Barron discusses key trends, challenges in higher education

Michael Martin Garrett
April 13, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State President Eric Barron recently discussed some of the key trends impacting higher education — such as a changing population and the need for a more inclusive environment — and how the University might respond to these challenges.

During a March 28 address titled “Key Trends, Key Decisions,” Barron examined shifting student and faculty demographics, as well as trends impacting finances and research in higher education. Although Barron noted these trends pose challenges for institutions of higher education, his analysis concluded that Penn State is well-positioned to continue to grow and thrive. The discussion was hosted by the University’s Office of Planning and Assessment.

Barron said Penn State is uniquely equipped to serve the next generation of college students, and to face challenges posed by statewide demographic shifts. Many colleges rely primarily on a single geographic region from which to draw students and face challenges as birthrates in Pennsylvania and the northeastern United States overall continue to decline. Penn State, on the other hand, draws students from a much wider geographic area thanks to its Commonwealth Campuses across Pennsylvania, as well as its high-quality programs and world-class reputation. Barron also noted that a greater number of incoming college students in the years ahead are expected to be from lower-income families, underrepresented communities, and be the first in their families to attend college.

“This means that initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion are and will continue to be vital,” Barron said. “There is no way to attract the students of the future if people don’t feel this is a welcoming, inclusive environment. It’s both a moral obligation and critical to our business model.”

Barron also shared the results of an Association of American Universities analysis of the upward mobility of students from families in the lowest 20 percent of family income. If these students only graduate high school they have only a 4 percent chance of entering the top 20 percent of family income by age 35. In contrast, if they graduate from an AAU university, they have more than a 40 percent chance of reaching the top 20 percent of family income.

“Penn State helps create that statistic,” Barron said. “It’s schools like us that are responsible for upward mobility, and we should be proud of that.”

Faculty demographics across higher education also are changing, Barron noted. Professors — especially those on the tenure track — are staying in their jobs longer. Further, because of financial constraints, universities across the nation have begun to hire more part-time and non-tenure track faculty members. Nationally, part-time faculty now represent nearly 50 percent of the faculty. In contrast, Penn State has a strong commitment to full-time faculty, with only 6 percent of credit hours taught by adjuncts. However, the University has had a growing number of fixed-term, rather than tenure-track, faculty.   

Additionally, the University’s recent voluntary retirement program was successful, enabling the hire of more than 200 new faculty members while saving about $14 million, the equivalent of a 1.1 percent tuition increase.

However, Penn State and other universities are operating in financially challenging times, as evidenced a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which cited a report that found one-third of all colleges and universities are “unsustainable.” Penn State is not in that category, but it does face difficulties with state support dwindling. Penn State is not alone in dealing with this challenge, as support for higher education nationally continues on a downward trend, even as costs — including those for energy, retirement and health care -- continue to rise.

For Barron, one of the key ways to respond to this pressure is to continue focusing on retaining and graduating students, especially by increasing access and affordability, and decreasing students’ time to graduation.

Penn State has in place seven targeted initiatives focused on improving access to and affordability of a Penn State degree, including the Pathway to Success Summer Start Program, a work-study-scholarship program designed to increase student retention; the Student Transition Experiences (STEP) program, whose focus is keeping students on schedule as they transition to the University Park campus from a Commonwealth Campus; and the establishment of a Financial Literacy and Wellness Center.

Research funding also presents a financial challenge for universities nationally, Barron said. The total available pool of federal research funding has decreased dramatically since 1970, so universities are competing for fewer total resources. At the same time, the cost of conducting research has climbed.

Despite the challenges, Penn State has continued to see success, reaching an all-time high $863 million in research expenditures in 2016-17. Barron said Penn State has the talent, expertise and resources to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment. Interdisciplinary research and innovation focused on solving enduring problems such as food and energy security, and on driving entrepreneurship and economic development in communities across Pennsylvania, are key to Penn State’s continued growth and success.

“We have to buck trends, apply and nurture the talents of our campus community, and make sure they succeed,” Barron said. “I’m very proud that Penn State has already been looking at these important factors and fitting those trends. It is critical that we continue to innovate and to think proactively about the challenges we face in higher education; about the needs of current and future students, faculty and staff; and about how we can continue to fulfill our commitment to the citizens of Pennsylvania in a challenging and dynamic environment.”

Last Updated April 19, 2018