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 Ed columnist 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.