Higher education in America is burning. The global pandemic has lit the tinderbox of rising tuition costs, administrative bloat and a job market where a liberal arts education no longer holds the same value it once did.
The current generation of college students have lived through two “once-in-a-lifetime” economic crises and stagnating wages that have created an economy ill-suited to young people. For students, the 2008 financial crisis was a traumatic time as we watched our parents struggle to make ends meet while living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Today, only about half of Americans can expect to make more than their parents, which comes in addition to paying off increasingly steep student debt — a drawback that Americans before them did not have to face.
The situation is likely to get worse due to the excess debt incurred by young people struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.
We share an expectation and hope that Seattle University’s recently named president, Eduardo Peñalver, will expand upon the promise of professional development expressed by the university’s mission statement.
This tumultuous year has created an opportunity for Peñalver to steer the university in a different direction and rebrand the Jesuit institution for the greater benefit of its students. He must be held accountable to fulfill the promise of the Seattle U mission in order to justify the considerable cost of a Jesuit liberal arts education. Such an effort will help Seattle U to overcome the financial malaise that has plagued similar institutions.
Peñalver has shown himself to be a capable leader. His tenure at Cornell Law School demonstrated his ability to increase the efficiency of an institution of higher learning. He is now moving from a law school to a university with a larger admissions rate, and as students, we want him to address student economic insecurities and help Seattle U demonstrate that the cost of higher education is worth it.
Seattle U students are facing a tense, competitive job market amid a global pandemic. Renewing the focus on professional development will not only benefit students but enrich the reputation of the university.
A 2015 Hanover Research of higher education rebranding report noted, “developing a brand identity requires institutions to critically evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and to create strategies for improving over time.” Peñalver must invest his time and resources into strengthening the ways in which the university helps students develop professionally. Many colleges already are embracing a forward-thinking professional development model, through strengthening their engineering and business schools, for example. By bringing these approaches to all disciplines within Seattle U, Peñalver can ensure its students are prepared for today’s economy.
Peñalver must ensure that potential students view Seattle U as a school which uniquely blends Ignatian spirituality with professional mobility. Students need to feel as though the president is reachable, engaged and implementing greater opportunities for students. By hosting workshops that include faculty and students, he can identify and address each college’s needs, as well as listen to the opinions of the Seattle U community.
After decades of orthodox leadership, Peñalver has the opportunity to make needed improvements, ensuring the student body that the university’s mission is applicable and prominent as we pursue endeavors after our time as Redhawks.
Jesuit education underscores the Ignatian phrase “go forth and set the world on fire.” Fire can be an agent of destruction, but it can also make way for something new. President-elect Peñalver must be that agent of renewal and instill a reputation of academic and professional excellence.