THE BLOG
11/20/2014 04:07 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

We Are More Than an Ivory Tower

The documentary Ivory Tower debuts tonight on CNN, and it identifies some very real problems with higher education in this country.

As chancellor of the largest comprehensive system of higher education in the nation, I live every day worrying about how America educates its students across the entire pipeline, from kindergarten readiness through college and into career, where employer demands are continually shifting in the face of a new economy.

The film certainly paints a daunting picture: costs are high, debt is even higher, state support continues to decline, administrative expenses are on the rise, online learning is not a silver bullet, and the slowly recovering job market leaves many graduates un- or underemployed.

It is unacceptable that we -- not only as leaders of institutions of higher education, but as stewards of taxpayer dollars and educators of future leaders -- would ignore the message of Ivory Tower at our own peril.

Higher education has always been at the forefront of meeting society's most pivotal challenges. Most of our public universities stem from a bill signed by Abraham Lincoln himself in the midst of the Civil War to expand access to higher education and ensure that our universities would contribute to the economic vitality of our emerging nation. That model persevered and evolved through two World Wars, putting a man on the moon, and even the massive shift to our world with the beginning of the digital age. But today, institutions are called upon to make major adjustments across multiple sectors -- business, health care, and yes across education, especially higher education.

The story the film neglects to tell is that there are some of us -- many of us -- in higher education that are working collectively to move the dial on these critical issues.

That's why we at The State University of New York and at many public higher education systems across the country are riveted not only on access and completion, but on success, ensuring gainful employment as a consequence of a college degree.

This idea represents a long road, but we've taken important first steps in our journey. In New York, we've partnered with our Governor to ensure tuition is fair, predictable, and responsible from year to year, and that the state will hold our budgets harmless when we ask students to invest more. We're committed to financial literacy to lower student debt and help them manage it when they need it most. We've asked our campuses to reduce costs so that we can optimize the impact of dollars on learning outcomes. We're changing the dialogue around online education by lifting up only the programs that ensure quality on par with what's available on our campuses. And perhaps most excitingly, we're partnering directly with K-12, business and industry, and the philanthropic community across the state and around the world to place, train, and develop our students, providing them with hands-on experience to prepare them for the workplace.

All of this is to say that just like all of society's most pressing challenges, we can't fix higher education alone. SUNY is implementing solutions that we hope other colleges and universities can replicate across the nation to address nearly every one of the problems presented in the documentary. And if other institutions figure it out first, we'll adopt what works and bring it to scale for our nearly half a million students at 64 campuses. And we're bringing these ideas to the national level - through the White House, through our national partners like the Gates and Lumina Foundations, through organizations like the National Association of System Heads who bring academic leaders together to effectuate real change across the country.

We are not proud of The Ivory Tower -- both the implications of the phrase and the points made in the documentary that bears its name. But I am proud of the ongoing efforts of SUNY and its counterparts to return higher education to the students we serve, in support of a strong citizenry and a competitive economy. If you look at the data, there is no question that getting a college degree is worth it. Our challenge is to make a college degree work for generations to come.

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Zimpher is chancellor of The State University of New York and serves as president of the National Association of System Heads.