Purdue president says relevancy of the ‘sheepskin’ must be proven for colleges to stay viable in today’s market

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels provided the keynote address at a Manley Johnson Center event in Birmingham. (TROY photo/Clif Lusk)

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels provided the keynote address at a Manley Johnson Center event in Birmingham. (TROY photo/Clif Lusk)

Higher education must show its relevance in the marketplace if it is to survive, said Purdue University President Mitch Daniels.

The former Republican two-term Indiana governor made the remark during an address to education, business and political leaders at a summit on higher education co-hosted by the Sorrell College of Business’ Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy and the American Institute for Economic Research.

“Young people have a lot of choices. They can make significant money coming out of high school or wherever they are. I think the conditions are there in a way they haven’t been. If people (in higher education) didn’t see the risk, the danger, before, they should now,” he said.

“I think there are two questions. One question is ‘will higher education, as we have known it, survive and thrive?’ My guess is that it will, but in a very different form.  Even if it will, ‘should it?’ Yes, absolutely, but it will need to evolve to ensure the viability we need it to have,” Daniels said.

Daniels suggested that changing market conditions, a shift in earning potential for students, and changing educational practices brought about by the pandemic have combined to force a change in how American higher education operates.

Daniels outlined three challenges that higher education must address collectively in order to remain relevant and demonstrate value in the “sheepskin.”

“The fundamental challenge is economic: value. At Purdue we have prioritized student affordability,” he said, noting that as a land-grant institution, Purdue has a responsibility to “keep open the doors of higher education to the middle class . . . making it affordable and accessible to young people of every income level.”

In fact, after a 36-year string of increases, Purdue enacted a series of tuition freezes in 2013 and has cut room and board costs by five percent resulting in an overall decrease in the cost of attendance since Daniels took the presidency. A first-of-its-kind partnership with online retailer Amazon.com is saving students an average of 31 percent per year in textbook costs. As a result of these measures, annual student borrowing has dropped 32 percent and over the course of Daniels’ time in the administration, students have saved a billion dollars in tuition and fees versus what they would have paid had the school continued to raise rates. The university has grown by 30 percent during Daniels’ tenure – a growth Daniels largely attributes to the affordability of the university.

Added to those measures is an alternative to financing the costs of higher education based on a student’s income level after graduation. The “income share agreement” builds “equity not debt” for the student investment and Daniels calls the plan a superior alternative to expensive supplemental financing such as the Parent PLUS loan.

Along with affordability – stability in costs being partly responsible for its growth – is a focus on quality academics.

“What you teach matters, and the rigor with which you teach it,” he said.

An academic focus in technology, STEM-related disciplines, a core “great books” reading program dubbed “Cornerstone,” and a focus on building student earning potential has strengthened the value of a Purdue degree.

“Economic value isn’t everything. It is not the only reason why a young person and their family should undertake the expense and difficulty of pursuing college as we have known it,” he said. “We are not only supposed to be producing people who can contribute economically to the life of the country, but citizens.”

College graduates should be ready to be informed and responsible citizens of a self-governing country, Daniels said.

“Set philosophy and ideology aside. Set even Constitutional liberties aside for a moment. Think about the essence of the higher education assignment: the advancement and transmission of knowledge. We expect faculty to expand the boundaries of knowledge – scientific or otherwise – and sharing that effectively with young minds,” he said. “Therefore, the freedom of inquiry, the collision of ideas and not only the acceptance but the celebration of dissidence and contrarian thinking is at the heart of the advancement of knowledge.”

“Where everybody thinks the same thing, knowledge is static. The failure to protect and promote different ideas to be heard and debated and tested – it’s a violation of our Constitutional rights, but it is also a violation of our central mission as an academic enterprise,” Daniels said.

To that end, the Purdue board of trustees adopted the “Chicago Principles,” a set of guiding principles first instituted at the University of Chicago to demonstrate a commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of expression on college campuses. Purdue students are also required to pass a civics test after having pursued one of three preparatory tracks in civics.

“Our grads should at least know not just the rules-of-the-road in our Republic, but why – why are powers separated, why did we choose a federal system – answers to questions like that,” Daniels said. 

“If we (higher education) are to deserve to continue, we have to do better,” he said.

The keynote speech in Homewood’s Valley Hotel kicked off a day-long program that included two panel discussions.

In the first panel, entitled “Changing the Culture of Higher Education,” Dr. Clara Jace Piano, Assistant Professor in Samford’s Department of Economics, Finance and Quantitative Analysis, led the discussion with panelists Dr. Phil Magness, Senior Research Fellow at AIER, Jon Chisholm, President of John Chisholm Ventures and past president and chair of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alumni Association, and Dr. John Tomasi, President Heterodox Academy.

“Changing the Financial Model of Higher Education” was the focus of the day’s second panel, moderated by Dr. Lenore Ealy, Vice President of Guatemala’s Universidad Francisco Marroquin. Joining her on the panel were University of Austin President Dr. Pano Kanelos, Neetu Arnold, Senior Research Association at the National Association of Scholars, and Dr. Jennifer Dirmeyer, Chief Accreditation Officer and Managing Director at Workforce Talen Educators Association.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels takes questions from the floor following a keynote address in Birmingham. (TROY photo/Clif Lusk)
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels takes questions from the floor following a keynote address in Birmingham. (TROY photo/Clif Lusk)