Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Changes at YSU: Still Up in the Air

Change, it seems, is a constant in higher education, and YSU seems almost always to be just about to make some kind of big change. This week, I’m talking with YSU Board of Trustees member Harry Meshel, about how YSU and the local community might be affected by a report from the Northeast Ohio Universities Collaboration & Innovation Study Commission, which includes, among other things, a call to “explore the creation of a Mahoning Valley community college.” Because of Meshel’s long history with the University and with state and local politics, I asked him to comment on the Commission’s recommendations and the future of YSU in general.

Meshel brings a unique perspective, in part based on his own memories of attending YSU full time while also working in the open hearth in a local steel mill. He also taught at YSU, on and off for about 20 years. He worries that higher education has gotten a bit soft, that students aren’t struggling enough, and that we focus too much attention on frills, like the wellness center. No doubt, I see more students today who have the privilege of not working while they go to school, I also work with many who are working every bit as hard as Meshel did when he was a student. Of course, those students are usually not the ones using the wellness center. I worry that balancing work, family life, and school too often means that education is the thing that’s easiest to let slide. Given the choice between taking care of a sick child or responding to a boss’s request that you work an extra shift, it’s hard to put school work first. But that always comes at a cost.

Meshel sees two promising things emerging from the Commission report. The first is the recommendation not to change the structure of the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (NEOUCOM). As Meshel explains, not only does the current program work, but expanding it meets current economic needs. There are jobs for health care workers in this area and elsewhere.

Meshel also likes the report’s call for a community college. People at YSU have been talking about this for more than two years, and the commission report brings us no closer to real strategies. It simply recommends exploring the idea; it does not yet suggest how to turn the idea into reality. Nonetheless, Meshel thinks that a community college might be able to serve the training needs of area businesses more efficiently and effectively than the University can. Some of that has to do with accreditation: a community college might be able to have students focus more of their time on specific workplace skills and rely more on part-time faculty or instructors who don’t have Ph.D.s.

In part because the community college is still more an idea than a concrete plan, we don’t yet know what it will accomplish. For me, the idea raises several questions:

  • What role will YSU’s faculty, administrators, staff, and students play in creating the new college?
  • How will a community college, which plans suggest could set tuition much lower than YSU, affect enrollment and academic programs at YSU?
  • How will a community college achieve that lower tuition rate?
  • Would the option of a local community college increase the number of people pursuing higher education in our region? Or would it encourage them to settle for a 2-year degree instead of getting a bachelors? And how would that affect long-term economic opportunities in the area?

I don’t necessarily oppose the idea. I’ve been an advocate of better education for first-generation and working-class students for well over a decade. But I am frustrated that at this point in the discussion, we still know so little. I keep hearing conversations on campus about how the community college will change things, but this is a change that seems to be permanently in the wind, not yet reaching the ground.

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