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VOL. 127 | NO. 253 | Friday, December 28, 2012

Degrees of Difficulty

Local education leaders discuss changing face of higher learning

By Bill Dries

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Leaders of the city’s five higher education institutions say they are all grappling with the issue of relevance in a changing world and economy as they compete for students with missions that make them different from one another.

CBU president John Smarrelli, from left, Brenda Smith of Southwest Tennessee Community College and Rhodes College president Bill Troutt spoke recently at a BRIDGES Inc. forum on education.

(Photos Courtesy of BRIDGES)

The presidents of Christian Brothers University, Rhodes College and LeMoyne-Owen College were joined on the BRIDGES Inc. panel this month by top administrators from the University of Memphis and Southwest Tennessee Community College for the latest “Justice Forum Luncheon” sponsored by the youth leadership organization.

CBU president John Smarrelli said all of post-secondary education in the U.S. is in an “incredible time of change and transition.”

“There’s a sense of affordability,” he said. “That’s one of the largest challenges we face: How do parents afford a private school or a public school education for their sons and daughters? Where are the resources that they can come up with?”

Several of the leaders said despite a very real competition for students, the higher education environment in Memphis is not as “cutthroat” as it is in other places.

Rhodes College president Bill Troutt leads a small private liberal arts college that recruits and attracts students nationally. Rhodes is one of only five or six such colleges based in a city or a large urban area.

LeMoyne-Owen College president Johnnie Watson admits his board of trustees debates raising entrance requirements for the city’s only historically black college, which is marking its 150th anniversary.

“If you were to ask me what does it take, what are your entrance requirements to get into college, I would be just as evasive as I was when I was answering questions when I was superintendent of (Memphis City) schools,” Watson said. “Historically black colleges have existed to allow students into our institutions that could not get into other institutions. … While we do that … LeMoyne-Owen College does not dumb down the curriculum.”

Smarrelli puts the average debt range per student of the five Memphis institutions at approximately $20,000, which compares favorably to the national average of $26,600 for the class of 2011, as calculated by an October study of the Institute for College Access and Success.

The same report showed 2011 college graduates faced an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent compared to a 19.1 percent rate for those with only a high school diploma.

“Convincing the public that there is a value to higher education, that there is a return on investment from higher education – that’s something that doesn’t seem to come out of our society as much as I would like to see it happen,” Smarrelli said.

LeMoyne-Owen College president Johnnie Watson, right, was among leaders of local colleges who spoke at a BRIDGES forum on education. 

Troutt specifically cited the offer of $100,000 by Paypal founder Peter Thiel to 24 people under the age of 20 to drop out of college for two years and start companies.

“I just talked a person out of it,” Troutt said. “If you are brilliant and you are brilliant in a particular technology area and you come from a wealthy family and you are socially connected and you are a white male – maybe. But that’s a terrible disservice to think that you can lift up a microscopic percentage and think that is going to be a ticket for you.”

Meanwhile, David Cox, executive assistant to University of Memphis president Shirley Raines, said colleges and universities have to work harder to be relevant and can’t get stuck in training students just for jobs that currently exist.

“I think higher education has to struggle with figuring out just what it is to focus on to be relevant for that preparation,” he said. “At times when things changed more slowly that wasn’t an issue. It’s a major challenge.”

Southwest Tennessee Community College is known for the courses it has created specifically to train workers rapidly for the new jobs at Electrolux and Blues City Brewery, two of the most recent economic development plums that have come to Memphis in the last two years.

Brenda Smith, academic coordinator of the college, said at least an associate’s degree is necessary for the manufacturing sector whose jobs require more technical skills among fewer workers than they once did. Those are workers who in the past went straight from high school to the workforce with no stop on a college campus.

“A college education has become an academic necessity,” she said. “If we significantly increase the participation in high quality post secondary education … we should spur additional growth, helping employers create new jobs.”

The delivery method for higher education is also changing, Cox said.

“How does that fit with the old model of having people sitting around the classroom listening to somebody up in the front be an expert,” he asked. “I expect within 10 years, the structure of our institutions will be different. The structure of our whole system will be different.”

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