Critics of a traditional college degree might be surprised to see someone like Neeli Bendapudi nodding along in agreement. Neeli, after all, is president of Penn State, an historic land-grant university with more than 100,000 students on 24 campuses across Pennsylvania.
Neeli, of course, believes in the value of a college. But she also agrees that students, potential students, employers, alumni, faculty, staff, and administrators should be asking the tough questions that will help keep higher education relevant in the future.
“There are some academics who do bristle at anyone even questioning that,” she told me recently in our conversation on Off the Rak. “To me it’s a completely reasonable, rational question. It’s about a return on investment.”
Research continues to show that a college degree provides a monetary return on investment in terms of income and wealth production. It is the key to breaking cycles of poverty, as well as developing citizens who are more likely to volunteer in their communities.
But technology has radically changed the way people work, the skills they need, and the options for how they can learn what they need to have a successful career. A degree from any college calls for a significant investment in time, energy, and money. Those with a stake in the outcome have every right to seek an appropriate return, and it’s up to leaders like Neeli to ensure their institutions continue to deliver value.
I admit to a bias toward higher education in general and toward Penn State and Neeli in particular. I have a degree from Penn State, I was a member of its board of trustees for nine years, and I served on the committee that recommended Neeli to be the university’s president.
It’s not surprising that I believe in her leadership and her vision for keeping Penn State vibrant. But I also believe her approach is valuable to other leaders – in higher education but also in any business that’s trying to keep up with the changes of our times.
The essence of leadership, Neeli noted, has been described as head, heart, and hands — or knowing, being, and doing — and modern universities must excel in all three to deliver real value.
“If it’s just about knowing, learning certain things, knowing certain formulas,” she said, “then, yeah, maybe you could do it completely online. Maybe you don’t need to be in a college setting. If it’s about doing – learning how to make tables in Excel or some of the coding – maybe you could pick that up on the job. I don’t fault anybody for the choices that they would make. But to me, a college has to be more.”
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It has to combine the knowing and the doing with “being” and “becoming,” she said, because that’s what prepares students not only for their first job but for life.
Universities have to maintain their roles of teaching and research, Neeli said, so that they can provide students with the theory they need in their disciplines, but also with skills like critical thinking, communication, and cross-cultural competencies.
They also need to connect with industry on practical job skills. “If I could wave a magic wand,” she said, “I would insist that every college graduate have one or two paid internships before they’re allowed to graduate. Part of what we owe them is to test whether this is what they want to do.”
Being and Becoming
Online learning isn’t going away, but neither is the on-campus experience.
“If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it is that students desperately want to still have that in-person connection,” Neeli said. “I do not see this disappearing.”
There’s value in relationships — in eating pizza with friends while staying up all night to study, in debates while in a coffee shop, in high-fives during a sporting event, and in concerts, lectures, and peer-to-peer projects.
“When we think about college, I no longer think about it as the curriculum and just the degree,” she said, “but the core curriculum experiences as well.”
Leading for Success
Neeli talked about three other aspects of successful leadership during our conversation — purpose, agility, and opportunity — and they also play a role in keeping a university (or business) relevant. If universities know and stay true to their purpose but demonstrate agility in adapting to the times, they can identify and leverage opportunities around knowing, doing, and being. And when everyone on the team pours into those opportunities, there is no doubt that the value will follow.