#NACAC20: Pandemic Spurs Changes in Higher Ed

In times of great crisis, America has depended on higher education to help bring stability to the nation. The Morrill Act of 1862, which established land grant colleges, was enacted during the Civil War. Decades later, Congress passed the G.I. Bill to assist World War II servicemen.

A panel of US college presidents told attendees at this week’s 2020 NACAC Virtual Conference that universities can play a similar role amid the coronavirus crisis. But colleges must adapt, and state and federal dollars are necessary to reach all those in need of support.

“In every moment of great strife and challenge in our nation…America leaned back into educating its citizens and used higher education as a force for good and a force for change,” said Daniel G. Lugo, president of Queens University of Charlotte (NC). “It is important that we not cede ground on what is right about us because, if we do that, we’ll never ever, ever get state governments or the federal government to think of us as a place to make more equitable investments.”

“…We do need to improve, we do need to be more self-conscious and aware,” Lugo added during the discussion, which was moderated by education journalist and author Jeff Selingo. “But too often we cede ground on how good we actually are.”

Higher education can continue to be a vehicle for social mobility in these unprecedented times, but colleges need to change their approach, according to fellow panelists Alexander N. Cartwright, president of the University of Central Florida, and Shirley Collado, president of Ithaca College (NY).

The coronavirus crisis has jumpstarted efforts to deliver more coursework online, Cartwright said. That work needs to continue, even after the pandemic has passed. The number of traditionally aged college students continues to decline, and colleges need to do more to reach learners of all ages and at all stages in their careers, he said. Quality online degree or certificate programs are one way to do that, Cartwright noted.

Colleges also need to reflect and celebrate the country’s increasing diversity in their curriculum and faculty composition, Collado said.

“Ultimately students want to know: Do you see me clearly? Will my people be there? Will I belong? And do you believe in my ability?” she explained. “Anything that we can do to widen that pathway and the psychology of what it takes to enter college with that kind of affirmation is really important.”

Recordings of all conference sessions will be available for purchase through Playback now. Registered attendees can view conference content on-demand for free until Oct. 31. All sessions will be available to registered attendees 24 hours after the session occurs.

Mary Stegmeir is a freelance writer and editor. She formerly served as NACAC’s assistant director for editorial content and outreach.

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