Catching Up with Donald Heller

Erin Dugan, Research Unplugged Intern
April 27, 2010

Why did you go into higher education policy studies?

I started my career in higher education as an administrator, working primarily in the information technology field. After doing this for a dozen years, I got tired of it and went to graduate school, thinking I would train for some other administrative career. But instead I got turned on to teaching and doing research, and that inspired me to become a professor.

What's the biggest challenge faced by American colleges and universities?

I think the biggest challenge facing higher education in this country today is figuring out how to provide a high-quality college program in a cost-effective manner. There is a lot of focus on international competitiveness, and there is no doubt that other countries have been gaining ground on the U.S. in most measures of educational attainment. So finding a way to adequately educate more people and move them toward high-quality degrees, in an era of constrained public resources, is a key challenge.

When you're not working, how do you spend your free time?

I try to be very good at making sure that my commitment to work does not crowd out time with my wife and two daughters. I find that spending time with them is a great antidote to the pressures and time commitment my job takes. We enjoy a variety of activities together—traveling, and theater, for example. We often combine these two by going to New York City and seeing plays there. I also enjoy cooking, and playing golf and volleyball. I can also be found throwing down the gauntlet to our graduate students in the semi-annual "Don Heller Bowling Challenge," in which I donate money to our graduate student organization, the Higher Education Student Association.

What is the most interesting place you've traveled to?

I've been fortunate to travel to a number of places in the U.S. and around the world for work as well as for pleasure. I would say, though, that the most interesting place was London. I say that largely because I had the opportunity to live there with my family for five months last year when I was on sabbatical. This provided me with the chance to really get to know the city, and the British people, in a way that you normally do not when you are just visiting someplace for a short period of time.

Where do you see yourself professionally 10 years from now?

I have no clue. I've never had a set plan for myself professionally, as witnessed by a number of job and career changes I've made throughout my life. So I prefer to just remain open-minded and look at opportunities as they present themselves.


man in gray jacket stand in front of giant stones at Stonehenge

Donald Heller

Title: Professor of Education and Senior Scientist

Primary focus: Higher education policy, economics, and finance, as well as examining state, federal, and institutional policies that affect access and choice in postsecondary education

Books published:

  • Generational Shockwaves and the Implications for Higher Education
  • State Postsecondary Education Research: New Methods to Inform Policy and Practice
  • Condition of Access: Higher Education for Lower Income Students
  • You can contact Donald Heller here:
    406 Rackley Building., Univ. Park, PA
    Phone: 814-865-9756

    Last Updated April 27, 2010