Jason Wingard thinks higher education is in dire need of a shake-up: It should be more responsive to workforce needs, and other alternatives are proving worthy rivals.
“The value of the college degree, in my estimation, has reached its peak and is on the wane,” he writes in his new book, The College Devaluation Crisisa copy of which sat on his Temple office coffee table, “thanks to a host of factors stretching from cost and affordability to curriculum relevance to rapidly evolving skill needs to advances in automation and technology — and including the disruption in the workforce due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
When Wingard began writing the book, he had just finished his term as a Columbia University dean and was planning on investing in companies and platforms aimed at disrupting higher education. He thought that could best be done if he was outside higher education.
Then came an opportunity to serve As Temple University’s next president, and suddenly, he was back in. He acknowledged some might view his book and his new job as being in conflict. Wingard called it an opportunity.
“I believe Temple can be a leader with respect to the claims I make in the book,” Wingard said during an hour-long interview in his office earlier this month, shortly after passing his one-year anniversary as Temple’s president.
The curriculum, he said, needs to tilt more toward what employers want, while still grounding students in a liberal arts education and teaching them to be critical thinkers.
“We have to have an ear towards the employers, nonprofits, what is it they are looking for,” said Wingard, who has degrees in sociology and education and whose work has spanned both the business world and academia. “What are the skills they need and how can we build that into our curriculum, not to replace what we’ve been doing but how do we supplement it?”
Already, Temple is planning to launch a new institute on the future of work, with an aim to hire the inaugural director this fall.
But Wingard, 50, a Chestnut Hill resident and former Wharton dean, has had to consider a lot more than that over the last nearly 13 months. In what would be a taxing first year for any president, he’s had to manage during a pandemic and a city gun violence epidemic that has hit close to campus, including claiming the life of 21-year-old student Samuel Collington. Last week, the university hired a Delaware State Police captain and educator as its first vice president for public safety.
“He had to come into an urban university during a very challenging moment, and I think he has handled himself well,” said Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, faculty senate president.
Under his leadership, the university has created several groups to address mental health needs, violence reduction, and a rise in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses.
He sees declining enrollment as the most pressing problem facing universities, including Temple, which expects to be down about 1,500 undergraduates this fall. The decline is in part due to fewer high school graduates nationally, but also the pandemic, rising tuition costs, and in Philadelphia, the gun violence crisis, though Wingard said he didn’t see the violence as a significant reason for fewer students.
“It certainly means we need to have the resources to make sure students are safe,” he said.
Wingard has a strong social media presence, on Twitter and Instagram, documenting his interaction with the campus community. His favorite part of the job, he said, is getting out and meeting students — and students have noticed.
“He’s been generally very good at connecting with the students,” said Gianni Quattrocchi, president of student government.
Wingard plans to teach a course during the spring semester on “learning in the metaverse,” an immersive virtual world.
Quattrocchi, a rising junior political science major from Bristol, said he’s also excited about Wingard’s focus on workforce preparation.
“It’s important that we need to be competitive in the ever-evolving economy,” he said, “and I think President Wingard has done a great job at focusing Temple’s mission toward that.”
Wingard alert at a recent board of trustees that the needed change he’ll implement might ruffle feathers. He said the board of trustees’ instructions were different from what they gave his predecessor, Richard M. Englert, whose mission was to stabilize the school after the previous president was forced out in 2016.
“My charge is to take Temple to the next level,” he said. “It requires growth and innovation that are inspired by change. It’s disruptive to people who are used to the status quo.”
He said he intends to push the campus to engage more with the community, spend money and staff time to do it, and develop metrics to assess the effort. Wingard, along with other Temple executives, took a bike tour through the community a few months ago during which he said he heard that as much as Temple does, it needs to do more, including providing more mentors to local community centers.
“Everyone now, our deans are expected to engage with our constituents in new and different ways,” he said.
Wingard is far from the only voice questioning the role of higher education these days. In 2022, only 55% of Americans surveyed said they thought colleges were having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country, down from 69% just two years ago, according to a survey by New America, a Washington, DC-based public policy think tank. the survey, which was reported on by the Chronicle of Higher Education, also noted that far more Democrats than Republicans recognized colleges’ worth. The survey showed hopes climbing about affordability.
“In an economy that most see as fundamentally unfair, Americans view college as expensive and time-consuming, and they see colleges as stuck in the past,” the report said.
In his book, Wingard says colleges satisfied the market for years, and then the value proposition really began to “flatline” after the 2008 recession, and now it’s dropping.
“We are doing things the same as we used to, and it’s not satisfying the marketplace,” he said.
Companies such as Google are successfully developing their own employee training programs, he said. His book outlines other companies that have moved into the education market and are helping students achieve higher salaries.
Colleges need to reduce costs, expand access to more students, focus on skill development and assessment, and establish more partnerships with employers, he argues. Among his predictions in the book, he anticipates colleges collectively will reduce tuition by 50% and restructure tenure.
Wingard said critics have asked him how a university president and professor could write a book that questions the value of college.
“How can I support my day job while profiling, or even championing, the successes of competitive alternatives?” he writes in the book. “Well, Readers and Friends, that is academic scholarship — and may the best solution win!”