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Restoring Ohio's Heritage in Higher Education

Journey to a world-class education system
University Business, Nov 2008

THE EROSION WAS SO gradual that many of us failed to notice until great damage had already been done.

Ohio, with two of the first colleges west of the Alleghenies established within six years of its birth in 1803, has long valued higher education, providing direct support to its public universities for more than 130 years and welcoming dozens of private institutions with a rich variety of religious and secular missions. At the dawn of the last century, Ohio was the era’s Silicon Valley, home to men like Wilbur and Orville Wright, automotive inventors Charles F. Kettering and John H. Patterson, and innovative public works engineer Arthur Morgan, visionaries whose genius led to the modern industries that fueled America’s—and most particularly Ohio’s—prosperity.

The chancellor became a Cabinet-level appointee answerable to the governor.

So what happened? As it stood at the doorway of a new century, Silicon Valley moved to Silicon Valley, and any edge Ohio once enjoyed was long gone. Heavy manufacturing, the cornerstone of the state’s economy for much of the 20th century, withered, and Ohio had nothing to take its place. Worse, it lacked the most basic of prerequisites needed to survive in today’s information-driven economy: a well-educated, trained workforce.

When Gov. Ted Strickland took office in 2007, he found himself presiding over a state ranking 38th in the percentage of working-age adults with a two-year college degree or higher. The problem this presents is obvious. Businesses today must compete in the global economy, which means they need workers with the education and training to compete on a global level. Absent such a workforce, Ohio’s economy will not grow. It is just that simple.

The finger clearly had to be pointed at the higher education system for such a dismal statistic, but there was plenty of blame to go around. Previous governors and General Assemblies had grown fond of patching temporary budget problems by cutting higher education, and over the years this steady restriction in the flow of public dollars had resulted in tuitions so high at public colleges and universities that many Ohio students found better deals elsewhere—or gave up their college dreams entirely. This only increased competition among the state schools for scarce students and resources, inevitably leading to mediocrity, duplication, and waste.

Strickland was determined to break the cycle, and he found like-minded allies among the leaders of the Ohio House and Senate, who also recognized that the state’s future prosperity hinged upon raising the level of educational attainment of its working-age adults. In an unprecedented display of bipartisan consensus, the legislature unanimously approved Strickland’s first budget, which called for a $533 million increase for higher education, enough to freeze tuition at state schools for the next two years.

The General Assembly also gave Strickland direct control over higher education by making the chancellor, who previously served under the Ohio Board of Regents, a Cabinet-level appointee answerable to the governor. I was named to the position in March 2007.

Freezing tuition was key to stopping the bleeding, but no one—not the governor, not the legislators, and certainly not I—thought for a moment that the problems confronting public higher education in Ohio could be solved in one budget cycle. At best, we bought some time, time that I was expected to use to come up with a long-term strategy to revitalize higher education and make it an engine driving a robust economy.

The report I wrote and submitted to Gov. Strickland and the General Assembly on March 31, 2008, is a comprehensive 10-year plan designed to achieve the governor’s stated goal of 230,000 more college students a year. Intended as far more than just another government study to be shelved and ignored, it is an action agenda establishing clear benchmarks by which Ohioans can judge the performance of higher education over the next decade. Many of its major components were already in place even before the report was issued, and work is ongoing to implement the rest. (The entire 140-page report is available online at

The most fundamental change, one on which the future of public higher education in Ohio will be built, occurred months before the formal release of the report when Gov. Strickland signed an executive directive creating the University System of Ohio. While hardly a radical concept in other states, a unified system linking Ohio’s 13 universities, 23 community colleges, and one free-standing medical school marks a significant change for institutions accustomed to acting as quasi-independent fiefdoms.

More than a name change or marketing slogan, the University System of Ohio recognizes that while no single school can serve all the state’s needs, by working cooperatively our institutions can become an educational powerhouse. Rather than competing for every student, our universities are being asked to differentiate unique missions and build centers of excellence in distinct areas of academic endeavor. This will not only retain Ohio’s best students, but will also attract the world’s talent to our doorstep.

Schools can help Ohio become a net importer of degree holders rather than an exporter, as it is now.

Graduating more Ohioans in the numbers targeted by the governor cannot be accomplished by the universities alone. Fortunately, Ohio is blessed with an outstanding network of community colleges and regional university campuses, most of them built in the 1960s on the recommendation of Ohio’s far-sighted first chancellor, John D. Millett. Utilizing this already existing infrastructure and the collaborative advantages brought by the University System of Ohio, our plan makes a “30-Mile Promise”—a commitment that every Ohioan will be able to access quality associate and bachelor’s degrees in a field that leads to a good job, at one of the lowest combined costs in the nation, within 30 miles of his or her home. The 30-Mile Promise holds great appeal for working adults, whose busy schedules are often the greatest impediment to a college education and for whom accessibility and flexibility in scheduling is paramount.

Students interested in the most economical route to a degree will be encouraged to spend their first two years at a community college, with all credits transferable and enrollment at the state university of their choice guaranteed. Through a program called Seniors to Sophomores, which is already generating great excitement in Ohio, qualified high school students can spend their senior year at a community college, then enroll as college sophomores upon graduation.

Of course, graduating more students is an admirable goal, but it won’t mean much unless they stay in Ohio to live and work. Higher education traditionally considers its job over once the graduate is out the door, with relocation decisions driven by economic, social, and personal factors beyond the control of the schools.

This may be true enough, but there is much that schools can do to keep graduates here and attract others from out of state so that Ohio becomes a net importer of degree holders rather than an exporter, as it is now. One way is to offer more co-ops and internship programs linking students to Ohio businesses while they are still in school. Such relationships frequently lead to full-time employment after graduation. An important first step in this part of the plan came recently when the legislature passed a bill providing $250 million over five years for co-ops and internships, which will allow us to keep more of our graduates here.

We also can keep our graduates in state by creating an entrepreneurial environment on our campuses to help generate new and exciting career possibilities, and by building stimulating and attractive neighborhoods around our campuses that will make students want to stay.

Higher education must also strengthen its bonds with the business community to become more responsive to its needs. Under the plan, the types of skills required by employers in each of 13 regions in Ohio will be assessed to ensure that workers with the right training are available.

When I began this job, the challenges seemed overwhelming. But the more familiar I become with the resources at hand—Ohio’s fine institutions of higher education and the dedicated educators who run them—the more confident I have become of our ultimate success.

Ohio’s colleges and universities are vast reservoirs of intellectual innovation and excitement. Building on their unique strengths, I know we can build a world-class system of higher education, one that will lead Ohio’s economic recovery in the 21st century.

Eric D. Fingerhut is chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents.

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