Challenges in Higher Education

By Daniel Hastings, Dean for Undergraduate Education

At MIT, we represent a certain elite type of higher education.  While there are approximately 4,000 colleges and  universities in the country, we are in the 1% that offers needs blind admissions and need-based aid. Each year, this group of schools accounts for approximately 1% of the college bound students in the US. This group contains some very well known universities including our peers, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, as well as Caltech, Columbia, Amherst, Swarthmore and other distinguished places. Along with our fellow institutions, we face some challenges, some of a (hopefully) temporary nature and some that are more systematic.

All of us rely heavily on endowment. This has been challenged by market conditions lately and we all have to understand how to reduce our operating budgets while maintaining our strategic focus and excellence. With regard to more systematic issues, we face challenges with access and affordability. We are high tuition, high financial aid institutions and need to continue to get the message out that we will make it possible for any excellent student to attend regardless of financial circumstances. As the demographics of the country continue to shift, we are all wrestling with the issue that we differ substantially with the face of America. We have issues in economic and ethnic diversity that we must continue to address. We also are places that have been highly successful. While we have much to celebrate, it also means that we must continue to challenge ourselves particularly with the quality of our undergraduate education. In many ways, it is harder to challenge a culture from a position of success than from a position of failure. As we address these challenges, we must all be cognizant of the fact that this small group of schools gets a great deal of attention in the national press. As such, our responses to these challenges are very public and can affect public perceptions of elite behavior.

At MIT, we are wrestling with all of these issues. We are focused on how to reduce our operating budget while moving forward with quality. We continue to modify our financial aid and the associated messaging. We are focused on the issues of diversity at every level, as seen by our recent Diversity Leadership Congress. Finally, as we move to our New England Association of Schools and Colleges ten year accreditation in October 2009, we are focused on how we can improve our assessment of learning here at MIT.

MIT is routinely ranked among the top universities in the world and we admit the very best students in the US. This is a result of the virtuous cycle; excellent students (both graduate and undergraduate) attract excellent faculty and staff who, in turn, attract excellent students and so on. As we address the major challenges of our day, we must also ensure that we maintain this virtuous cycle.

I look forward to your continued contributions to our great venture.