College cost, access remain top challenges in private higher education, presidents say

Elon President Leo M. Lambert was joined by the presidents of Duke University, Wake Forest University, Davidson College, Bennett College and Guilford College at the Governor Morehead Forum. 

Elon University President Leo M. Lambert and leaders from five other private institutions in North Carolina say they are working hard to ensure that higher education is affordable and accessible to a broad spectrum of students. But while schools and families are challenged by the cost of college, they say there is no doubt about the value of a quality higher education.

Elon President Leo M. Lambert, right, speaks as Duke University President Richard Brodhead, left, and moderator D.G. Martin listen on during the Gov. Morehead Forum on Sept. 12.
Lambert was joined on Sept. 12 by the presidents of Duke University, Wake Forest University, Davidson College, Bennett College and Guilford College for the Governor Morehead Forum, which is sponsored by Preservation Greensboro Inc. The panel discussion, moderated by D.G. Martin of North Carolina BookWatch, focused on the challenges facing North Carolina private colleges and universities.

Lambert said universities like Elon want to make a college education as accessible to as broad a range of American society as possible. “College is unquestionably worth it,” Lambert said. “If you look at the data, and think about it not only in the terms of living a meaningful and purposeful life, but also the economic gains that one accrues, college is worth it, indisputably.”

The six presidents discussed common issues they are facing, including how to build a student body that reflects the diversity of the broader society, and how to craft a curriculum that helps prepare students to succeed in their careers, serve their communities and be engaged in their communities. The cost of providing such an environment and education remains a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, the presidents said. 

The Gov. Morehead Forum featured the presidents of Bennett College, Davidson College, Duke University, Elon University, Guilford College and Wake Forest University and was moderated by D.G. Martin. 
Duke University President Richard Brodhead said higher education leaders need to do a better job of helping the public understand the difference between the cost of higher education and the value. The goal is to create campus communities that bring together students from a range of backgrounds. 

“What we really don’t want is for American universities to become enclaves … (open) only to people of certain income levels,” Brodhead said. 

Lambert said private colleges and universities need to recognize the responsibility they have to not only make higher education accessible to high school students, but to help cultivate their talents and develop those students as models for younger students. Elon programs such as the Elon Academy, a college access program, and the It Takes a Village Project, a literacy program for children, are two good examples of ways that universities can partner with K-12 education. 

Lambert said that too many students are being lost along the way, before they even have the opportunity to pursue a college education. Higher education institutions have an obligation to help support them on their path to finishing high school and preparing for what’s next, he said. 

“The education pipeline in this country is leaking very badly,” Lambert said. “It is the business of independent institutions of higher education, including all of us on the stage here tonight, to be engaged in thinking about what our role is in making sure that more kids are ready for kindergarten, to make sure that students who are in third grade are able to read, to make sure we are helping ninth graders who are thinking about dropping out to stay in school.”

Davidson College President Carol Quillen echoed the idea that private colleges and universities have an obligation to serve more than just those students enrolled on their campuses, saying that education is “a public good in which all of us have a huge investment.”

“We have to do a better job of leading the public debate about the value of education, and how together we are going to ensure that our children have access to the education … that we need them to have in order for us to thrive as a country,” Quillen said. 

The panel also discussed how to integrate college athletics into the broader academic experience, how to cultivate understanding of a variety of faith backgrounds on campus, and the importance of a curriculum that brings together multiple disciplines.

In addition to Lambert, Brodhead and Quillen, the other presidents participating in the forum included Nathan Hatch of Wake Forest University, Phyllis Worthy Dawkins of Bennett College and Jane Fernandes of Guilford College.