

I think HBCUs are doing a remarkable job of still enrolling 30% to 35% of first-time college-going students, and graduating those students, and sending those students on to some of the top graduate schools in the country, and great professions. I see the same thing among other minority-serving institutions, or Hispanic-serving institutions, Native-American-serving institutions, and Asia-Pacific-serving institutions, as well. I do think we're getting that right.

One of the things that worries me is the cost. With many of the students that we're serving at Morgan and at institutions ... Some of those are Morgan. They are coming from families making $50,000 a year or less. I think about 35% of my students are in that category. They don't really have the resources to enable them to get through college without accumulating a lot of loans. In this area, we find ourselves in a similar space as many other institution. We try and keep tuition low and the overall cost low, but we can't go too low because we want to keep the quality high.

Therein lies the challenge, if you will. The average student at Morgan has graduated now with about $30,000 in loan debt. It takes them a while to begin to repay that once they finish. Our tuition in state, the total cost of attendance is about $25,000, with room and board and all the fees. But, you have some institutions that are charging $45,000, $50,000 in tuition. Parents are making a calculation as to whether they want to pay that amount for their son or daughter to go to major in a discipline that, in their minds, in the minds of the parents, won't lead them to the kind of intergenerational mobility as another discipline would, perhaps at a different type of institution at a lower cost.

Therein lies the conundrum for higher ed. How do we figure that out, where we don't end up with a set of extremely elite, well-endowed institutions that are pretty much enrolling students who are coming from the upper 5%, 10% of the wealth in the country? They can go to these institutions and major in whatever they want, because the parents still view education for the common good. Those individuals most likely then end up in the leadership roles. Where we have another set of institutions that are less resource-endowed, and the students who are going there are being directed not to go into some of these disciplines that create the foundation for deep analytical thought and bold idea formation, and then they end up becoming the working class.

These are some emerging discussions that I think we'll see more of as we go along. I think they have to be carefully conducted, but I think they are urgently needed.

Jill Anderson: It seems so complex. It's almost seems impossible to solve it, the price of college.

David Wilson: There's room for public policy around this to be seriously rethought. I am hearing some creative ideas from some of the presidential candidates. I do think, at the end of the day, the United States should have some version in public policy where college is free for students who are coming from families making a certain amount of money and below. Then, the rest of the costs should be based on ability to pay.

If we don't think like that, and we see what I call the browning of America ... As America becomes browner and browner, it is also becoming poorer and poorer. The populations in the United States that are growing and will be the majority of populations in the country are also the populations with the fewest resources. Those are the populations that we as a country have to educate. Else, where will the United States be in 25 or 30 years when that population now is in its 30s and 40s, and they have been shut out of higher ed, and they are not poised to be the leaders in the country?

I certainly have called upon philanthropists to make major investments in institutions that have long histories of taking populations like that where they are, giving them everything they need to be successful, and moving them into the middle class. I do think that institutions, such as my own institution and scores of others like it, are poised to play this kind of role at a modest cost.

Jill Anderson: How often, when you do meet with students at your own institution, does the cost come up?

David Wilson: Practically every meeting.

Jill Anderson: Every single one?

David Wilson: As a matter of fact, I received, I don't know, 10 emails this morning because this is registration time. Students are getting ready now to come back to the campus for the fall. They don't have all their money together. Some of these emails will bring tears to your eyes, because the students are pouring out all of their challenges. They've had a death in the family, or their mom or dad has been laid off. The house has been repossessed. They just go on and on. They need $10,000, or they need $5,000. They are coming into that junior year, or they're coming into their senior year. If they don't get this money, they won't be able to come back.

I hear this every single day in my role as president of Morgan State University. We have an operating budget of about $270 million, and I reallocate to student financial aid more than any other institution in the state of Maryland, any other public institution. I'm reallocating back, I think it's about $25 to $30 million every year, so we can help students stay in school. Absent that, we would have many, many promising students drop out and stay out.

Jill Anderson: What do you do when you're a student who's in a situation financially that's making you question whether to pursue your degree, or continue? How do we keep those kids there?

David Wilson: What we try and do is to, first of all, put before each of these students a list of possible places where they could apply for financial assistance.

We start with the state of Maryland. Each senator in the state of Maryland, each state senator, is given a state allocation that they can use to assist students to stay in school. Students typically are not aware of it, and so we send them to their local senator if the person is from the state of Maryland. Then we send them also the list of possible scholarship opportunities.

Then what I will say as well is, send letters to your director of financial aid on the campuses. I shouldn't say this, but copy your president. Make sure that your president or chancellor is aware of what your financial need is. Don't give up. Check with your local churches, if that is a possibility for you, other social groups and civic groups in the area.

We try and point them in so many different directions to try and come up with what they need. That is really what I would say to other students who are listening, who are experiencing similar circumstances. Don't give up. Do not give up. If you are already enrolled, and you are having financial challenges, make those challenges known to the administration of the institution. Make appointments, go in, be respectful. Show what your situation is. I think, in 80% of the cases, an institution will try to do everything that it can to meet you at some point that would be reasonable.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you very much for coming in and talking with me.

David Wilson: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Jill Anderson: David Wilson is the president of Morgan State University in Baltimore. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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