Progress at YSU has not occurred without challenges and sacrifices

It has been a pleasure and an honor serving as president of Youngstown State University over the course of the last two and a half years. The support of the public, students, faculty, staff, alumni and the board of trustees is much appreciated, and Ellen and I look forward to building on the university’s many successes.

It’s clich , yes, but it’s true: We have accomplished much, but there’s a lot of work left to be done.

The positive indicators are many: enrollment up for the first time in six years; incoming freshmen with the highest GPAs and ACT scores in the university’s history; residence halls at capacity; nearly 600 beds of additional private student apartments in the works; plans to construct a new Barnes & Noble student bookstore on Fifth Avenue; a record $20.5 million in private gifts; a boost to A+ in our Standard and Poor’s credit rating; and, for the first time in five years, an operating budget without a structural deficit.

While there is excitement about the progress, it has not occurred without challenges and sacrifice. Many positions that have naturally become vacant have not been filled. The work has been accomplished with less personnel. Our staff employees and part-time faculty have not had a pay raise in some time. People are being asked to do more and to develop new and more efficient ways to accomplish excellence. It has certainly created adjustments across campus, as reflected in the recent campus climate survey.

While the internal campus challenges are real, the biggest pressures on universities, not just YSU but across Ohio and the nation, come from outside. Smaller state budgets and limited funding have been the norm. Online degrees and courses have changed the landscape of higher education, and some great institutions like Stanford and Harvard are even offering free internet classes or MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. In this decade alone, higher education’s transformation has accelerated significantly.

Another major pressure point: 44 million Americans owe a combined $1.3 trillion in student-loan debt. Individuals age 20 to 30 have an average monthly student loan payment of $351. Think of this burden for a young person coming out of college, trying to start a career, or maybe a family. Even more concerning is the negative impact that student debt has on the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of our young people.

Recent data informs us that the number of high school graduates in Ohio will decline by 11 percent over the next 15 years. That comes at a time when we need more college- educated individuals in the workforce. Analysts predict that by 2025, 65 percent of working-age adults in Ohio will need a postsecondary degree to meet the workforce needs of the state’s employers. Unfortunately, at the current rate, only 43 percent of working-age Ohioans will attain the needed degree by 2025, a gap of 1.7 million. Our universities must be the major catalyst for the attainment of this 65 percent goal.

So, the challenges come from many angles. In this ever-evolving universe of higher education, it is vital for an institution like YSU to accelerate its progress and to remain constantly vigilant, forward-thinking and ahead of the curve. Inside that multi-layered and complex whirlwind of activity, it may at times seem confusing and unsettling to some. But, those who stand still will surely get passed by. As Martin Luther King said, “He who gets behind in a race must forever stay behind, or run faster than the man ahead of him.”

Happy Holidays to all, and a blessed 2017.

James P. Tressel is president of Youngstown State University.

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