January is the time when we say good-bye to the previous 12 months and look ahead to the next ones. It’s clear that 2016 was an especially turbulent year for higher education. What’s on tap for 2017?
Here are a few of the most serious trending issues that are likely to affect colleges and universities.
Sliding enrollments. College and university enrollment in America continued to decline in 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Not all institutions have been affected equally: four-year public and elite private institutions continue to grow, while small colleges are under strain, intensifying the gap between haves and have-nots. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, tipped over the 100,000 mark for applications this fall, and Yale University announced a multiyear effort to enroll more students from its sizable pool. But more than four in 10 private colleges and almost three in 10 public ones missed their goals for enrollment and tuition revenue in 2016.
While demographic trends vary by region, in general the student population is becoming more diverse, fueled by increases in numbers of Hispanic and Asian students. Many colleges also have relied upon international students to diversify their campuses and plug the enrollment hole, but concerns over Trump administration rhetoric about immigration may depress international applications, as has already occurred in British universities in the wake of the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union.
Concerns about cost and access. The free-college effort is likely dead at the federal level, but that doesn’t mean concerns about cost will abate. Bipartisan pressure will continue to force colleges and universities to rein in tuition increases and justify endowment spending, as well as compel selective institutions to increase enrollment of low-income students. States and cities also have the opportunity to adopt the narrative about free; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was first out of the gate in 2017, and others are likely to follow.
Celebrity authors and scholars as well as politicians have led such efforts. Malcolm Gladwell launched a podcast series in 2016 decrying the high cost of college and poor access for low-income students. Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple University and Inside Higher Edcolumnist Wick Sloan, among others, have led campaigns to highlight the challenges of college students who are homeless or food insecure -- more than 20 percent, according to a national report.
Colleges and universities are responding. Thirty campuses have joined an effort funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies called the American Talent Initiative, while more than 90 institutions participate in the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. Both efforts aim to reduce barriers and increase the number of lower-income students who apply to and enroll in selective colleges. Campuses also are launching food banks, shelter programs and emergency assistance funds for students who have short-term challenges with food or housing.
Questions about value. A growing chorus of business and civic leaders is questioning the value of college. One of the most vocal proponents of the skip-college narrative, Peter Thiel, has a newly influential role as a member of the Trump transition team. The presidential election pointed up a stark gap in opportunity and perception between college graduates and those with a college degree, leading to headlines about the “humbling of higher education” and college graduates who are “out of touch.”
Colleges are renewing their efforts to demonstrate value, not only in employment and earnings benefits to graduates but also in their role as an economic engine for regional economies. A growing number of campuses, both large and small, have embarked on new efforts to engage with their local communities. And research institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University have large, sustained innovation initiatives to spur new business development and commercialize faculty and student discoveries.
A focus on careers and job placement. Although related to the discussion about value, the growing concern about employment and job placement is so powerful that it deserves its own entry. Students and parents increasingly expect their college or university to be a partner in helping them to map out a successful career path. The 2016 Gallup-Purdue study found a gap between student expectations and college performance in career placement, with only one in six college graduates saying their campus career office was helpful.
Colleges and universities of all types and sizes -- from research-intensive institutions to small liberal arts colleges -- are revamping career services and redefining their role in student career planning. Examples of new programs include engaging first-year students in the career office from day one, alumni career mentoring initiatives and targeted efforts to provide career support for low-income and first-generation college students.
Declining state support. Although not a new trend, the impact of declining state support for higher education has generated a new level of concern. Starving the Beast, a documentary about ideological shifts in state government and the resulting impact on public universities, was released in 2016 and sparked public discussion and numerous opinion pieces.
In December, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center issued recommendations on how to sustain public higher education. The center assembled a team of college administrators, business executives and former public officials, including former governors of Delaware and Florida. Their list of solutions includes federal block grants designed to pressure states into supporting public colleges adequately, as well as funding incentives tied to graduation rates.
Collisions over campus climate. Creating a welcoming climate for women and minorities is a long-running issue for college campuses, but things reached a boiling point after the 2016 presidential election. White nationalist groups have seized the opportunity to spread hate messages on campuses across the country. Trump rhetoric about immigration and Muslims has left many students feeling vulnerable, leading to pressure for campuses to declare themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented students.
Immigration policy under a Trump administration is uncertain, as is the position of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights -- and in particular the enforcement of Title IX. Regardless of federal policy, activism around Title IX and sexual misconduct is likely to continue, and campuses are expected to sharpen their focus on programs, policies and support systems to combat sexual assault and harassment.
The dialogue about campus climate has increasingly included overcoming a racist past. Some institutions -- Georgetown University has been a leader -- have owned up to a history of slavery and made significant changes such as renaming buildings or programs. Other campuses have dedicated new or existing spaces in honor of African-American leaders. Whether proactively, such as the University of Michigan, or responding to a crisis, such as the University of Missouri, a number of colleges and universities have launched comprehensive plans focused on diversity and inclusion.
The defense of academic freedom and free speech. The University of Chicago brought free speech back into the spotlight this fall with the welcome letter its college dean sent to incoming students. Exactly what constitutes free speech in a university, and does it conflict with trigger warnings and attempts to create safe spaces for vulnerable groups such as members of racial minorities or survivors of sexual assault? Although all colleges defend free speech and play an important role in educating students about it, the precise boundaries vary from one campus to another.
One thing is certain: it’s easier to argue for free speech when you’re the one speaking. After the presidential election, some students who voted for Trump felt attacked and said they needed safe space, too. A “professor watch list” has been launched to shame faculty members conservatives think are pushing liberal ideas in the classroom. And the Trump transition team recently sent questionnaires throughout the Department of Energy to identify work done on climate change, raising alarm bells in the academy. Climate scientists are now organizing to defend their research and academic freedom.
So, What to Do?
The tensions are mounting and so are the stakes. Since head in the sand is not an effective strategy, we’d like to offer a few guideposts for higher education institutions that are navigating today’s uncertain terrain.
Be self-critical. Colleges and universities can assess and acknowledge areas for improvement and confront them with constructive game plans. Proactive leadership begins with self-evaluation and plans for change.
Make sure college is worth it. It is not enough to decry the devaluing of a liberal education. Our scan shows just how deep public skepticism about the cost and value of college runs, and higher education must find substantial ways both to lower student costs and increase the return on their investment. Career assistance, better information about job placement, opportunities for internships and increases in scholarship support all have to be on each institution’s docket.
Bridge the divide with new communications methods and fresh perspective. If it is us versus them, we cannot make progress. From continued defunding of public higher ed to sensationalized campus rhetoric, polarized stances are inhibiting shared understanding. Can we set aside blame and labels and work instead to listen more carefully toward finding some common ground? That will entail an authentic, two-way dialogue and new ways of describing and demonstrating value in today’s world, not just the usual universityspeak.
Find innovative new collaborators and partnerships. The coming year won’t be one of business as usual. New partnerships and opportunities, more innovation, and perhaps the occasional odd bedfellow can help illuminate new opportunities and advance mutual goals.
Get out ahead. The colleges and universities that best weather challenging storms are those that best anticipate and confront issues early and honestly.
Lisa M. Rudgers and Julie A. Peterson are co-founders of Peterson Rudgers Group, a consulting firm focused on higher education strategy, leadership and brand.
Submitted by Anonymous on January 5, 2017 - 3:00am
You might prefer not to think about this … but are your students a source of anxiety for you?
Like me, you've chosen your life's vocation largely because you care for students and their betterment; but if we're being really candid, isn't it true that you now feel somewhat wary of them on account of their power to inflict serious damage -- even sudden catastrophic injury -- to your career, with all the grim consequences that this would entail?
That you find yourself catering to them, or at least feeling tempted to do so, lest they suddenly turn against you and make your life miserable?
That you feel little confidence that the administrators at your institution will defend you zealously if you are unfairly criticized, and you think it inevitable that they will care less about guaranteeing fairness to you than about avoiding negative publicity, managing their personal images before the vocal constituencies whose ideological self-identifications and simplistic moral certitudes enable them to issue instant and unerring judgments, and otherwise successfully covering their backsides?
Have you already recognized that, in the current cultural climate, if a single disgruntled student were to issue an entirely phony accusation against you -- maybe sexually harassing words or acts in a private meeting that did or did not ever occur -- you could be effectively defenseless?
That, even for an incident that exists only in one student's fevered or diabolical imagination, you would be immediately relieved of your teaching duties and subjected to an investigation by people who might have their own axes to grind, or lack the humility to recognize the narrow compass of their knowledge, or simply not like you or your views or what they now start characterizing as your “weirdness” or “questionable judgment”?
And that, after all the massive undeserved stress that would ensue, the outcome would very likely be that your academic prerogatives and position would be seriously compromised or even terminated?
Maybe you have never have been troubled by such a seemingly far-fetched scenario, but do you find yourself squirming when you see the fervor with which some students, and the activists with whom they identify, call out and demand "justice" (i.e., harsh punishments) for what they regard as racist, sexist, cissexist and other "microaggressions"?
Do you worry that you must watch your words extremely carefully around students, and even then an entirely innocent and defensible utterance might still earn for itself, and for you, irreversible public condemnation and institutional penalties -- penalties against which you are powerless because of your already insecure adjunct or untenured status, or even against which your tenure would provide no great protection?
Are you fearful because you can't find any protective clear lines that distinguish the intellectually challenging from the culpably "offensive," that distinguish the mere reference to a bigoted claim or term from the embracing assertion or use of it, that distinguish a willingness to inquire about the strengths and weaknesses of a broadly despised position from advocacy for that position?
Have you felt pressure, when hoping to engage with students on a topic that is important to their lives or to society, simply to “not go there” in order to avoid risking an intellectual interaction that is later described as an assault, insult or “invalidation” of a student's perspective? Are you in any danger of becoming, in the words of Mill's On Liberty, one of those "timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral"?
When you read calls for making the classroom a "safe space" for students, do you ever wonder whether it has become an unsafe space for faculty?
Do you sometimes pull your punches when giving feedback on demonstrated weaknesses in students' course work submissions, classroom performance or intellectual character, due to apprehension that frank, direct criticisms, corrections and suggestions might be characterized later as having been "unprofessionally" hostile, demeaning or disrespectful?
Or do you perhaps refrain from giving students appropriately constructive but deeply critical advice due to the more prosaic fear of receiving poor teaching evaluations, given their potential adverse consequences for your pay, promotion and freedom to teach what and as you choose? Do you suspect that unfavorable recommendations are sometimes the results of personal dislike or distaste on students' parts, and accordingly compromise your own standards for dress, humor and other aspects of personal style and presentation in order to avoid striking your students as odd or unattractive?
When you provoke an unjustified hostile comment on a student evaluation form, do you immediately think of showing it to your colleagues to share the amusing absurdity of it, only to back away from this later, as you're not quite sure you entirely trust them to react sensibly?
Do you agree that if you were to submit an essay like this for publication, you, too, would insist upon anonymity, for fear that if your students were to get wind of it, it might give some of them ideas? Does it occur to you occasionally how lucky it is that the vast majority of your students are unaware of the power they have to injure you at will -- and do you find yourself wondering just how long this tenuous situation can hold?
Have you spent any time contemplating other lines of work, or early retirement, or emergency backup plans in the event that you were to be suspended or fired?
If you have answered some of these questions in the affirmative, have you taken any steps at all to ameliorate your predicament?
Have you attempted to get your Faculty Senate to address the threats facing you and your colleagues? Have you given a careful read to your institution's regulations governing complaints and disciplinary proceedings against faculty? If you have, have you sought to have their shortcomings repaired, or even merely pointed out the flaws to the appropriate parties? Have you, at the very least, complained to colleagues about the perilous situation you all face?
Or are you afraid of your colleagues, too, and judge it likely that raising these issues will only mark you for suspicion, and maybe make you even less likely to receive a sympathetic and open-minded hearing if some student(s) should ever turn on you?
What is to be done?
Anonymous is a tenured philosophy professor on the East Coast.
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