Loose Ends 10/11: Debunking the myths of higher education

Dr. Kathryn Foster, TCNJ PresidentSUBMITTED PHOTO
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Dr. Kathryn Foster, TCNJ PresidentSUBMITTED PHOTO

By Pam Hersh

Dr. Kate Foster on Sept. 5, took on a role that went beyond her demanding job as president of New Jersey’s renowned public higher education institution – The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), located in Ewing Township.

She presented herself to the attendees of the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber luncheon as New Jersey’s Higher Education myth-buster. Her only weapons were words. The ammunition in those words were facts. The buzz from the crowd at the conclusion of her remarks was that she was victorious in efficiently and effectively slaying the myth monster by debunking some widely held assumptions about higher education.

With over 35 years of experience in public higher education and celebrating her first anniversary as president of TCNJ, Dr. Foster, before she started upending higher education misconceptions, got the attention of the chamber luncheon audience at the Princeton Marriott by acknowledging that higher education is a “strange business….

“It is a revenue-fueled business that turns away customers who are able to pay….Rejecting is part of its business model, we regularly discount the price of our primary product to well below what it costs to make that product….  Almost all of the higher education institutions have offerings of product lines – that are absolute drags on the bottom line….,” such as certain highly valued but sparsely subscribed to academic courses and athletic teams.

After setting the stage with a provocative description of the higher education business model, President Foster at the chamber presentation proceeded to decimate the following myths. And upon request, she can provide the data to support her contentions.

  1. College is too expensive. Dr. Foster believes that college in New Jersey “is not as overpriced as you may think,” particularly if you take into account the extensive services that now are required by state mandate and by student expectations. New Jersey residents also have access to generous financial aid support from the state. Even though direct state support to public colleges and universities has dropped significantly in recent years, the financial aid support to our students remains strong. In addition, because of considerable price discounting, the sticker price for a New Jersey higher ed institution is considerably higher than what the student actually pays.
  2. College is not worth it. In fact, said Dr. Foster, a four-year degree is well worth it. A BA degree correlates to greater lifetime earnings, better health outcomes, and more responsible citizenry.
  3. Faculty members are lazy and overpaid, particularly because they get summers off. Academic work is very rewarding, but also extremely demanding, stressful and labor intensive all year long, said President Foster.
  4. Colleges and universities are impervious to change and innovation. Although there is some truth to the academic aversion to disruption of long-standing higher education procedures, in fact, Dr. Foster noted, there has been considerable innovation in recent years related to technology and curriculum responding to the changing needs of society. Higher education has proven to be flexible and not stuck in procedures of the past.
  5. Brain drain/net outmigration threatens the economic future of New Jersey. Dr. Foster does not fret about the outmigration issue, because there is no way New Jersey could accommodate all of its college-bound high school graduates. She believes in focusing on sustaining the quality and excellence of what we have and that is how we will attract students from both inside and outside of New Jersey.

Dr. Foster, a Verona High School graduate, was one of those students who at first out-migrated, but decades later returned home to pursue an “exciting” professional opportunity. She went out of state for her undergraduate degree (Johns Hopkins, geography) and master’s degree (University of California, Berkeley, city planning). Then she came back in state for her PhD from Princeton University (public and international affairs). Her Princeton University stint was followed by years of professional obligations out of state, the most recent being as president of the University of Maine at Farmington.

Even though initially an out-migrator, she noted in an interview I had with her a few weeks prior to the chamber presentation, how happy she was being back home in New Jersey and contributing to the state and all its residents in a very important way.

TCNJ with its extraordinary reputation in New Jersey and in the nation (dubbed the Ivy League School of senior public higher education institutions) has no chance of lulling Dr. Foster into complacency.

“No college or university, no matter how academically strong and no matter its national rankings, can be complacent. At any time, you are working with campus constituents, your board of trustees, and many interested parties to look years ahead, envision possible futures, and make decisions to position your institution to thrive in the world to come.  We are no different at TCNJ.

“Among our forward-looking endeavors are strengthening already strong foundations and metrics of student success, developing new revenue streams to ensure ongoing financial sustainability, refurbishing our campus buildings and grounds—this effort never stops—and increasing national visibility and recognition. The college is also actively diversifying to reflect the demographic profile of the state as a whole and thereby offer a superior learning experience for students, faculty and staff.”

When she was in high school and college, Dr. Foster never saw herself as president of a college or university.

“I did not even know what a college president did and never considered whether the job might be important, meaningful or fun. In high school, I wanted to be a cartographer or anything related to maps and travel.  College scratched some of that itch — I majored in geography and followed it immediately with a master’s in city planning — and I managed a decent bit of travel through my twenties,” she said.

A “TCNJ Magazine” reporter one year ago asked her what profession she would have chosen, if the college president route had never materialized.

Assuming the LPGA is not calling me (she is an avid golfer), and it is not calling me, I would want to be a data visualization designer for “The New York Times” ….I love the work that they do with major amounts of data. Those graphics — they enable you to make better decisions. I often graph data and no doubt will at TCNJ. I might add that growing up I wanted to be, chronologically, a farmer, an actress, a bus driver and a cartographer.” (“TCNJ Magazine,” July 2, 2018)

The academic bug hit her, when she had the opportunity, while living in California, to teach Intro to City Planning as an adjunct instructor at the nearby state university.

“After teaching a number of courses, traveling more (including a stint in the U.S. Peace Corps in Swaziland), and completing a Ph.D. in public and international affairs at Princeton University, I entered the university world as a full-fledged faculty member. I never looked back,” she said .

She found teaching enormously fulfilling, but quite late in her career embraced some equally satisfying administrative positions that made her consider the possibility of becoming a college president.

“I was fortunate and thrilled to be selected in 2012 as president of one of the state universities in Maine, a post I held for six years before coming to TCNJ. The job of president is deeply rewarding for me, an ardent generalist. Its variety and responsibility require me to use every muscle and work to the best of my abilities. I relish being in an environment where people ooze talent and ambition, are passionate about their disciplines and work with commitment to realize the joy and power of learning.

“Being president of a college with the high quality and awesome sense of community that TCNJ has persuades me I have the best job in the country,” she said relishing her role as a college president – and myth-buster.