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Leaders in Higher Education Roundtable 2024

Central Florida’s colleges and universities are well positioned to tackle today’s challenges while meeting the unique needs of their students.

Leading a college or university has never been an easy job, but there is no doubt that the men and women charged with pushing institutions of higher learning forward have faced one major challenge after another over the past decade—with varying degrees of success. From escalating costs and the pandemic to student mental health issues and racial inequities, these obstacles have even raised some critics to question the future of college in the United States, although statistics show that the path toward the best-paying careers still goes through postsecondary education.

Fortunately for Central Florida, the region is rife with institutions that are pivoting their approaches to better suit today’s landscape and with influential leaders who are concerned about their students’ future as well as their college experience. Orlando Family Magazine spoke with several to find out more about how their schools are adapting to the changes that have been thrown their way.


What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing higher education in 2024?

Dr. Grant Cornwell, president, Rollins College: The biggest challenge we have right now is government intervention in our business. One of the hallmarks of American higher education’s success is its independence from outside influences. We safeguard freedom of inquiry and expression; what is taught and how it is delivered is the purview of the faculty, who are experts in their disciplines. Faculty do not teach or conduct research to please me, the board of trustees or elected officials. They are independent minds working together to solve problems according to their disciplinary standards of excellence and integrity. Government interference risks weakening one of our country’s strongest assets.

Garry Jones, president, Full Sail University: When looking at the industries that our graduates serve, the emerging technology industry reports a severe deficit in the number of skills-based employees needed to meet the demand created by the rapid, ongoing tech evolution. Encouraging people with a propensity for EmTech to continue their education in pursuit of careers in a market hungry for talent, in part, will help answer that call, [and] offering various educational formats is also key, so Full Sail recently launched DC3—a dynamic, digital-centric education platform that offers online courses featuring short-form, subject-specific courses taught by Full Sail grads and other leading industry professionals. Through this effort, career support for our alumni, as well as new students, has been enhanced through their acquisition of new, specific skills that have become more accessible and affordable.

Dr. John Nicklow, president, Florida Institute of Technology (Florida Tech): The relevance of a college degree is under attack in some circles, and while higher education fosters critical thinking skills, expands career opportunities, improves lifetime earnings and increases health outcomes and overall quality of life, education specifically in fields like science, technology, engineering and mathematics leads to gainful employment in great careers. A 2023 study from Georgetown University found that by 2031, 72% of jobs in the U.S. will require postsecondary education and/or training. For STEM jobs that percentage is certainly considerably higher. That kind of education is our focus at Florida Tech. The talent pipeline must be fed in order for our economy to remain competitive with other parts of the world. Graduating students with those STEM-related skills is our primary mission and one we take very seriously.


Why is graduating on time important?

Dr. Paul Dosal, senior vice president for student success, University of Central Florida: I think these days, with the cost of living that so concerns all of us, graduating on time has assumed even greater importance in that I think it’s the best way for our students to manage their debts. If the student has to spend six years instead of four years to get that degree, that means two years of not pulling in a salary on top of two years of paying tuition and fees and housing. There’s a great expense involved with extending graduation, so managing debt levels is best done through timely graduation. If you’re going on to law or medical school, you’re going to incur debt there, so getting you out on time with limited or no debt is important.


What are some of the obstacles students can face on the path to graduation, and how do you help students cope with those challenges?

Dosal: Emotional well-being is more and more identified by students as a top impediment. Students are dealing with higher levels of stress and anxiety for a number of reasons. It’s a concern of ours: We have to promote student well-being in order to promote their success, and increasingly they’re the same thing. So being able to offer support to our students before those things escalate into more serious forms is really important. We need to make sure that students know that we have a team of professionals who are here to help them, to support them along the way, and to help reduce those stresses and anxieties.

Finances are always an obstacle as well. We serve a high number of limited-income students—about 35% of ours—and a lot of them have to work to pay the bills and to help the family out. If we have students working 20 or 30 hours a week, that’s less time they can spend in class, studying or taking advantage of everything the university has to offer, which is quite a bit.


What advice do you have for families whose children will be entering college?

Dr. Kathleen Plinske, president, Valencia College: Please don’t believe that you must take on debt or that the cost of college makes higher education out of reach. At Valencia College, the cost for full-time enrollment is less than the cost of a meal plan at a residential university. The total tuition cost for an associate degree from Valencia is around $6,000. Very few of our students graduate with any debt at all. You have an excellent, local, affordable option for higher education at Valencia College.

Cornwell: For families whose children will be entering college, it is critical to encourage independence and exploration. Rollins offers clubs for every interest, immersion programs, study abroad, and so much more. This all is part of a student’s personal growth while at college. Families should also emphasize to their students that they should seek help when needed. Advisors, professors, mental health and other support services are available for those struggling academically or personally. Resources are available and should be sought early. Maintaining physical and mental health in college is paramount.


Not every student comes to college on a traditional path. How does your university help non-traditional students such as veterans or those already established in their careers?

Dosal: We have students come in from so many different backgrounds, including veterans or students with some kind of disability, and we have offices and staff set up to help students with those kinds of backgrounds. We have an office that’s in charge of supporting our veterans and military-affiliated students, and it’s important to provide those students with care but also a sense of belonging, that the university values them and we want to make them feel at home on this campus. In a larger sense, since we are such a big campus with so many students, we need to be able to offer support to any student who needs it at any point during their undergraduate career. We’ve set that up with a coordinated care management system that includes the office of veterans’ success and student accessibility services; those are two critically important offices for our students’ success efforts.


How has your institution been preparing for the “enrollment cliff” that is coming, in which the number of traditional-aged college students will decline significantly?

Plinske: At Valencia College, we have something for everyone—​from high school students who are dual enrolled at Valencia, to senior citizens interested in lifelong learning, to recent high school grads looking to enroll in college for the first time, to working adults looking to upskill or change careers. In fact, the spring 2024 semester reflected the highest enrollment in a spring semester in Valencia College’s history. We are planning for continued growth to serve the growing Central Florida community.


Are you concerned that legislative DEI restrictions will have an impact on the number of minority students who will be attending college, or on the campus experience they will have?

Cornwell: Rollins is committed to diversity as is written in our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Strategic Plan. For Rollins College to thrive in its mission and its markets, the demographic composition of our campus community, our students, faculty and staff, must become more diverse. This is an inevitability that we embrace. We must attract a broad diversity of students with our offerings, and retain them, because of the quality of the education we provide and the welcoming and inclusive environment they will discover. We must attract a broad diversity of faculty and staff, so that the points of view and identities they represent reflect the national and global contexts within which our graduates will work and live, and retain them because we have a campus culture that enables all to thrive.


With costs continuing to be an issue, are partnerships and mergers with other colleges or outside businesses critical in moving higher education forward?

Cornwell: Rollins College comprises three schools: an undergraduate liberal arts college, the Hamilton Holt School for working adults seeking to advance themselves professionally, and the Crummer Graduate School of Business, which is the top-ranked MBA in Florida. Business partnerships are particularly important for our business school.

We recently hired Anil Menon, a visionary leader, as the new dean of the Crummer Graduate School of Business. We are reimagining the business school of the 21st century, which goes far beyond offering different MBA programs or doctorates in business administration. Rollins College is looking to partner with corporations and businesses in the Central Florida ecosystem to participate in specialized certification and training programs for executive leadership. For example, we recently hired one of the most well-known thought leaders in artificial intelligence to teach the connection between AI and business strategy. The Crummer School will be offering an entire suite of new programs that are not tied to the MBA degree but are still focused on the needs of our local economy.


Do today’s students expect more in terms of career preparation, and are you expanding opportunities for internships or experiential learning?

Jones: Career preparation and hands-on, project-based learning are at the very heart of Full Sail’s educational mission. Our university curates educational experiences that closely emulate the industries we serve and they are offered at an immersive, accelerated pace, allowing students to graduate in approximately half the time of a traditional bachelor’s program. Each campus and online degree program has an established schedule of courses that students take in a prescribed order. For example, initial courses are foundational with students matriculating next into courses focused on skills based upon their chosen career goals. Full Sail undergraduate students take part in a series of project and portfolio classes where they are challenged to both learn and create. The result is their movement through a curriculum where they are building a professional portfolio that better assists them with the launch of their career.

Professional development is also woven into our university’s undergraduate degrees to help students with career readiness. This includes career modules pertaining to résumé fundamentals, networking, and personal branding. Full Sail maintains a robust career development department of approximately 100 employees, a home to dedicated career advisors who assist students in connecting with companies looking for talent. Exclusive career events are provided throughout the year, both on campus and virtually, featuring employers from numerous notable companies and brands. 

Nicklow: Yes—this is always a high priority for Florida Tech. Meeting the region’s future workforce challenge requires action, and it requires action now. Since its founding 65 years ago at the dawn of the Space Age, right alongside NASA, Florida Tech has welcomed that challenge. Our independent, private university has grown into one of the nation’s leading STEM institutions while helping to populate key industries, from aerospace and cybersecurity to psychology to high-tech manufacturing, with our in-demand graduates. And the Central Florida workforce has, in turn, benefited greatly.

But success is not the same as growth. Evolution must be intentional. The time has come for Florida Tech to set a course forward with intentionality and focus. We have a newly launched strategic plan designed to better position the university to supply the talent pipeline that this region and beyond will need in the coming decade. We’re calling it “Forward Together, Boundless Potential.”

Florida Tech educates global thinkers, resilient problem solvers and future leaders who are ready to support industry and societal needs by responsibly integrating science, technology and other key disciplines to advance knowledge across the universe. Our strategic plan is the launch pad. From there, we will build on that mission, continuing to develop as a premier institution for improving the human condition through innovative research and a one-of-a-kind education for graduates who are relentless in their pursuit of understanding and solving the critical challenges of tomorrow. I think that’s higher education’s highest calling—and where our industry makes its most meaningful contribution.


Are there certain majors that have been in demand in recent years? Do you anticipate any areas of study becoming more prominent in the near future?

Jones: With the world becoming more digitized daily, we are heavily focused on the integration between entertainment media and emerging technologies. Full Sail’s fastest-growing degree offerings are those under the banner of emerging technology, and based upon the regular input we organize from this and other industries we serve, I expect continued growth in employment demand in the areas of cybersecurity, IT, artificial intelligence, IoT, and simulation and visualization, to name a few.

Plinske: We have seen significant growth in programs that prepare students directly for the workforce, including our Accelerated Skills Training programs (which range in length from two to 24 weeks) and our baccalaureate programs. In particular, we’ve seen tremendous growth in interest in programs related to semiconductors (given the investments in NeoCity), including our 22-week program in robotics and semiconductor manufacturing as well as our 15-week program in precision optics. In addition, our baccalaureate degrees in business and organizational leadership and software development have been popular with students and our local employers.


This has clearly been a turbulent time for higher education, from the pandemic to economic factors. Are you confident that colleges will persevere and overcome these challenges?

Cornwell: Coming out of COVID, students and families realized that online learning was not delivering on the value proposition of higher education. They seek Rollins because our classes are small, personal and in-person. Learning takes place in the context of human relationships between the professor and students, as well as students with one another, in a learning community. The learning is much deeper, and there is much greater accountability for learning, which is absent from large lectures or online settings.

Regarding economic factors, our students have access to ample aid. For nine out of 10 Rollins students, the net cost after receiving some sort of financial aid or grant is far lower than the sticker cost. Each year, about 96% of our students receive more than $80 million in combined federal, state and institutional aid, allowing them to take advantage of the full Rollins experience.

Nicklow: Florida Tech’s outlook is quite bright—we are well positioned to continue enhancing our resources in service to our students and the community. My vision is to make Florida Tech the top choice for students interested in STEM fields from all over the state, nation and world. To achieve that, we must continue to expand Florida Tech’s academic excellence and research enterprise, attract top faculty and staff, and give students a one-of-a-kind, great experience. This will also help us become the preferred partner for businesses, industry and government. At Florida Tech, I’m optimistic about our growth because we focus on those in-demand programs, applied research and industry partnerships. I do think that we in higher ed must, however, do a better job of telling our story—of connecting the dots explaining why a college degree is worth the investment of time and money. A college degree is nothing less than life-changing for so many people—and those are the stories that matter. Finally, I’m also very excited about the future of this region. The high-tech corridor at the heart of Central Florida has tremendous potential to enrich the lives of so many—from technological innovation to economic infusion, the positives are realized every day. We can always do more as a community to maximize those benefits. That requires coordination and collaboration, and Florida Tech is excited to be an instigator for those discussions, wherever and whenever possible. We are not only in this region, we are of this region, and fully committed to remaining a champion for its bright future.