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Taking Stock of 2019

Higher education a decade after the dawn of the Great Recession.

January 2, 2020
 
 

Half a dozen years after its end, the Great Recession’s repercussions persist.

The Great Recession was like an earthquake that rattles the ground and then subsides -- yet leaves the landscape transformed. Over a decade after its onset, the Great Recession fundamentally altered American higher education.

The Great Recession brought five persistent issues to the surface:

  • A college education’s cost: How to contain higher education’s costs without diluting quality or rigor.
  • Revenue sources: How to fund higher education in ways that did not depend on increases in government appropriations or undergraduate tuition.
  • Higher education’s value proposition: How to demonstrate the value of a college degree, whether in terms of skills and knowledge acquired or by job placement and postgraduation earnings.
  • Higher education’s inequities: How to address higher education’s inequalities, even as the stratification and differentiation in terms of resources, demand, prestige and student bodies have increased.
  • The skills gap: How to ensure that Americans have the skills and credentials that are prerequisites in today’s economy.

The Great Recession’s immediate aftermath saw a quest for panaceas. MOOCs promised free global access to the best classes by the most distinguished faculty. Competency-based education held out the possibility of a streamlined, self-paced education tightly aligned with industry needs.

For-profit online education (and its nominally nonprofit imitators) offered the prospect of convenient, flexible, career-focused education to the growing numbers of working adults and family caregivers. Nondegree certificates promised a shorter, cheaper path to a rewarding career.

The panaceas proved too good to be true. MOOCs lacked a sustainable business model, failed (in most cases) to offer academic credit and appealed primarily to highly motivated learners with a degree. Competency-based education, lacking fixed terms, proved difficult to adapt to a financial system that relied on credit hours and required regular, substantive interaction with a subject matter expert.

For-profit online education relied heavily on government-financed financial aid, abusive recruiting practices and misleading postgraduation employment and earning promises. Even nonprofits discovered that high-quality online education at the undergraduate level was not cheaper than face-to-face instruction unless it replaced traditional staffing models. Such classes proved demanding to develop and teach, raised difficult issues involving intellectual property and academic integrity, and worked poorly with the least prepared students.

As for nondegree certificates, the value that employers place on such credentials remains unclear.

Meanwhile, competition across the higher education ecosystem intensified as local markets for students increasingly became regional or even national. At the elite level, competition focused in facilities and amenities, student services, and the range of programs offered, raising the bar for less well-funded institutions.

Less prestigious arts colleges saw demand fall, especially among full-paying students, unless they began to offer expensive preprofessional programs in computer science, engineering, health care and media. Regional comprehensives lost students to flagships and land-grant institutions but also to online providers.

In a quest for new sources of revenue, many institutions sought full-pay international and out-of-state students, aggressively pursued donors and funded research, and expanded continuing and professional education offerings. Institutions also tapped auxiliary services, especially facilities rentals and summer programs, and pursued partnerships with real estate developers and technology firms.

Accreditors took steps to improve education, by pressuring institutions to identify and monitor learning outcomes, institute high-impact practices, improve graduation rates, and reduce achievement gaps. But in the name of encouraging experimentation, accreditors opened the door to educational approaches that allowed “innovators” to replace faculty with coaches and substitute programmed learning for instructor-designed classes.

Where do we stand?

Given the hype and headlines about innovation, less has changed than many assume. Despite the growth of online and hybrid courses, the proliferation of teaching centers, and the hiring of instructional designers, higher education remains firmly encased within its traditional boxes.

The fixed-start, fixed-length term, the credit hour, the tripartite division of the curriculum into gen ed requirements, discipline-based majors and electives remain firmly entrenched. Lectures continue to dominate teaching.

The most highly touted alternatives to bricks and mortar campuses -- like Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors -- while individually quite large, still enroll a small proportion of undergraduates.

Efforts to control costs have had only marginal success. Countervailing forces make it very difficult to offer a cut-rate education that students and parents still find appealing.

The stratification of institutions continues to intensify.

For all the talk about diversity and inclusion, higher education remains among this society’s most hierarchical sectors. Elite institutions resist expansion, as well as efforts to eliminate legacy admissions and preference for athletes in sports that appeal to the rich. Despite state funding that seeks to benefit less resourced institutions, the flagships and land-grants and elite privates dominate grant getting, philanthropic giving and contract research.

A decade after the Great Recession, the challenges remain what they were.

  • Can we make a quality higher education affordable without sacrificing quality?
  • Can we better serve those whom higher education has poorly served: transfer students, nontraditional students, those who entered college with uneven backgrounds and those who transfer from one institution to another?
  • And can we equalize the college-going experience that currently privileges those lucky enough to attend well-resourced institutions?

If our colleges and universities fail to address these challenges, I suspect legislators will. We mustn’t indulge in the wishful thinking that their answers will necessarily result in better funding for incumbent institutions.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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