Bring students in and get them through
A conversation with Ted Carter (May 13, 2021)
By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman (Decade Ahead Project)
“We are the only university system in the state,” says Nebraska University System President Ted Carter, “with four large campuses, 52,000 students and 16,000 faculty and staff.” Keeping the university system running on campus, Ted says, was essential because “a large portion of the region is rural and didn’t have internet. We couldn’t close down completely.” Ambitiously seizing the opportunity to increase the system’s value to the State of Nebraska, President Carter says, “We froze tuition over the next two years, changed the academic calendar, reduced the cost per credit-hour for online, and created a tuition free ‘Nebraska Promise’” for residents with less than $60,000 adjusted gross income. Drawing on his prior success at the US Naval Academy, Ted worked to help Nebraska campuses show they “care about all students” by being “welcoming, inclusive and accessible.” Proud of the new Nebraska Promise program, he tells us that “7,000 students signed up within 60 days.” The “non-white population is growing,” but because the academic opportunities provided to different populations vary, “the attainment gap is large.” Into the future, he plans “investing in tutors, mentors, and mental health capabilities,” which have nearly doubled. We “have proven we can bring students in the door, and now we need to get them through,” he says.
Ted Carter Jr. became the eighth president of the University of Nebraska System on Jan. 1, 2020. He leads a university system with campuses in Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney, combined with academic divisions and research and extension centers across the state. Carter came to the University of Nebraska after serving as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy and president of the U.S. Naval War College. Under his leadership, the Naval Academy achieved a №1 national ranking and set new records in student success and diversity. A retired Vice Admiral with 38 years of service, Carter logged more than 6,300 flying hours and holds the American record for carrier-arrested landings.
Deeply committed to young people and the nation’s future, Carter tells us that because of the pandemic, “This generation has been exposed to an adapt and overcome mindset. We haven’t really seen this since going into World War II.” He characterizes 2020 and 2021 as a “trisection of three pandemics: health, economic fallout, and a reawakening to social injustices that have been around us for a long time.” Trusting the new generation of college students and admiring their commitment to “service above self”, he suggests we listen to their concerns and “let all those voices be heard.”
Drawing on his long experience in military service, Ted talks about understanding your enemy and responding to a crisis calmly. “If we didn’t plan to provide predictability,” he says, “ you set yourself up for a 5–10% enrollment drop.” That would have “ripple effects economically that would have taken 5–10 years to recover.” He also relates the psychological effects of the pandemic to military deployment. “Because of the amount of isolation,” he says, “emotions get exaggerated and can accelerate much more quickly.”
Cautioning educators not to “pat ourselves on the back too much,” he nonetheless believes that “higher education deserves a high grade in terms of how they’ve managed” the pandemic. “Education is so dedicated to its mission, it wanted to make sure that it delivered, no matter what the modality was.” In his system specifically, the University of Nebraska Lincoln “crossed over the 70% graduation rate for the first time.” Many students “took an extra 3 credit course” this year, or an average of 15–20% more course units than usual. Optimistic going into the Fall of 2021, Ted tells us that “applications are up by as much as 13%, with out-of-state learners starting to show up in larger numbers.”
We ask how President Carter thinks the pandemic has affected the public view of higher education. “I’m excited to be in a state like Nebraska that gets it and sees the value of education,” he says. Some of that may be the result of his hard work. Since beginning his term as president, he spent time with Nebraska legislators, cut programs and some positions, and made sure to only ask for money that is absolutely needed. “The state sees the university as an economic driver for the state,” he says. Putting that view to a test, Ted asked the legislature to designate an additional $2.5 million each year for deferred maintenance projects through 2062, promising to match that commitment with university funds. The result of Legislative Bill LB384 passed in 2021 was a $400 million bond sale that is projected to save taxpayers $1.5 billion over its 40-year duration.
“The future of higher education was on the precipice of going through change” Carter believes, and “the global pandemic has accelerated that change.” Colleges and universities “have to think about things like affordability, accessibility and attainment,“ he says, emphasizing the need to define what “success for the future of education really looks like.” In approaching the future, Ted suggests that institutions “treat current and future students as customers, not products;” work to “connect meaningfully with their state and surrounding community;” and “tackle problems such as changing demographics head on.” Focusing on the value and values of education, Ted Carter concludes that “the global pandemic will be the catalyst to change in the future of education.”