Thursday September 28, 2006

Shaping Ohio's Future

In an op-ed piece, University of Dayton President Daniel J. Curran argues that Ohio's candidates for governor are missing an important piece of the Ohio higher education equation if they discount the role the state's private universities play in educating Ohio's future workforce.

Op-Ed

By Daniel J. Curran

President, University of Dayton

(This op-ed appeared in the Dayton Daily News on Sept. 25, 2006.)

I applaud the effort of the Dayton Daily News and papers across the state to address key issues in the gubernatorial race. Ohio higher education is important to the state's future, but in a recent package of op-ed pieces missed an important piece of the equation — the role of private universities and colleges. Ohio's private schools annually award about 35 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the state.

As employers and lawmakers talk about the urgent need to recruit more students into science, engineering and math fields, Ohio's private institutions in 2004 conferred 54 percent of all bachelor's degrees in physics, nearly half in math and chemistry (49 percent, 48 percent respectively), 43 percent in computer science and 42 percent in biology. Cognizant of the need for Ohio students to be equipped to succeed in a global workplace, Ohio private universities granted 40 percent of all foreign language degrees in 2004.

On all campuses in the state, educators are talking about the need to enroll academically qualified, economically disadvantaged students. Ohio's private institutions enroll nearly equal percentages of these students when compared to public universities in the state. Ohio's private universities took the early lead in developing the new Ohio College Opportunity Grant that will help the state meet its goal of educating more Ohioans. Starting this fall, the new program offers two key benefits to needy Ohioans: a fairer analysis of student need which uses the same methodology as federal Pell Grants, as well as larger awards of financial aid.

Conversation needs to be refocused on harnessing all of the state's higher education resources - public and private - to increase the number of graduates and improve the state's economy. While Case Western Reserve University and Wilberforce University received nominal mentions in Sunday's editorial pieces, officials at these two prestigious private institutions would probably be the first to state that they represent only a fraction of the impact of Ohio's more than 50 private universities and colleges.

This is not an invitation or a call for a more regulatory role for all higher education in Ohio. Rather, it is a call to think beyond the state-run system when addressing higher education strategies and funding. To its credit, the state of Ohio, through the Third Frontier Program, has been doing just that by leveraging the research strengths of all Ohio's universities. The University of Dayton, nationally known for its research prowess, is a lead or partner on a number of these initiatives, many in partnership with public universities such as The Ohio State University, the University of Akron and Wright State University.

When Thomas Suddes, the Plain Dealer's former legislative reporter, writes about Ohio's three research institutions, he comes up a little short. Once Ohio's medical research is factored out, National Science Foundation publications confirm only Ohio State performs more scientific and engineering research than the University of Dayton. The University performs more than $70 million in sponsored research annually. In addition, the University of Dayton and Case Western have played a key role in the the redesign of the state's Innovation Incentive program, which is charged with enhancing economic growth through knowledge creation, especially sponsored research.

When Suddes recommends consolidating offerings - specifically merging Central State University and Wilberforce University - he misses the importance of the mission and the rich history of these two historically black institutions.

Ohio's universities collaborate in numerous ways. Most notably, the Dayton Area Graduate Studies Institute (DAGSI) leverages the faculty, equipment and curricular strengths of private and public schools along with the Air Force Institute of Technology to make Ohio a leader in graduate engineering education. Founded in 1994, DAGSI also helped keep military facilities and talent in Ohio during the recent Base Realignment and Closure hearings.

Unfortunately, too many higher education conversations focus solely on reducing the cost of higher education at Ohio's public universities. The conversation is consumed with how to increase state funding, gain academic and administrative efficiencies and reduce Ohio's average tuition. The affordability and accessibility of a college education are major concerns for families. However, we should not downplay the kinds of new strategies that will create a better competitive environment for attracting and retaining students, ensure that state funding follows student demand and develop an economic base to carry Ohio through the 21st century.

The newspaper articles focused on state schools where two-thirds of Ohio's college students study. Let's not be short-sighted by ignoring the role both public and private schools play in preparing students for Ohio's workplace.