Beginning this weekend students arrive at the University of Rhode Island to begin our next academic year. It’s an exciting time of year, especially for our new students and their families, but also for all of us in the URI community. We begin this new academic year in the midst of significant challenges within a rapidly changing environment. Given the magnitude and complexity of those global challenges facing us, I think that higher education has never been more important. It will be, for the most part, the current and future generations of students – that’s you – who will have to craft or discover the solutions to issues ranging from building economic prosperity to dealing with climate change. The University of Rhode Island is here to help prepare you to take on those challenges and issues.
But we can only help. Merely paying tuition and showing up does not guarantee that you will be prepared to succeed. Recently another university president was quoted in Inside Higher Ed as saying: “The debate as to whether students are our customers is over. They have money and they have a choice of where or whether to invest in a college degree. That’s the definition of a customer.” In my opinion, and with respect, he could not be more completely wrong. First, I doubt many faculty would agree that the debate is over, and with good reason. Second, students are not customers because an education is not a commodity nor a service that you can purchase. An education is not like cornflakes or help with your taxes. It would certainly be simpler if education was a commodity or a service, and perhaps that is part of the appeal for thinking about it in that way.
In reality, your education depends as much on you as on the faculty. Yes, they know a lot more about their subjects than you generally do. Collectively, they have devoted a great deal of time in continuously improving their teaching effectiveness and in creating new, relevant academic programs. In the end, however, all their efforts – all their expertise, experience, and wisdom – will not matter if you think about your education the way you do your choice of cereal, or beverage, or your nail technician. Your education is something you must actively create in partnership with the faculty. Your education will be as good, or as inadequate, as you want it to be. Make no mistake, you can get a great education at the University Rhode Island, and that is precisely what we want for each of you.
Why? Because you are our nation’s, the world’s, and the future’s greatest asset. It’s not just the University of Rhode Island’s community that believes this. The people of Rhode Island are investing over $77M this year in your education here. Thousands of URI alumni and friends have invested as well, providing scholarships and support for your education. Frankly, I think that you are so important to the future that Rhode Island and the federal government should invest even more.
Our competition certainly is. Sitting on my desk is a report entitled “The Competition that Really Matters. Comparing U.S., Chinese, and Indian Investments in the Next Generation Workforce.” It is a sobering, 100 page report from the Center for American Progress and the Center for the Next Generation. While in America we seem to be trapped by the “do more with less” mentality with regard to higher education, China and India have decided that it takes more to do more, and are rapidly increasing their investments in education at all levels. Apparently they remember, even if we seem to have forgotten, the old American adage that “you get what you pay for”. According to the report, China surpassed the United States in 2007 in the numbers of college graduates in science, engineering, and technology, and is now “the world’s largest provider of higher education.” India already awards more bachelor’s degrees than the U.S. and by 2020 will confer 4 times as many each year. That is a lot of competition in the global economy. Your opportunity to get a job and build a career will depend on how you do in that competition. Your success will drive America’s success.
That is why I think America needs to invest more, not less, in research, technology, and higher education. Your success will strengthen that case. Since there are fewer of you, you will need to be better than our competition in order to keep America strong and prosperous. I hope you enjoy your time here at the University of Rhode Island – college can, and should be, fun – but creating your education is a very serious matter. Let’s work together to make your education everything it needs to be. Welcome to URI.