Anyone who’s gone through a relationship breakup has heard the phrase “We need to talk.”
It’s a clue that a partner is deeply unhappy and that the conversation’s outcome is likely to be unpleasant. It puts you on notice that you’d better take this conversation seriously. It translates to “Listen to me now or I’m out the door.”
But it’s not just couples that need to talk. There are conversations that postsecondary education needs to have.
This country’s system of higher education may be the best in the world, but it’s also extremely inequitable, exceedingly expensive and of uneven quality.
Far too many students never earn a degree, and far too many graduate with high levels of debt that they can’t repay. After college, too many graduates flail and flounder for years before they eventually fall into a steady job that frequently doesn’t reflect their training.
To make matters worse, students of color and those from low-income backgrounds are concentrated in the least resourced institutions—and are the least likely to graduate or to get a degree in a high-demand field.
So let me suggest 10 pressing issues that higher education needs to discuss and tackle head-on.
How can we get a much larger number of high-performing students of color and students from low-income backgrounds into more selective and better-resourced colleges and universities? The techniques we currently rely upon—more aggressive recruiting and various nudges—haven’t done the job.
What, then, might selective institutions do? At a minimum, they need to greatly enhance their outreach and recruitment efforts and expand their summer bridge programs and after-school programs.
Even though 80 percent of community college students aspire to a bachelor’s degree, fewer than 20 percent ever get one. What can we do to make sure that a much higher proportion of community college students earn a degree?
Ideas on the table include co-enrollment in two- and four-year institutions, seamless transfer that rests on aligned curricula and application of all credits to fulfill gen ed and major requirements, and encouraging community colleges to offer applied bachelor’s degrees.
Women not only make up 60 percent of undergraduates, but they are much more likely to earn a degree than men. However, women remain less likely to graduate with a degree in the highest-demand fields, like engineering and advanced mathematics.
What steps should institutions take to address these gender gaps? I can suggest a few ideas, but others will surely come up with more.
To ensure that more women graduate with highly marketable skills, we might create more dual majors (for example, in health sciences and analytics or computer science). To increase male enrollment, retention and graduation, we might place a greater emphasis on active and experiential learning and offer more co-op opportunities, which would also benefit women.
Between a third and 40 percent of students never receive a degree. As a result, they leave with debt but none of the advantages of a college education. What would it take to substantially raise graduation rates?
Comprehensive academic support programs like CUNY’s ASAP and ACE might provide a model. To help students succeed, these programs provide intensive academic advising, including an academic and a faculty adviser; supplemental instruction; career preparation; tuition scholarships; textbooks; community-building activities; and assistance with transportation.
5. Affordability and indebtedness
It’s not just that too many students exit college heavily burdened with debt, but that they earn too little postgraduation to repay their loans. What steps can institutions take to improve their graduates’ return on investment?
Many proposed solutions, like loan forgiveness, hinge on politics or rely on quality reductions—such as expanding use of less expensive adjunct faculty or raising student-faculty ratios or imposing tuition freezes. But there are other steps that institutions can take on their own:
- Connecting students to public benefits, including nutrition and housing assistance.
- Optimizing time to degree by removing barriers (like course unavailability or arcane major requirements) to timely graduation.
- Substituting need-based scholarships and grants for those that are not need-based.
- Expanding opportunities for accelerated graduation, including credit for prior learning, concurrent enrollment with neighboring institutions and strengthening transfer agreements.
- Making effective use of data-driven advising to keep students on track to on-time graduation.
6. Job preparation
How can colleges better prepare graduates for success in the job market? Possibilities include:
- Opening windows into careers and labor market trends throughout an undergraduate education.
- Offering workshops and boot camps to ensure that students graduate with high-demand skills.
- Expanding internship opportunities and co-op experiences and ensuring that on-campus jobs have a professional development component.
- Providing more ways for students to build up their résumés, including maker spaces, entrepreneurship hubs and innovation centers.
7. Business model
As their costs rise, new fields of study emerge and standards of care rise, many colleges have a broken business model. Due to demographic developments, rising costs and the growth of dual-degree/early-college programs, the situation is likely to worsen. What steps should institutions take to stabilize their finances and increase enrollment without compromising their mission, their educational quality or their commitment to liberal education?
- The first step is to a sustainable business model is understanding: your institution’s niche, competitive threats, market opportunities and program revenue and costs.
- A second step is to devise a strategic plan for enrollment and revenue growth that aligns with your institution’s mission and market.
- A third step is to optimize resource allocations and curricular offerings.
All stakeholders ought to take part in these strategic planning discussions.
The American system of higher education is among the most stratified in the world in terms of resources, student-faculty ratios and levels of student preparation. To make matters worse, the neediest students are concentrated in the least resourced, least selective institutions. What steps can we take to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education that better meets their needs?
In my view, the answer will require the more highly resourced institutions to take steps to benefit many more students and to contribute to the higher educational ecosystem as a whole.
It also requires all institutions to make sure that every undergraduate on their campuses has access to the same opportunities as your most privileged students. These might include the opportunities for membership in a specialized cohort or learning community, supervised research and interaction with a faculty mentor.
9. In loco parentis
Sometimes one hears faculty grumbling that a college is an educational institution and should not be responsible for addressing every facet of students’ lives. In fact, colleges have a moral and legal obligation to accommodate students with special needs, provide an environment free of sexual harassment and assault or hazing, meet students’ basic needs for housing and food security, tackle issues of binge drinking and substance abuse, police fraternities and sororities, and address students’ mental health issues.
But how can colleges best meet students’ needs and ensure their safety without intruding unnecessarily in their privacy and freedom or policing their morals? Institutions need to:
- Affirm their duty to protect students from harm and ensure that all students have access to a supportive and inclusive learning environment.
- Educate students about improper and illegal behavior and the potential consequences for policy violations, not simply through box-checking training programs but through genuine campus conversations.
- Do more to encourage a sense of belonging and to address student stress, for example, with wellness programs and opportunities to interact with counselors, advisers and faculty.
10. Culture wars
Colleges and universities have become ground zero in the nation’s culture wars. Many Americans fear, not without reason, that academic freedom is in danger—from cancel culture, political correctness run amok, interference by legislators and special interests, and attacks on tenure. How can institutions of higher learning reaffirm and reassert their commitment to open debate and untrammeled scholarship in the face of pressures for intellectual conformity from within and without and from the right and the left?
Formulaic defenses of academic freedom and free speech are insufficient. Campuses should:
- Host campus conversations that discuss academic freedom, including the freedom to discuss controversial or challenging topics and the necessity of avoiding discriminatory, threatening and disruptive language and behavior.
- Expand opportunities for dialogue about difficult campus issues.
The phrase “we need to talk” is scary. The very words signal that we won’t like the conversation or the likely outcome. Nevertheless, there are conversations that need to take place. So remember the words attributed to Winston Churchill: to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.
Higher education faces urgent issues that we shouldn’t avoid. It’s time to face up to that fact.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.