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There are years that mark the end of one era and the dawn of another. These landmark years represent history’s fulcrums or hinges or pivots, profound turning points when long-term trends consolidate, when intersecting events reach a conjuncture and when underlying tensions reach a boiling point.

These are the moments when profound societal and cultural shifts in direction take place.

One such year was 1919. The Treaty of Versailles helped fuel the German resentment that would lead to the rise of Adolph Hitler. That year also saw the start of a new era of resistance to European colonialism, with the Amritsar Massacre, the war for Irish independence and the May 4 and May 1 movements in China and Korea.

William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem “The Second Coming,” with its reference to the “end times” and its portrait of a world wrenched out of joint, painted the year as a moment of transition. That was certainly the case in the United States, with enforcement of Prohibition, the flowering of Christian fundamentalism and labor strife, anti-Black violence and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

Sometimes, transformation takes tangible forms like Hollywood’s studio system’s sudden rise to global dominance, or the maturation of the auto industry, with the arrive of auto loans, annual model changeovers and closed-body cars. But often it entails shifts in mind-set, like the revolution of morals and manners that paved the way for the Jazz Age and the Roaring 20s.

Last year will, I am convinced, be viewed in retrospect as a year of profound transition in higher ed. Let’s take a look at some of the developments that have made 2020 truly a year of transformation.

1. The pandemic exposed the depth of inequities in higher education.

The pandemic awakened all of us to the number of students whose basic needs for housing and food were unmet. It also underscored stark disparities in living arrangements, access to technology, and familial responsibilities.

The 2020 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States offers a succinct list of the many inequities that colleges need to address:

  • Even though college enrollment among low-income students increased from 32 percent in 1990 to 51 percent, it’s 24 percentage points lower than among students in the highest quartile.
  • Of every 100 low-income and first-generation students entering college, only 21 have earned a bachelor’s degree six years later, compared to 66 of all other students.
  • Students from the upper quintile are eight times more likely to attend a highly or moderately selective college than those from the lowest SES quintile (33 percent versus 4 percent).
  • The value of the maximum Pell Grant peaked in 1975-76 when the grant covered about 67 percent of average college costs; in 2018-19 the maximum Pell Grant covered 25 percent. [Indicator 3b]
  • The proportion of U.S. students who earn a bachelor’s degree went from second place in 2002 to 18th place in 2018.

2. College enrollments continued to fall

Last year marked the ninth year in a row that college enrollment has declined. This was true even before the pandemic struck and campuses shifted to remote learning. The continued dip in higher education enrollment -- down 2.5 percent over all (twice the 2019-20 decline), resulting in a loss of 400,000 students -- has, of course, severely strained college budgets and is only expected to intensify as we enter a period of demographic decline, which will be especially intense in the Midwest and Northeast.

Much of the decline was concentrated at community colleges. Recessions usually produce a surge in community college enrollment, but this fall, their enrollments fell by more than 10 percent or more than 544,000 students.

The enrollment decline’s impact hit Black, Hispanic and low-income students and adult learners hardest. The number of community college students who transferred to a four-year campus also fell, by about 1 percent. Campuses also saw a big drop in foreign enrollment, with massive revenue consequences, raising concern that fewer international students will attend American universities in the future.

3. High-stakes admissions testing was suspended

The Varsity Blues college admissions scandal highlighted a moral outrage: inequities in access to highly selective colleges, which includes not only bribery and fraudulent applications, but the admissions of legacies, major donors’ children and athletes in exclusive sports. Along with the disruption in standardized admissions test administration, this scandal gave fresh momentum to the movement to abolish high-stakes admissions testing.

More than 1,600 four-year schools won’t require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores in 2021. Convinced that the admissions tests mirror and maintain racial inequalities, a growing number of institutions, including five University of California campuses and the Cal State system, will go test blind and won’t consider applicants’ test scores at all in admissions or scholarship allocation.

In the absence of SAT and ACT scores, admissions offices will rely more heavily on class rank, high school GPA, the rigor of courses taken, application essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities and students’ life stories. Although colleges will not use the “Adversity Score” that the College Board proposed in May 2019, which drew upon 15 socioeconomic variables (including median family income, percentage of households in poverty and unemployment and crime rates) to estimate the hardships that students had to overcome, many institutions are likely to take such factors into account on a more individualized basis.

4. College closures, institutional mergers and program terminations accelerated

The institutions that closed in 2020 tended to be small and not well-known, like Concordia University Portland, MacMurray College and Urbana University, but the threatened shutdown of Hampshire College raised fears that the pandemic might spell the beginning of the end for many liberal arts colleges. At the same time, institutional consolidations, like those being considered by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, reveal that even publicly funded regional campuses in areas of demographic decline are under intense enrollment pressures and severe financial strain.

In the face of extreme budget shortfalls, not just small colleges like Wells, but big institutions including Albany, Howard, Idaho, LSU, Maine, Missouri and Washington State are eliminating majors, graduate programs or even entire departments, largely in the humanities.

5. The Obama era credential-attainment goals went unmet.

In 2009, Barack Obama called for 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 to have earned a two- or four-year college degree by 2020. Although incremental progress was made, with the overall rate rising from 40 to 49 percent, the ETS calculated that the only groups to reach the federal goal on time were Asian women and men and white women. Groups not predicted to reach the goals by 2060 include African American men, Hispanic women and men, and American Indian/Native Alaskan women and men. It is also unlikely that the country will reach the Lumina Foundation’s 2025 goals, which include credentials and certificates with genuine market value, due, in part, to the failure to close persistent ethnic and racial gaps.

6. Furloughs, layoffs, hiring freezes, benefit cuts and replacement of tenured faculty with faculty off the tenure track spread.

Over the past year, colleges and universities have lost about 150,000 jobs, a decline of nearly 14 percent. The cuts’ brunt has been borne by staff, but administrators are also imposing furloughs, trimming benefits and eliminating pay raises for faculty, shuttering and combining programs, laying off adjuncts, and, in a handful of instances, declaring financial exigency and eliminating tenure.

7. College athletics was upended.

Intercollegiate athletics did not escape the pandemic’s wrath, and the impact of the street protests that shed a harsh light on this society’s inequities. At least 34 universities -- including such national powerhouses as Iowa, Minnesota and Stanford -- shuttered more than 116 Division I programs, affecting some 1,500 athletes.

At the same time, pressure to overhaul college athletics came from activist athletes, the courts and Congress. Legislation introduced in Congress would allow athletes to make money from their names, images and likenesses; force schools to share revenue with athletes and cover athletes’ medical costs; establish health and safety rules; and guarantee lifetime scholarships to athletes in good academic standing.

Areas of Progress

Not all the higher education news was downbeat. There were some notable areas of progress.

The language of crisis has dominated higher education discourse at least since the late 19th century, making it all the more important to resist hyperbole and not exaggerate the challenges higher education faces. Even in the face of the pandemic, glimmers of hope beckon and student success models flourish and beg for emulation.

  • Community College Completion Rates

    Half of bachelor's degree graduates attend a community college at some point during their academic career, as do 20 percent of master's degrees recipients and 10 percent of Ph.D.s. Yet it is still the case that less than 15 percent of the community college students who aspire to a bachelor’s degree ever get one.

    Nevertheless, there are signs of progress. The average completion rate for students who first enrolled in public community colleges in fall 2016 rose to a record high of 33.7 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The rate is 46.6 percent when students who transferred prior to earning a credential are added.

  • Early College/Dual Enrollment

    More than a million high school students a year participate in dual enrollment programs. Students of all racial and ethnic groups who participate in these programs are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college and earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. The challenge before us is to increase access to students from historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and low-income backgrounds.

  • Guided Pathways, Wraparound Supports, Developmental Education Reform and Urban Credential Partnerships

    Higher ed’s problem is not a shortage of ideas; it’s implementation. We know, for example, that structured degree programs work with clearly defined pathways and synergistic courses are especially successful at bringing students from low-income backgrounds to completion.

    We’ve also found that replacing math and English placement tests with multiple measures and enhanced academic support can significantly increase the number of students who successfully fulfill their college math and English composition requirements.

    From rigorous third-party assessments, we now know that full-time enrollment, proactive academic advising and career counseling, enhanced academic supports, financial incentives, and textbook assistance, like CUNY’s ASAP and ACE programs, can significantly improve student outcomes.

    We also learned that partnerships between area community colleges and four-year institutions, like Houston GPS, which establish an integrated system of shared strategies -- including a common student data tracking system, structured (“block”) schedules, technology-enabled intrusive advising, degree plan articulation, seamlessly transferrable gen ed and major courses, corequisite remediation, and math pathways aligned with majors -- can significantly raise completion rates.

    With all that we know, there’s no excuse for failing to implement similar strategies at scale.

Without minimizing the pain, suffering and loss that the pandemic has wrought, we should also recognize that the past year’s crises may well have been the kick in the pants that higher education needed. It certainly raised consciousness, placing equity front and center on the higher ed agenda. As a society, we are much more aware of the stratification of the higher education ecosystem. We also recognize that since the last recession, the U.S. has made little progress on the funding gap for the institutions that serve the largest numbers of low-income students and students of color.

In addition, 2020 sparked a fresh understanding of the college debt crisis. While graduate and professional students acquire the most debt, the impact of indebtedness falls greatest on those students who fail to complete a degree. We also now recognize that in many instances, it’s low- and middle-income parents who assume some of most substantial debts, at great cost to their retirement savings.

But perhaps the most striking outgrowth of 2020 was a critique of meritocracy -- defined not in terms of talent or achievement but by a credential from an elite college or university. As Michael Sandel warned, one of the consequences of the degree-based meritocracy is that it too often leads the educated elite to disparage those without a college credential and to devalue the work they perform or the values they uphold. We need to remember that 61 percent of all adults 29 to 34 years old, including 71 percent of African Americans and 79 percent of Hispanics, do not have a bachelor’s degree.

Somewhat similarly, Oren Cass reminded us how much our society invests in college students and how little it invests in everyone else. Whereas federal and state level funding, plus tax breaks and loan subsidies for higher education, exceeds $150 billion annually, federal spending on vocational paths at the high school and postsecondary level totals just $1 billion.

A true commitment to equity will require us not just to concentrate resources on those most poised for financial success, but on those unlikely to be served by traditional colleges and universities. It will also require us to ensure that federal and state policies promote cost-effectiveness, efficiency and equity in allocating funds, while maintaining or improving quality.

So what should we have learned from 2020? Some lessons strike me as obvious:

  • Lesson 1: Gaps in college attainment contribute significantly to our partisan and economic divides, and our colleges and universities have a responsibility to take steps to dramatically increase attainment of a marketable credentials. This strikes me as the most promising way to address the biggest challenges facing this country: wage stagnation, income inequality and profound political polarization that inhibits much-needed reforms.
  • Lesson 2: In the absence of serious investment in training, instructional design, student support and technology, remote learning is largely ineffective for most undergraduates. If we are to continue to teach online, we have a duty to ensure that it is far more engaging, well supported and effective.
  • Lesson 3: Our institutions have as yet failed to successfully tackle the shift from mass higher education to near universal higher education. Until we close the success gap -- by bringing substantially larger numbers of underrepresented and nontraditional students to completion in high-demand fields -- we have failed at our biggest responsibility: ensuring that those students we admit will thrive in today’s volatile and uncertain economy.

So let me end with the following new year’s resolution: That we recommit ourselves to addressing the challenges that 2020 made inescapable:

  • Achieving our society’s attainment goals;
  • Closing achievement and equity gaps;
  • Becoming more transparent about price and outcomes; and
  • Ensuring that our degree recipients are workforce ready and demonstrate the knowledge and skills expected of a college graduate.

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

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