He was CEO of the Hudson Institute, directed the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, and served as governor of Indiana for eight years. But some of the most interesting work accomplished by Mitch Daniels has been during his time as president of Purdue University, a position he assumed in 2013. He’s focused hard on bringing affordability and value to his storied land-grant university—and in the process showing other universities how to stop burning money. Hard-headed measures of how much various Boilermaker diplomas contribute toward a satisfying career and productive life are the kind of thing that gets his pulse racing. Philanthropy recently interviewed Daniels about his new initiatives, how to protect donor intent, and data, data, data.
Q: What role does private philanthropy play at a state university like Purdue?
A: It’s no secret that traditional sources of support for public universities are under differing degrees of pressure. Indiana has maintained its total spending for higher education, I believe at the third-best rate in the country, last data I saw. But still, Purdue receives fewer dollars today than it did several years ago. So if a university like ours wants to be careful about what it charges students, it’s forced to look elsewhere to make ends meet. We work hard on efficient spending, we work hard on corporate partnerships for research and other work that we can do, and we make our case to philanthropists. In the last year we got the largest single grant in the history of our university, for a variety of things ranging from growth of our engineering college to transformation of our school of technology.
Q: Philanthropists often worry about giving to large universities, specifically in regard to having their donor intent ignored. Do you have any suggestions?
A: We’ve all seen abuses of donor intent, and it offends me almost as much as it offends the donor in question. Donors can be careful and specific in their original gift, but to some extent it comes down to the integrity of the school in question. I’ll just say that at Purdue we take it very seriously, and would view it as a failure on our part if a donor saw his or her money spent for purposes he or she didn’t intend.
Q: What role can donors play in improving college affordability?
A: Probably larger than they think. Donors and foundations should politely inquire: “What’s your tuition policy, and your recent record of increases? What is your university doing to promote efficiency in the use of resources?” Simply ask those questions as one of the requirements in applying for a grant. It would introduce a new note of discipline in the system. I think you’d be surprised how much impact it might make in raising the consciousness of people for whom this hasn’t been a high enough priority.
Q: You’ve frozen tuition at Purdue for the last couple and the next couple years. How are you making that up?
A: Well, it isn’t appropriations. And although donations have set some records, most of that doesn’t come in right away. So mainly we’re being more careful on the expenditure side. We’ve asked the entire campus to participate. We have what’s called a Student Affordability Fund. Many of us in administrative positions have forgone any raises; money saved has gone to that fund. We struck a deal with Amazon which is saving students a lot of money on textbooks, and as part of that deal Purdue gets a small commission—all of that money goes into the Affordability Fund.
Thanks to cost cutting, this year we were not only able to hold tuition, but raise salaries. I made a portion of the raise contingent on creation by each university unit—there are about 20 in total—of a plan for improving their efficiency in spending, reducing fixed expenses, and making better use of space. I’m happy to say all the units came forward and more than met the goal.
Q: Can you tell me more about the survey that you’re doing with Gallup?
A: The Gallup Purdue Index is the largest survey ever taken of college graduates: 30,000 every year. So it’s a very big database. It allows for slicing and dicing in all kinds of ways that haven’t been possible before. It began out of our interest in being able to prove the value of a Purdue education, something else that higher ed hasn’t been called on to do.
We’re learning a lot about college graduates in general, as well as a subset of Purdue graduates too. By comparing the general and Purdue samples we’re able to calculate the positive outcomes of a Purdue education—which turn out to be extraordinary. Not just material, by the way. Purdue students do well in things like jobs and income, but Gallup also measures five “domains of well-being.” Taken together, these are highly predictive of a great employee, a great citizen, and a successful life. So we have something reliable and authoritative to say about the product that we’re providing. At Purdue we travel under the little catchphrase, “higher education at the highest proven value,” and each word matters. “Proven” is the one that we’re discussing here.
Q: What’s the age range of the survey? Recent graduates?
A: All ages. The survey results yielded a huge batch of headlines about significant percentages of alumni not sure their college was worth it. To me, the most significant finding was a big drop between those who’ve been out at least ten years and those who’ve come out more recently. The younger graduates paid a lot more for their degrees—a lot more. And in some cases, it’s not clear what rigor of education they got; it appears that rigor had been diluted. This treasure trove of data started with Purdue wanting to prove what up to that point we could only suspect and assert—that our service, our education, is highly valuable. That’s a question all colleges need to explore honestly.