Steve Gunderson has plenty of friends, including the Senate's leading critic of for-profit colleges. But the new head of the sector's trade group isn't afraid to pick a fight -- even with one of his members.
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.
For accreditation, 2016 will be remembered as an inflection point, a pivotal moment, a culmination of a multiyear revamping, which means this space is now dominated by two features.
The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Education, has consolidated its authority over accreditation. It is now the major actor directing and leading this work. Second, the public, whether members of the news media, consumer protection advocates, think tanks or employers, is now in agreement that the primary task of accreditation is public accountability. That means accredited status is supposed to be about protecting students -- to serve as a signal that what an institution or program says about itself is reliable, that there are reasonable chances of student success and that students will benefit economically in some way from the educational experience.
Both the strengthened federal oversight and expectations of public accountability have staying power. They are not temporary disruptions. They will remake accreditation for the foreseeable future.
At least some government authority over accreditation and public concern about the space and accountability are not new. What is new and what makes this moment pivotal is the extent to which there is agreement on both the expanded federal role and public accountability. And both are in significant contrast to longstanding practice of accrediting organizations as independent, nongovernmental bodies accustomed to setting their own direction and determining their own accountability.
This disruption can result in serious drawbacks for accreditation and higher education -- and students. Those drawbacks include a loss of responsible independence for both accreditation and the higher education institutions that are accredited. This independence has been essential to the growth and development of U.S. higher education as an outstanding enterprise both when it comes to quality and to access. There are concerns about maintaining academic freedom, so vital to high-quality teaching and research, in the absence of this independence. We have not, in this country, experimented with government and the public determining quality, absent academics themselves. Government calls for standardization in accreditation can, however unintentionally, undermine the valuable variation of types of colleges and universities, reducing options for students.
Consolidation of Federal Oversight
By way of background, “accreditation is broken” has been a federal government mantra for several years now. For the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as the executive branch, messages about perceived deficiencies of accreditation have been driving the push for greater government oversight, whether delivered from a secretary of education describing accreditors as “watchdogs that don’t bite” or an under secretary talking about how accreditors are “asleep at the switch” or a senator maintaining that “too often the accreditation means nothing” or a leading House representative saying accreditors may have to change how they operate in the changing landscape of higher education.
Both Congress and the department are pushing accreditation to focus more intently on both the performance of institutions and the achievement of students. From a federal perspective, “quality” is now about higher graduation rates, less student debt and default, better jobs, and decent earnings. The Education Department’s Transparency Agenda, announced last fall, has become a major vehicle to assert this federal authority. The Agenda ties judgment about whether accreditation is effective to graduation and default information, with the department, for the first time, publishing such data arrayed by accreditors and publishing accreditors’ student achievement standards -- or identifying the absence of such standards. The department also is taking steps to move accreditors toward standardizing the language of accreditation, toward more emphasis on quantitative standards and toward greater transparency about accreditation decisions.
Consistent with the Agenda, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), the federal body tasked with recommending to the secretary of education whether accrediting organizations are to be federally recognized, is now including attention to graduation and default rates as part of its periodic recognition reviews. Committee meetings involve more and more calls for judging accrediting organizations’ fitness for federal recognition based less on how these organizations operate and more on how well their accredited institutions and programs are doing when it comes to graduation and debt. And NACIQI has been clear that, because of the importance to the public and to protecting students, all activities of accrediting organizations now need to be part of the committee’s purview.
Most recently, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin and Brian Schatz introduced a bill on accreditation that would upend the process. The bill captures the major issues and concerns that have been raised by Congress and the department during the past few years, offering remedies driven by expanding federal authority over accreditors and institutions: federally imposed student achievement standards, a federal definition of quality, federal design of how accreditation is to operate and federal requirements that accrediting organizations include considerations of debt, default, affordability and success with Pell Grants as part of their standards. While it is unlikely that anything will happen with this bill during the remainder of the year, it provides a blueprint for change in accreditation for the next Congress and perhaps the foundation for the future reauthorization the Higher Education Act itself.
Moreover, as government plays a more prominent role in accreditation, the process has become important enough to be political. Lawmakers sometimes press individual accrediting organizations to act against specific institutions or to protect certain institutions. Across both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, lawmakers make their own judgments and are public about whether individual institutions are to have accredited status and how well individual accrediting organizations do their jobs. Now, when accrediting organizations go before NACIQI, not only are they concerned about meeting federal law and regulation, but they are also focused on the politics around any of their institutions or programs.
In short, the shift in Washington -- defining quality expectations for accreditors in contrast to accepting how accreditors define quality, intensive and extensive managing of how accreditors are carrying out their work in contrast to leaving this management to the accreditors, seeking to standardize accreditation practice in contrast to the variation in practice that comes with a decentralized accreditation world of 85 different accrediting organizations -- has placed the federal government in a strong oversight role. There is bipartisan support in Congress and across branches of government for this rearrangement of the accreditation space. It is difficult to imagine that the extent to which the federal government influences the activity and direction of accreditation will diminish any time soon, if at all.
Consolidation of Public Expectations
The pressure on accreditation for public accountability has significant staying power in a climate where higher education is both essential and, for many, expensive, even with federal and state assistance. There is a sense of urgency surrounding the need for at least some higher education for individual economic and social well-being as well as the future competitiveness and capacity of society. At the same time, disturbingly, student loan debt now totals more than $1.3 trillion, and in 2016 the average graduate who took out loans to complete a bachelor’s degree owed more than $37,000. In this environment, the public wants accreditation to focus on students gaining a quality education at a manageable financial level.
Accreditation is now the public’s business. On a weekly basis, multiple articles on accreditation appear in the news media, nationally and internationally. Social media reflect this as well, with any article about accreditation, but especially negative news, engaging large numbers of people in a very short period of time. Think tank reports on accreditation are increasing in number, mostly focused on how it needs to change.
From all sources, the focus is on accreditation and whether it is a reliable source of public accountability. Media attention is on default rates as too high and graduation rates as too low, on repeated expressions of employer dissatisfaction with employees’ skills and whether accredited institutions do a good job of preparing workers. In the face of a constant stream of articles highlighting these concerns, the public increasingly questions what accreditation accomplishes and, in particular, whether it is publicly accountable.
Moreover, where judgments about academic quality were once left to accreditors and institutions, technology now enables the news media and the public to make such judgments on their own. Enormous amounts of data on colleges and universities are readily available, from graduation rates to attrition, retention and transfer rates. Multiple data sources such as the federal government’s College Scorecard, College Navigator and Education Trust’s College Results Online are now available to be used by students, families, employers and journalists. Urgency, concern and widespread opportunity to make one’s own judgment about quality have all coalesced to raise questions about why any reliance on accreditation is needed, unless accreditation carries out this public accountability role. Perhaps the most striking example of this development is Google’s recent announcement that it is working with the College Scorecard to present Scorecard data (e.g., graduation rates, earnings, tuition) as part of a display when people search for a particular college or university.
This, then, is the revamped accreditation space, with the federal government determining the direction of accreditation and a public that is driving accreditation into a predominantly public accountability role.
Will this revamping be successful? Will students be better served? Only if government, the public, higher education and accreditation can strike a balance. Expanded government oversight should be accompanied by acknowledging and respecting the independence, academic judgment and academic leadership long provided by colleges and universities and central to effective higher education and accreditation. Emphasis on public accountability should be accompanied by valuing the role of academics in determining quality. By and large, this has been accomplished through the relationship between accreditation, higher education and government until recently. The way forward needs this same balance.
Judith S. Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a membership association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities.