Leaders in higher education always say they have tough jobs, and they probably aren’t exaggerating.

Some, such as University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds, say those jobs are tougher than ever today.

Unquestionably, college and university leaders face big challenges. As NU begins the process of replacing Bounds, who is stepping down in August, here are five challenges facing the next president:

The joys, risks of college sports

College sports are regularly stained by revelations of corruption in player recruitment, massive pay for coaches in high-profile sports, the overall cost of programs and mediocre graduation rates in major sports. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has one of the few athletic departments in the country that makes a profit and donates some of that to academics. Otherwise, the price of playing big-time sports can be steep.

The great political divide

In this day of division in America, some conservatives view colleges as bastions of liberal propaganda. With that in mind, higher education must be increasingly vigilant about political biases and clashes between conservatives and liberals. UNL had one such clash in 2017 between a conservative student and a liberal grad student-lecturer. The incident gained national attention and still dogs the university.

Rising costs

The cost of going to college has risen with inflation and generally exceeded it. In fact, colleges have their own measure, the Higher Education Price Index, which takes into account the often bigger increases for administrative salaries, faculty salaries, benefits, services and other costs.

Those increases mean lifting the price of tuition and fees paid by Mom, Dad and the student. Bounds and many other leaders express concern about increasing tuition and rising student-loan debt pricing some families out of the market.

Diminishing share of state funds

Public colleges cling to smaller portions of the state tax pie, losing out to Medicaid, prisons and demand for tax relief. The NU system and state colleges have struggled over the last several years to hold their own. Public higher education seems to be in an annual battle to persuade governors and legislators that it needs more money.

Concern about relevance

An age-old struggle exists between college for the sake of understanding the world and college for job preparation. Companies in states such as Nebraska say they have a hard time hiring enough young people who can handle engineering and high-tech jobs as well as skills such as welding and plumbing. Colleges are under pressure to do a better job of producing graduates with those tangible skills. And they are weakened by complaints that Joey did well in his English and history majors and now is tending bar.

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rick.ruggles@owh.com, 402-444-1123

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