College 2023

Three challenges that higher education needs to address this year.

January 4, 2023

If you read the higher education press, you’d probably conclude that the top issues facing higher education are (in no particular order): college affordability, unmanageable student debt, spiraling costs, broken business models, enrollment declines, equity, threats to tenure, meddling politicians, academic freedom, campus free speech, students’ mental health, labor strife, toxic fraternities, career preparation, students struggling with food and housing insecurity, the plight of adjunct faculty, and discrimination based on disability, race, sex and sexual orientation and gender identity.

These are real issues that certainly deserve all the attention they receive.

But there are three other issues that are equally important yet aren’t front and center on the radar screen. These are issues that need to be addressed if we are to improve the quality of the education our campuses offer.

Issue 1: Transparency and accountability

Our current system of institutional accountability is wholly inadequate. Although it is possible, though difficult, to determine an institution’s graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduates, much essential information about institutional outcomes, quality and cost remains unavailable.

It is exceedingly difficult, for example, to learn much about disparities based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, the experience of transfer students or employment outcomes, let alone the quality of the education that the institution offers.

Without transparency and a rigorous system of campus accountability, institutions are under little pressure to improve.

Issue 2: Ever-rising institutional expectations and responsibilities

The functions that colleges and universities are supposed to fulfill and the responsibilities they are expected to meet are constantly expanding, and only the wealthiest institutions can meet those expectations.

Under intense pressure to raise graduation rates, diversify their student body, address mental health issues, meet students’ basic food and housing needs, and address disabilities, gender discrimination and diversity, equity and inclusion concerns, while improving postgraduation outcomes, schools have, at great expense, increased their professional, nonteaching staff even as they’ve had to improve their technological infrastructure and expand their offerings in emerging fields of study like computer science, engineering and neuroscience.

The $64,000 question is how institutions can do all these things as well as their existing functions (like research and graduate and professional education) without pricing themselves out of business.

Issue 3: Student learning and employment outcomes

Read a college mission statement and you’ll see that the aim is to produce graduates who are culturally, scientifically and mathematically and statistically literate, socially adept, physically fit, career-ready and well-prepared to function in diverse and globally connected environments. Yet no institution that I’m familiar with actually comes close to accomplishing these goals.

The curriculum consists of a mishmash of disconnected courses and a somewhat arbitrary set of requirements that can be met in ways that maximize student choice but do little to ensure that students meet those larger learning objectives.

If institutions are serious about achieving their goals, they’d rethink and redesign the academic and nonacademic experience they offer and become more outcomes-focused.

I don’t expect these three issues to be seriously addressed in the coming year.

Why? For reasons that we all know full well: inertia. Narrow self-interest. Misguided incentives. Professional socialization. Resource constraints. Stakeholders exercising veto power. Ill-functioning systems of campus governance.

Yet transformative change is nonetheless possible. The key levers, in my view, must come from outside individual campuses, since that may well be the only way to overcome institutional gridlock.

  1. Accreditors should require transparent indicators of cost, equity and completion. I find it remarkable that leading law schools decided to attack the ranking system by denying U.S. News access to the data that it uses to assess quality. It brings to mind the line voiced by Dana Carvey’s Church Lady on Saturday Night Live: “How convenient.” Parents, prospective students, accreditors and government need more data, not less.
  2. The reaccreditation process should focus on genuine measures of quality and student success. In addition to the standard measures of quality—for example, the share of faculty with a terminal degree or library resources—how about the proportion of students who take part in a high-impact practices, the share of faculty who are undergoing professional development in teaching and postgraduation employment and earnings outcomes? Accreditors should also know what steps the institution is taking to assess student learning and evaluate students’ skills and knowledge.
  3. Institutions should be required to compare their performance with peer institutions that serve similar student demographics. Not only should institutions compile and compare performance data, but campuses should also report on whether they have implemented best practices in student success.
  4. Public and foundation funding should better align with student needs. Instead of disproportionately funding elite institutions, public and foundation funding should be redirected to better support those institutions that serve the largest number of high needs students.
  5. The state and federal governments should defund programs and penalize institutions that fail to meet certain gainful-employment standards. It seems to me that there should be severe consequences when institutions offer “cash-cow” programs without a minimum return on investment—$121,290 for a nine-and-a-half-month journalism program? It’s high time to adopt and enforce return-on-investment rubrics.

Pressures for change should also come from within institutions.

  1. Faculty should resist initiatives that degrade the academic experience and undercut academic quality. Faculty should strictly scrutinize academic initiatives that threaten to reduce standards, including asynchronous online classes without regular, substantive interaction with a bona fide faculty member, the proportion of classes taught by graduate students, or three or four week “accelerated” mini-mester classes or large lectures without breakout sessions. Just say no.
  2. Faculty should require their institutions to collect and act upon data involving equity and disparate outcomes. Are there classes at your institution with grossly disproportionate DFW rates or equity gaps? Are transfer students at your institution treated fairly? Are well-qualified students barred from entering high-demand majors? Are large numbers of students closed out of essential classes? Faculty need to know, and the institution needs to take steps to address these inequities.
  3. Faculty should initiate campuswide conversations about best practices in advising, support services and student success. I fear that at all too many institutions, faculty act like members of Congress who defer responsibility for governance to the executive branch and government agencies. No one has a greater stake in their institution’s performance than faculty members. Therefore, it’s incumbent on them to hold their administration to account, especially in the area of students’ academic success. It’s time to ask some basic questions: What more could your campus do to bring more students to academic and postgraduation success? Are there best practices that the institution needs to implement?
  4. Take greater responsibility for student well-being and success. Connect and interact with your students. Build success skills and major and career exploration into your classes. Make your classes broader, more interactive and more relevant. Monitor student learning. Be alert to their confusions. Provide regular, meaningful and constructive feedback. Be the mentor you wanted.

As faculty members, we should take to heart Voltaire’s core message in Candide: that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German philosopher and polymath, got it wrong. All is not for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Our colleges and universities have real problems: affordability. Attainment rates that are too low and time to degree too long. Uncertain learning and employment outcomes,

Yet, unlike Candide, don’t just cultivate your own garden. As academic professionals, we have a duty to ensure that our institutions live up to their principles and high purpose. That means refusing to allow the mechanisms of shared governance to atrophy and ceding responsibility to those who have different priorities and agendas.

Take a more active role in institutional policy and decision-making in many domains, but especially in the areas relating to student success, including the academic calendar, advising, course scheduling, student support services and transfer policies, as well as degree requirements, curricula and pedagogy.

Voltaire’s aphorisms richly deserve their fame: “O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!” Or “God is on the side of the largest battalions.” Or “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Or “The best is the enemy of the good.”

For those of us in higher education, we’d do well to remember these particular sayings:

“Virtue is debased by self-justification”: let’s not look out solely for own narrow self-interest, but do everything we can to make sure that our institution is learner and learning-centered.

“Almost everything is imitation … The most original minds borrow from one another”: or, put more succinctly, only steal from the best. Don’t hesitate to experiment with and implement practices that work elsewhere.

“Everyone is guilty of the good that he does not do”: don’t be a passive bystander. Seize the day.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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