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The global health crisis is about to claim some unlikely victims, who have actually been ill for a long time. I refer, of course, to vulnerable members of our American system of colleges and universities, some of whom face the terrible choice of putting students, administrators and faculty members at risk or experiencing certain economic calamity.

For some colleges and universities, the pandemic has merely accelerated the timeline of a budgetary crisis brought on by rising costs, fewer graduating high school seniors and growing public skepticism about the value proposition that sustained higher education institutions for generations.

Some will not survive. Others will pivot, praying to avoid a surge of the virus on their campuses. But all who survive will do so by rethinking what they offer, how and for whom. As institutions navigate a time of drastic change, we should make our higher education system one that centers the values of quality and equity, while prioritizing students and the nation’s need for well-educated citizens and workers. We haven’t done that very well in the past, but to paraphrase Maya Angelou, now that we know better, let’s do better.

Three things seem to me to be most important for educators to consider as they work to restructure educational offerings and the overall nature of campus life in coming years.

First, it is imperative that all educators focus intently on the particular attributes of their students and potential students. Faculty and staff members must do all they can to ensure that all students get what they need to succeed -- both in college and as they pursue opportunities in a rapidly changing workplace and society. The recent pivot to remote learning has shone a spotlight on some of the specific challenges that large numbers of today’s students face.

As we redesign programs and institutional practices, we must remember that

  • 40 percent of today’s students work full-time;
  • 57 percent live independently without support from parents;
  • Nearly 25 percent have children of their own;
  • 42 percent are students of color; and
  • 46 percent are first-generation college students.

We know from existing research that certain groups of students -- including, in particular, Black students and those less well prepared for college-level work -- do not succeed at comparable rates in online learning environments.

And we have all seen the stories of how low-income students have struggled to continue their learning remotely while dealing with challenges such as housing and food insecurity or a lack of access to reliable broadband internet service.

As institutional leaders confront the need to cut budgets, they must ensure that the supports on which such students depend -- culturally competent academic advising, supplemental instruction and tutoring, mental health supports, emergency financial aid funds, flexible approaches to scheduling, childcare opportunities, faculty and peer mentoring, and the like -- are strengthened and fully aligned to those students’ needs.

Second, as educators review their overall academic portfolio, it is important to look carefully at how and where students are, in fact, developing the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in today’s workplace. As Anthony P. Carnevale and his colleagues at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reminded us in their recent report on certificate and associate degrees, “Ultimately, the most valuable education over the long term is the one that provides the most marketable combination of specific and general skills.”

As graduates face a daunting economic environment and job market, this reality will be as important as ever to consider as we design and redesign higher education credentials of all sorts. Educational leaders can and should ask tough questions about how well programs are crafted to provide those essential “specific and general skills.”

How, exactly, are specific departments staying informed about changes in the workplace and how are they aligning degree requirements to the full scope of potential career paths students might pursue? One must look not only at market demand for particular majors but also at the actual learning outcomes a program provides. How well aligned are programs to the demands of particular fields? How well are graduates prepared with what Quality Assurance Commons calls essential employability capacities that will help them succeed in their jobs as well as be able to pivot to new opportunities over time? Educators should look both at field-specific skills and at the cross-cutting capacities that employers across many fields report are essential to workplace success.

Many of those skills are developed in well-designed general education programs and then reinforced in majors. They are also precisely those capacities that graduates will need to exercise their responsibilities as citizens and community members working to redress injustices in our society and participate fully in our democracy.

Surveys consistently show that employers seek workers who have particular facility with oral and written communication, critical thinking and analytic reasoning, and the ability to apply learning in real-world settings. All general education courses and programs and all major programs should be developing those important skills and should be able to demonstrate exactly how they are doing that. They can use the results of their own assessments in decisions about realignment of curricular requirements and consolidation or elimination of courses and programs.

Elaine P. Maimon, former president of Governors State University, provides useful advice on smart academic planning in her recent book, Leading Academic Change. In a highly relevant appendix, she even provides a rubric that her team at Governors State used when they had to make tough choices in the face of severe budget cuts from the state of Illinois.

Ultimately, choices about program elimination, consolidation and redesign should ensure that all students are being well prepared for both today’s jobs and the future of work.

The programs and institutions that have invested over the past decades in intentional and careful delineation of their learning outcomes aligned to national frameworks will be in a better position to make smart and strategic choices in a period of transformative change. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment has developed and curated tools to assist in those efforts.

The third and most important consideration for higher education leaders will be looking both at individual programs and courses and at the overall educational experience different groups of students have as they make their way to earning a credential, often attending more than one institution along the way. We should be asking how

  • Black, Hispanic and Native American students experience the overall campus climate and the classroom environment;
  • Low-income or first-generation college students rank their experiences accessing high-quality academic and career advising;
  • Veteran students experience the transition from their military training and work experience into more traditional academic settings; and
  • The institution accounts for and values the variety of learning experiences students bring to the campus from other settings.

Educational leaders must look carefully at how each piece of the puzzle contributes to students’ success. The clearer institutions are about their own values and missions, their own stated common learning goals for all students, and their approach to tracking student success, the easier it will be for them to make smart choices about budgets and priorities in the months ahead. Let’s build on what works, jettison outdated or ineffective practices, and always keep an eye on today’s students and what they need and deserve.

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