For E. Gordon Gee, the potential in Ohio's higher education system still overshadows the pitfalls.
The former Ohio State University president and current interim president of West Virginia University visited Delaware County recently on a quest to identify problems and potential solutions in higher education. Gov. John Kasich tapped Gee to lead the Quality and Value in Higher Education review in October.
Gee said the question he's been tasked to answer is: "How do we increase quality and decrease costs at the same time?"
Gee and Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor John Carey ended their statewide listening tour for the project at the Rotary Club of Delaware's Jan. 27 meeting.
Gee said he recognizes the aftermath of the recent recession may be a scary time for students and their parents.
"This is the first generation that may well face the possibility that their lifestyle will be less than their parents, and that's tragic," he said.
Gee said the population numbers and the growth of the higher education systems in developing nations such as China and India also could bode poorly for the U.S.
"On the basis of those numbers, we stand a real chance of becoming increasingly an irrelevant place," he said. "On the other hand, what has always sustained this nation is its creative energy."
Gee said that while he was chancellor at Vanderbilt University, a meeting with the Chinese minister of education reaffirmed his belief that the American higher education system can remain a world leader.
"(The minister) kept asking this very interesting question," Gee said. "He said, 'How do you Americans teach creativity?' "
Gee said it's that American penchant for creativity and innovation that can prevent the country from being left behind by more-populous nations. He added that Ohio's university system is the most important economic driver in the state, especially where high-tech jobs are concerned.
Rather than pitch Delaware County residents on his ideas about how to improve Ohio's higher education system, Gee asked audience members what worried them about the state of higher education.
Most of the questions -- many from parents of college students or recent graduates -- focused on the theme of college as an investment. Attendees wanted to know how the state could make sure college students get a degree that will be worth the time and money spent.
Gee said one simple change that would allow students to graduate more quickly without reducing the quality of their education would be to eliminate summer break.
"We've got to stop thinking about higher education ... and public schools like we're an agrarian society," he said.
Gee said Ohio's universities also need to do a better job of "partnering with students" after they are admitted. He said faculty and staff must keep a closer eye on students to make sure they are on the right path to a degree and, ultimately, a career.
"We have deans of admission, but we have no deans of completion," Gee said. "Have you ever thought about that?"
Gee said Ohioans also need to stop thinking about higher education as an option reserved for the young. He said residents should have a lifelong relationship with education.
"Now, the traditional student increasingly is the 31-year-old mother of two who wants to go back to the workforce, or the 45-year-old engineer who lost his job and wants to become a school teacher," he said.
Gee said universities need to embrace technological innovations that could allow them to reach more students in a more cost-effective way. Still, he said he's wary of institutions that claim students can take all of their classes from home in their pajamas.
"We need to make sure that the quality side of it is imperative," he said.
Gee said the state also needs to prevent its top students from bolting from the state after graduation.
"How do we build a fence around Ohio to keep our best and brightest here?" he asked.
The tour report, complete with recommendations for the governor, will be submitted this summer.