Still a Space of Possibility

Despite all the current challenges, higher education remains one of the best places to work and to contribute your knowledge, skills and gifts, KerryAnn O’Meara, Kristen Renn and D-L Stewart argue.

June 4, 2020
 
 
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Around the United States last month, master’s and doctoral students graduated from more than 220 higher education graduate programs. Amid the virtual defenses and celebrations, there has also been a very real fear.

Our graduating students have been wondering, “Will there be a job to go to? Will the job I am already in still be there in a few months?” Those looking for faculty jobs or student affairs residential positions during a hiring freeze have been asking, “Will there be a career for me?” Meanwhile, undergraduates recently accepted in graduate master’s programs have been wondering if there will be assistantship funding and opportunities to learn in the field or whether most of their experience will be a shadow of itself online.

Perhaps more broadly, though, as everyone has had time to reflect, our students may now be wondering if higher education will still be a good place to work, a place to make a difference in the world, a place worthy of the talent they have to give.

As professors in three such higher education graduate programs and as president, past president and president-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, we write to graduate students and others with a message. We hear you, and this is going to be hard, but it can also be transformative. You can be part of that transformation. And higher education is still going to be one of the best places to work and contribute your knowledge, skills and gifts. You made the right choice. This is still a space of possibility.

It will be hard -- there is no sugarcoating it. Higher education graduate programs exist in different types of institutions, but many are in large public research and comprehensive doctoral institutions facing hefty state budget cuts, furloughs, layoffs and hiring freezes. There is enormous uncertainty across the sector, with no clear answers about when or how to make decisions about the move back from fully remote to hybrid or place-based courses. Just as in the larger United States, COVID-19 has had disproportionate effects on black, brown, indigenous, first-generation, low-income and undocumented/DACA students. Many such students depended on campus jobs and services, and the abrupt move online forced some students to scramble to find internet access, pay living expenses and support dependents. Graduate students in higher education in many ways study the ecosystem within which they work -- and both they and that ecosystem are hurting.

And yet there will be opportunities as our field and system work to navigate through this pandemic to transform that ecosystem, to make it more accessible and equitable to more people, to ensure more learning and development occur, and to make it a better place to work with each other. Around the United States, staff members who have converted to telework will be seeking to change the requirements from five-day-a-week, in-person work schedules to those with more flexibility. The financial crisis and massive unemployment have forced many policy makers and leaders to see the need for more affordable, if not free, higher education for all as a way of rebuilding the economy. The tenure delay and time-to-degree extensions may be the beginning of rethinking one-size-fits-all graduate program requirements and faculty reward systems. These are but a few examples of the changes that lie ahead.

The common joke about those who join higher education as a field of study and practice is that we are the people who had very good college experiences and never wanted to leave. Not having anything else to do, we kept going to college to stay in the place we loved. Of course, there’s a little truth to that, but we also think those who enter the field of higher education study and practice are the ones who want to make a difference in the world.

And higher education remains that space of possibility. We all know the economics -- the gap in lifetime earnings between the people who have a college degree and those who don’t. We know the far greater opportunities available to first-generation college students and their families when their student makes it through. But higher education is also a place that shapes the knowledge, skills and values of our leaders. Think about all of the health-care workers, K-12 teachers, judges, police, engineers, mayors, governors -- the list goes on -- who were trained in colleges and universities. They pass through our halls and programs, and it matters what they learn, how they learn and whom they see as role models. It matters that they learn to have difficult dialogues across difference and have their ideas challenged.

And the benefits extend not only to our spaces of teaching, learning and development. Our research labs are working furiously to create the next vaccine, and more broadly, our higher education research enterprise, in close partnership with research institutions throughout the rest of the world, will be more important than ever in helping the world recover from COVID-19. Likewise, as neighbors, employers and educational institutions, our institutions’ engagement with local businesses, schools and government will be vital to their recovery.

You, graduates of master’s and doctoral higher education and student affairs programs, new entrants to our field, will have the chance to become architects of what comes next -- what our friend Gary Rhoades, director at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, has called the “higher education we choose.” We need you in there. We need your heads and hearts.

We have each made careers in this field. Within higher education we found opportunities for learning and mentorship; we’ve had the chance to write and share our ideas and engage in policy development and public thought. Collectively, we have been able to design new programs for students and faculty members at our universities, to contribute to shared governance and policy change, and to try to make our workplaces more just. It is good work. It is a good place to work.

It will also be very hard work in the coming months, as we navigate this pandemic and try to determine what comes next. But your commitment and talent are exactly what we need to create the higher education we -- all of us -- choose. Together, we have a rare chance to remake our environment to reflect our values and influence our communities. Our field needs all of us to pursue and enable the best possibilities for its future. Let’s roll up our sleeves.

Bio

KerryAnn O’Meara is professor of higher education at the University of Maryland. Kristen Renn is professor of higher, adult and lifelong education and associate dean of undergraduate studies for student success research at Michigan State University. D-L Stewart is professor and co-coordinator of student affairs in higher education at Colorado State University. The views expressed here are their own.

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