Photograph of a bronze statue on the campus of Perdue university with a Perdue facemask around his face


Protecting the Priceless Advantage of Higher Education

To meet the challenges facing colleges and universities, Purdue University president Mitch Daniels says leaders and institutions need to be forces for “constructive change”

When former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels became the president of Purdue University in 2013, he wasn’t interested in an easy-going tenure. “Back a few jobs ago, it became clear to me that one ought not take a position with real responsibility unless you have some sense of how to make the place better,” he told me recently. “You owe it to the place to speak up, to be a force for constructive change.”

In the years since, Daniels had made Purdue into a national model for higher education, pushing a range of new ideas to increase college access, reduce costs and student debt, and encourage graduates to rethink their role in the world. He also made the tough call to keep Purdue open for in-person learning during the pandemic, demonstrating that colleges can operate safely with proper protocols and community support.

We spoke by Zoom in January, as Purdue welcomed students back for another socially distanced, carefully masked semester, and Daniels looked for new ways to keep students on track.

Perdue university president Mitch Daniels gestures while he speaks to another man on stage

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President of Purdue University Mitch Daniels speaks at the TIME Summit On Higher Education Day 1 at Time Warner Center on September 19, 2013, in New York City.

You’ve become one of the country’s most prominent voices for reforming higher education. What motivates you to push so hard for change?

I care about reform because I care about higher education. I think the sector has been so set in its ways because it’s been so successful. Higher education has been a roaring success for this country, and I was troubled about the direction it was going. You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to see that without some reform and new approaches, the system was going to get into trouble.

We cannot let this priceless advantage that the nation has had—this extraordinary network of colleges and universities—to atrophy. We cannot let it fall to the point that our most talented young people look for some other way. I hope that collectively we’ll make the kind of improvements that tell today’s young people, “College is exactly where you want to be.”

At Purdue you’ve tested a range of new programs to reduce costs and shorten time to graduation, everything from income-share agreements to three-year degrees. How did you make room for so much experimentation?

I don’t think any of the things we’ve done here are so all-fired innovative. But if you do a few things that are experimental and a little bit different, people notice and they’re more likely to bring you their next good idea. If you’re receptive to new things, it makes it more likely that good ideas come your way.

We’re just looking for any way we can to be more flexible and have an opportunity for each student, whatever their life situation, who meets our standards to succeed at Purdue. We’ve been able to enlist almost the entire Purdue community into this. A key to getting something really fundamental done is getting lots of people to buy in and take part, and it starts with having that shared goal. We disagree about all kinds of subjects, but we all want this place to be accessible and affordable to young people regardless of their wealth and station in life.

Mitch Daniels in a suit walking away from the White House

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Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels leaves the White House after a meeting of the National Governors Association with President Barack Obama February 27, 2012 in Washington, DC.

One of your biggest accomplishments at Purdue is holding tuition flat. There have been no increases since you arrived in 2013. How have you done that?

You have to decide what’s really important. Holding price constant was a very valuable thing to do. We’ve been more efficient in many ways—modernizing the health plan, being careful about hiring and capital expenses, making sure our money goes into things that directly impact the quality of education. We didn’t increase the number of international students, and we didn’t get any more money from the state. We didn’t move to less-expensive teaching. We still have one of the highest tenure/tenure-track percentages anywhere in higher education. What we did do is grow the student body, which creates substantially more revenue without raising the price. That creates a virtuous cycle because we know affordability is a significant factor in recruiting students.

More students is not a tradeoff to us. We’re a land-grant university, and this is what we’re here for. As long as we don’t relax the rigor of a Purdue education, access is our job. We believe graduating more students than we were is part of fulfilling our mission, and it also brings in the revenue to grow the faculty and enhance the quality of the service we’re providing.

You’ve spent a lot of time trying to help students graduate faster. What have you learned so far?

You have to give students choices, knowing that many of them are perfectly happy to go through what we think of as the traditional four-year track. The goal is to enable every student to move through as quickly as they’d like, and we’ve had a lot of support for speeding time to degree. Our average time to graduation has come down to a little under four years, which saves money and gets them out in the world a little sooner. Our three-year degree programs haven’t had quite as much uptake as I’d hoped, but about 9% of our students are getting through in fewer than four years.

We also started a program called Fast Start, thanks to a tremendous philanthropist named Steve Klinsky. It pays for high school students to take CLEP courses and exams, and we assure admissions to any student who successfully completes at least five of them. They basically finish freshman year credit before they get to Purdue. That program is attracting students from all over our state, but we think it has special relevance to rural students who might not have had access in their school districts to Advanced Placement or other college-level courses. Here’s a chance for them to essentially do their freshman year online at zero cost, maybe while also making some money to save for college.

Purdue has also started running its own high schools the Purdue Polytechnic High Schools. That’s pretty unusual for a university.

All of us in higher education wish we had or could bring more low-income and minority students to campus. That’s a frustration among college leaders nationally. At Purdue, we got tired of waiting on the public school system to produce enough candidates. It’s a sad reality that there are far too few of those students prepared to earn admission, and everybody competes for them. We just weren’t making enough progress.

That’s why we’re trying to build our own pipeline of talent. Right now we have schools in Indianapolis and South Bend. We opened them in places where we have historically been able to recruit only a small number of students and an even smaller number of minority students. We’re very hopeful that in the next few years, we’ll have multiple schools sending us talented young people from places where we haven’t recruited enough.

Our first school is now in its fourth year, so we have our first seniors graduating. Already, 50 have applied and earned their way to Purdue. And we’ve raised a lot of scholarship money to make sure college costs don’t block someone who is otherwise prepared and ready to succeed here. If these schools—despite their location and the background of most of their students—are outperforming substantially the other schools in their communities, maybe that holds some lessons for the rest of the school system.

That focus on diversity of backgrounds extends to the advice you give graduates. For a few years now, you’ve warned Purdue seniors about becoming an insulated “aristocracy,” cut off from the rest of the country.

It’s about helping them have a more rounded life perspective. Young people come to a place like Purdue and they’re very likely to marry someone like themselves, live and work with people like themselves, have kids that’ll associate with similar families, and on and on. It’s not sinister or even really intentional, but the idea of a “Big Sort” between educational haves and have-nots is just unmistakable. I tell them, “You will never have thought of yourselves this way, but you’re about to become an aristocrat.” It’s not about land or titles or wealth, it’s about this education and the advantages you’ll leave here with. The kind of knowledge economy we’re building has created a higher and higher premium for the kind of skills we teach at Purdue.

You have to try harder to avoid spending time only with people just like you. You’re going to have to make a little effort. Join a church on the other side of town. Join a bowling league. Look for a chance to interact personally with people whose life has been different than yours. It used to happen naturally; now you have to make a little more effort.

Why is it important to hear that from a university president?

One of the virtues that I think is central to this place, and maybe to land-grant colleges generally, is humility. Having some sense that you maybe don’t have all the answers, having some sense of empathy. Knowing that you’re not ordained by anyone, and certainly not by a degree, to be superior to anyone else.

I think my focus on humility came from eight years of being governor, being very conscious of working for every person in this state. I traveled to every corner of Indiana, staying in people’s homes and talking with people from every kind of background. So maybe I was a little more conscious that the kind of life that comes from a great education isn’t available to everyone. I wanted to remind our graduates of that and urge them not to lose the humility they’ll need to be good citizens.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.