What Colleges Want the Public to Know

Amid the daily blast of headlines competing for attention, the public may sometimes have to search for substantive but less sensational news generated by colleges and universities.
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With the current election year, among other topics capturing headlines and media analysis, it's sometimes challenging for other newsworthy stories to receive the coverage they deserve.

A prominent example is higher education. Aside from high-profile scandals, spectacular jumps in tuition costs or significant research breakthroughs, much of the news about colleges and universities escapes the attention of the mainstream media. Not only is this news generally good, but it directly impacts families and their daily lives all across America.

As a former reporter, I know well how and why certain stories are assigned in the newsroom. As a college president, however, I also appreciate the little-publicized but substantial achievements of higher education -- as well as their related challenges -- that deserve the public's attention. Here are some examples:

Service to first-generation and at-risk students. An estimated 30 percent of all freshman college students are the first in their families to enroll in higher education, many coming from low-income backgrounds. In addition to offering plentiful financial aid, many institutions have designed special programs for the "first-generation" students, who can be at higher risk for leaving college in the early semesters. Transitional courses and specialized counseling in the freshman year, such as that offered by Bethany College, first-year learning communities and regular outreach to parents and families improve these students' prospects for success. Bethany has joined many other colleges around the nation not only in recruiting first-generation students but also forecasting their success once they are enrolled.

Affordability, however, remains a critical challenge. Uncertainty about the future of Pell Grants and other federal student aid has fueled perceptions that a four-year undergraduate experience might be out of reach financially, and lingering effects of the recession have slowed some private giving for scholarships.

Service to communities. During the last two decades, student volunteer service has transformed how many campuses interact with their communities. No longer just an extracurricular option for students, service is now an expected component of career preparation and leadership development. Last year, more than two-thirds of Bethany College students participated in some type of service activity, including projects focusing on the environment, housing and homelessness, hunger, international relief, K-12 education, mental health, tutoring, youth mentoring, services to elders and substance abuse. As a result of the College's ongoing commitment to service, the Corporation for National and Community Service recently named Bethany a national leader among institutions of higher learning for its support of volunteering, service learning, and civic engagement.

Because sustainability of volunteer initiatives can be a challenge, many campuses, such as Bethany, engage student managers for their service centers.

Engines of "greenovation." Is your business or organization committed to going green? Look to higher education for inspiration -- and practical examples of cost-effective ways to conserve resources. Over 670 higher education institutions have signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which is identifying workable campus projects to reach milestone environmental objectives -- including drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With well-developed tools of research, experimentation and operational role modeling, colleges and universities can serve as innovative resources to help provide transformational leadership to overcome global threats to the environment. "No other institution in society has the influence, the critical mass and the diversity of skills needed to be successful," says the ACUPCC.

Institutions need to budget for sustainable projects, however, and financing remains a formidable challenge to green initiatives on many campuses.

Model collaborators. Think it's impossible for anyone to get along in America today? Look to higher education for models of collaboration that increase academic options and save money for students and their institutions. Bethany's enrollment initiatives include articulation agreements with West Virginia Northern Community College and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. The College has also re-affirmed professional articulation, or "seamless study," agreements with Case Western Reserve University, Columbia University and Duquesne University, and recently developed six new areas of graduate study for Bethany students with Carnegie Mellon University. Such initiatives not only enhance Bethany's marketability and potential enrollment pool, but they also save students time and money in shopping around for convenient and affordable academic options in fields as diverse as engineering, advertising, fashion and retail management, game art and design, hotel and restaurant management and industrial or interior design.

Colleges and universities cannot be all things to everyone, though. The challenge is to focus marketing resources on programs of high enrollment yield -- responding to public demand while remaining true, as much as possible, to traditional missions.

Amid the daily blast of headlines competing for attention, the public may sometimes have to search for substantive but less sensational news generated by colleges and universities. We in the higher education industry can be proud of our contributions to effective teaching, research and service; despite the challenges we face, we can guarantee that our news will generally continue to be welcome and influential.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges during the past 22 years.

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