President Janet Morgan Riggs announces plans for improved sustainability efforts

“Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs talked to the Student Senate recently about plans for improving the college’s sustainability efforts. The school has raised $86 million so far in its efforts to meet its goal.” (Photo Credit: gettysburg.edu)

By Bethany Holtz, MS&T Editor

Earlier in the month The Gettysburgian was granted an interview with President Riggs following her recent talk with the student senate regarding Gettysburg’s plans for the future. As President Riggs outline, in order to ensure that Gettysburg continues to maintain a premier educational institution in a rapidly changing economy, the school has engaged in a campaign geared towards providing sustainable excellence. To date, the school has raised over $86 million in cash and commitments to meet this objective.

Below is the full Q&A transcript of President Riggs interview with The Gettysburgian.

Is the traditional liberal arts education a quaint ideal that doesn’t fit into the 21st century culture of getting a marketable degree that can help the graduate make money?

I think a liberal arts education has never been more relevant than it is today.  Today’s graduates are moving into a fast-changing world.  Many will change careers multiple times, and some will eventually land in careers that don’t even exist yet. The value of the liberal arts is that what you’re learning is transferable from job to job and career to career.  A liberal arts education teaches you to be a critical thinker, to communicate effectively both orally and in writing, and to solve complex problems using a variety of approaches.  A Gettysburg education also focuses on global interconnection, an understanding of and appreciation for a diversity of cultural perspectives, and a sense of social responsibility. Surveys of CEOs indicate that the skills and habits that we teach in a liberal arts setting are exactly what many of them are looking for when they hire employees.  A liberal arts education really is the most versatile education available.

Although I would never want to measure the worth of someone’s career by their salary, it’s clear that our graduates are doing well.  94% of the Class of 2013 was employed and/or in graduate school within a year of their graduation.  The recent Payscale survey shows that the average salary of a Gettysburg graduate is quite competitive.

I want to add that a liberal arts education prepares our students for active and responsible civic lives as well, and I think this is also of critical importance.

As the president of a liberal arts school are you concerned that colleges are morphing into “trade schools” where students go to learn a profession rather than use the liberal arts undergraduate experience to “learn how to learn and think”?

One of the greatest characteristics of American higher education is the diversity of opportunity.  There are trade schools, community colleges, opportunities for part-time students, large university settings, on-line opportunities—and residential liberal arts colleges. This richness of opportunity is, as far as I know, unique to American higher education.  Different people have different goals as they go on to college or get training for a particular job.  I think that everyone can benefit from a liberal arts education, but not everyone is looking for that.  I don’t see trade schools replacing the liberal arts experience—they both contribute something valuable.

Is it possible to create a curriculum that combines the best of both worlds (liberal arts education + prepare for a specific career) by incorporating professional skills into the traditional liberal arts education? Any examples?

This is an area where Gettysburg College has really advanced over the last few years.  Our Career Development Center has done a fantastic job of connecting alumni and parents to our current students to give them some professional experiences through job shadowing, externships, and internships.  I also think that our academic program is teaching the most important “professional skills”—problem-solving, writing, making a presentation, and so on.  Of course, there are some colleges that offer a particular professional degree that is paired with a liberal arts education.  For example, Bucknell, Lafayette, and Swarthmore offer engineering degrees.  Gettysburg offers engineering as part of a dual degree program.  Different colleges will obviously offer different programs, and students should be sure the college they choose will help them to fulfill their goals.

What are your thoughts about the so-called “unschooling” movement occasionally described in the media? The proponents of unschooling say college doesn’t prepare students for the real world. College is about memorizing facts, following directions. Or they dispute the value of the college experience as a way to make valuable connections toward career or future aspirations when that can be obtained via LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.  Your reaction?

I’m not an expert on the unschooling movement.  My understanding is that it is a particular method of homeschooling that pretty much follows the child’s interests.

Obviously college is not just about memorizing facts.  As I said earlier, a liberal arts education is about learning to think critically, use multiple approaches in solving problems, understand connections between disciplines, communicate effectively, etc.

Certainly at Gettysburg we help students facilitate career connections by helping to connect our students with alumni and parents through job shadowing, externship, and internship experiences.  Our Center for Career Development helps our students connect with the Gettysburg network.  In fact, over 70% of our recent graduates reported that the Gettysburg network of alumni, faculty, staff, and parents was helpful in finding employment.

In your talk to the Senate you mentioned “Return on Investment.” At $60,000 isn’t the traditional liberal arts education a frivolous luxury when what students really need is a return on investment in terms of well-paying careers to pay off their six-figure college debt? Student tuition debt has been generating headlines. Does it trouble you that young people are getting into a deep debt hole for a liberal arts education that may force them to forego starting a family, buying a home, or pursuing additional education such as graduate degrees?

I will be the first to admit that a Gettysburg College education is expensive.  It’s expensive because it’s a 24-7 highly personalized experience.  The opportunities available to Gettysburg College students are enormous, and I hope that every student is making the most out of those opportunities during their four years.  I also need to point out that only about 30% of our students pay the full cost of a Gettysburg education, and about 70% are receiving financial aid at various levels.  We are committed to making a Gettysburg education possible for qualified students who want to come here, even if they can’t afford it.

43% of last year’s graduating class graduated without loans.  Of those who did have loans, the average amount borrowed was about $27,000.  That’s a significant number, but I don’t think it’s a crippling number.   It’s in the new car range.  The Payscale survey I referred to indicates our graduates are making, on average, $47,600 within a few years of their graduation.  I recognize that averages don’t tell the whole story, but my point is that we try to work closely with students so that they don’t graduate with overwhelming amounts of debt and that they understand just how much debt they will have.  And our students are finding success employment-wise.

Going back to the unschooling concept, what argument do you make to the suggestion that young people should take the $60,000 tuition money and instead use it to create a start-up company and really learn a field rather than just gain “book knowledge”?

There are certainly examples of young people who have dropped out of college and made millions.  But frankly, these are the rare exceptions.  The research shows over and over again that college graduates make far more money over their life-times than do those without a college education.  I should also note that here at Gettysburg we encourage student entrepreneurship—whether it’s support for students who are starting new clubs, organizations, or activities or whether it’s the entrepreneurial fellowship competition that we began last year, and which I expect will grow given the student interest in it.

Do you ever think about the student (or their family, depending on who is paying the bill) in the context as “the customer” and you as the CEO of a service-providing business? Put another way, should students think about themselves as the customer and have an expectation of service from the faculty and staff?

In many ways, running a college is like running a business.  However, I think we lose something if we think about it as simply an exchange of money for a service.  Gettysburg College is a community.  I suppose we could think of our students as customers, but I think of our students as learners, as young people who are developing personally and intellectually.  Our mission is not about making money; our mission is to prepare young people to have positive impact as engaged citizens and professionals.

Can you break down for me in at least approximate percentages what the tuition dollar pays for?  For example, X% covers faculty salaries, X% for other staff, X% energy costs, X% facilities, X% new construction, X% marketing/recruitment/admissions, X% food, X% taxes?

Tuition dollars contribute to our budget, but there are other sources of revenue as well.  You can see the sources of revenue in the pie chart I presented at the Senate meeting.

With regard to expenses, if you include financial aid as an expense, about 28% of our budget is directed to financial aid; 42% to faculty and staff compensation; 11% to general operating expenses; 10% to utilities, insurance, and some other miscellaneous items; 4% to facilities; and 4% to debt service.

Does the College earn a profit margin on tuition revenue?

No—in fact, tuition revenue does not come close to covering all of our costs.  Our comprehensive fee only covers about 80% of what we spend in a year.  We count on funds from our endowment and on gifts from our donors to balance our budget every year.  We also run conferences and other events on our campus in the summer, which generate revenue in support of our student experience during the academic year.

I assume energy is a big line item in the Collge’s costs. You were asked at the Senate meeting about self-generating power. Any specific plans like solar or wind power?

On average, the Colleges spends about 2% of its annual operating budget on electricity and natural gas.  At our current consumption levels, investing in our own power generation would not be cost effective.  However, we have partnered with an outside firm that generates solar energy.  Under this arrangement, the firm has placed its solar panels on the roof of the Jaeger Center, and we purchase the electricity they produce at below market rates.  In addition, we continue to invest in lighting and other upgrades that reduce our electricity use, including new lighting in the Field House that the Gettysburgian reported on earlier this semester.

Candidly, what keeps you up at night as President of Gettysburg College?

Quite candidly, our students’ safety and well-being.   It’s really that basic.

Bethany, I wanted to add some information in addition to these answers related to the content of the Student Senate presentation.  We are in a process right now of working to assure sustainable excellence into our future—that is, to assure the sustainability of an excellent education for our students even in the face of a challenging economic climate.  This involves assuring a strong resource base.  We are in a comprehensive campaign for Gettysburg and have raised over $86 million so far in cash and commitments.  The most important priority of this campaign is to raise funds for scholarship support. We want to be sure that we can continue to provide strong financial assistance to the students who need it.  As part of this process, we are also reviewing what we do here to determine if there are things we could do differently or more efficiently, and if there are some things we could stop doing altogether.  Examples I gave at the Senate meeting included expanding college computer lives from 4 years to 5, using more cloud-based services, collaborating with local partners and other colleges to reduce costs.  For example, we are in the process of shifting our purchasing card program into a consortium that will allow a higher percent rebate to the College for our purchases.

As part of this process, I’ve asked students to assist in a few ways. First—and this is something I always ask of students—be great ambassadors for Gettysburg College.  Share the experiences you have had here, represent us well to the public, and help us recruit excellent students.  Second, I would ask students to think carefully about their organizational budgets, determine what things are of highest priority, and consider ways of collaborating and sharing resources with other organizations.  Finally, I am always interested in hearing our students’ ideas about how we might reduce expenses.

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Author: Isabel Gibson Penrose

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