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Re-imagining Higher Education in the United States

The time for change in higher ed was a decade ago or longer.  In my last post I discussed the fact that Covid-19 forced change in higher ed that was long overdue, but those forced changes were just a small first step.  I’ve attended numerous webinars and conferences this fall with ongoing themes around enrollment challenges, budgets, and the great resignation, but at most of these events the conversations happening around these challenges haven’t changed:  “we need to target adult learners, international students, and graduate students” or “we need to expand hybrid and online learning” and even more extreme suggestions like “we need to re-purpose areas of campus for senior citizens or refugees”.  Unfortunately, none of these ideas begin to tackle the fundamental issues that most higher educational institution must address to remain viable into the future.

Higher ed has been under attack for some time due to low graduation rates, astronomical student loan debt, and most recently for what is actually being taught.  This 2019 article from the Pew Research Center illustrates the divergent views of higher education that have rapidly evolved in our country for the past several years.  The good news is that it appears that some schools are starting to fight back.  This article from Inside Higher Ed discusses how the National Association of System Heads is taking action.  Their campaign to prove the value of education with empirical data is a great first step in the right direction to reversing some of the bad press that higher education has received in recent years.  This group is not alone in its hopes to change the narrative, but as we seek to make sure we understand the value of education, we must also address some of the underlying factors that leave higher education vulnerable and contribute to enrollment and student debt issues.

Enrollment was trending down well before Covid-19 hit and prompted steeper declines.  Leaders need to recognize that, unless they lead a flagship institution, enrollment is not going to bounce back to 2010 levels any time soon.  Our population has declined and there are fewer K-12 students who will be graduating high school in the coming years.   This NPR article explains the decade long downward trend.  When you combine the downward enrollment trend with continued decreases in funding from most states, many institutions find themselves in a very precarious financial position.  In fact, the only institutions who are likely not re-thinking their enrollment strategies right now are the flagship institutions which historically have had large endowments to fall back on and will always have more applicants than spaces available for new students.

Let’s be honest, we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of ROI of higher education for a large percentage of our population.  While individuals with college degrees still out-earn individuals without, the fact is that the cost to attend college has outpaced what you can earn if you are depending on financial aid to cover your education expenses (which happens with millions of low-income students each year).  The title of this 2021 article sums up the state of the cost of education for our most vulnerable students:  “New Data Show Recent Graduates Who Received Pell Grants Left School with $6 Billion More in Debt than Their Peers“.  Flexibility in financial aid repayment plans does not solve this problem – it just means that individuals who can least afford to attend college may be paying off student loans for the rest of their lives.  We’ve already seen significant enrollment drops in certain vulnerable student populations.  Are we headed back to an era where college is only available to the affluent?  If so, what will this mean for our nation?

While things seem bleak, all is not lost.  There are things we could, and should, be doing now.  We could lower the cost of education for many if we created more implicit pathways to and through college for all students.  We have a great and largely untapped resource in this country – the community college.  These institutions provide inexpensive pathways for students who don’t know what they want to study, aren’t as academically prepared to attend 4-year schools, or who want to work in technical fields.  We need to strengthen our pathways through high school to encourage more students to take advantage of their local community colleges – many of which are free!

Direct educational pathways are commonplace in other parts of the world and provide all students an opportunity to pursue advanced degrees.  For some students this may mean successful completion of a further education program (similar to community college) which adds a few years to their degree completion journey.  For years I was opposed to the way students are tracked into pathways overseas as I believed it limited opportunities for students.  After working in higher education for over a decade it is clear that what limits students in the US is a struggling K-12 system and costs associated to pursuing a post-secondary degree.  Because of this, we see thousands of academically underprepared students entering 4-year institutions each fall only to struggle.  This experience shakes their confidence and begins their journey into student debt.  When students are forced to repeat courses they couldn’t pass the first time around, the problem is compounded.  This article from 2017 does a good job of explaining the issues related to this problem.

Flagship institutions will continue to thrive and individuals who are fortunate enough to have the means to attend those institutions will derive benefits well into the future.  Not all colleges and universities need to provide a “country club” experience for their students.  Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses by providing residence halls with fitness centers and fancy dining options, student unions nicer than any community center you might find, and training facilities for student athletes that rival any training facility you might find for a professional athletic team – perhaps these schools might take a fraction of that budget and reinvest it in improving academic experiences that will help students progress through their programs of study more efficiently and effectively.  Goldie Blumenstyk’s recent article about how schools are responding to enrollment challenges provides hope that our systems can emerge from this crisis intact.  More online and hybrid learning options are a great place to start – especially for individuals who can’t afford or don’t want to visit campus for classes.  Working with businesses to see if they value micro-credentials and figure out how they see them enhancing the talent pool is another great idea we can work on now.  The overdue overhaul of our post-secondary system will require leaders with vision and the strength to do what is right instead of what is easy.

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