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National Aeronautics and Space Administration via RawPixel

As colleges and universities welcome students back to campus this fall, the news about the future of higher education could not be more dismal. In a recent Inside Higher Ed op-ed titled “Higher Ed Must Change or Die,” Temple University president Jason Wingard equates our current higher education system to a burning oil derrick, concluding that “the value of the college degree … has reached its peak and is on the wane” (and offering new meaning to the phrase “inflammatory headline”).

It’s hard not to embrace Wingard’s conclusion. Compared to before the pandemic started, there are now about 1.4 million fewer undergraduate students enrolled in U.S. higher education, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. In a recent study funded by the Gates Foundation, nearly half of surveyed high school graduates who had decided against college or dropped out of a two- or four-year institution endorsed the statement that “Getting a college degree is not worth the investment, because I cannot afford to go into debt when I am not guaranteed a future career path.” And more than 39 million Americans have earned college credit but no degree, a number that grew substantially over the past 30 months, perhaps reflecting a growing disillusionment with postsecondary education.

What is going on here? Higher education’s fall from grace has been dramatic, with each succeeding education observer reaching for even greater metaphoric heights to signal a decline in a system that was the envy of the world not too long ago. One might blame the pandemic for higher education’s reversal of fortune, but the sustainability of traditional colleges and universities was already a point of concern before the appearance of COVID-19. The pandemic accelerated and intensified our questioning of a system that appears to be in disarray. In the same way that the pandemic made us rethink the value of our jobs, we should invite a similar re-evaluation of higher education—even if we might resist the opinion of some that higher education is “on the wane.”

We think the higher education landscape is brighter, assuming colleges and universities make some strategic adjustments. For example, a recent survey by Strada Education Network and Gallup revealed that for adults without a college degree, almost half want to pursue additional education, and three factors are central to their decision: guaranteed career boosts, affordable options and flexibility. And despite the fact that many Americans question the cost and time of obtaining a college degree, a report from Public Agenda suggests that across partisan lines, their faith in higher education could potentially be restored if higher education were “more affordable, accessible, and responsive to today’s students, including working adults.”

This value has been echoed by the community college presidents we’ve been interviewing over the last six months about their “pandemic leadership lessons.” We’ve asked them what was successful and what failed. We were especially interested in how the experience of leading through a pandemic has informed presidents with new perspectives and fostered different approaches. We focused on how they are moving the dial for the millions of Americans with some college and no degree and how they are addressing their needs in concrete ways.

Their answers—and accomplishments—cheered us. Not because they succeeded in every situation—they did not. Yet they are asking hard questions about the value of their institutions and making major adjustments in key areas. Their responses align with what the students are demanding.

  • Presidents are keen on providing (and articulating) the relevance of higher education alongside guaranteed career boosts. Lured by higher wages, an increasing number of high school graduates are electing to go directly into the workforce instead of attending college right from high school. Northern Virginia Community College president Anne Kress has embraced this focus on employment by creating a new one-stop entity, the Business Engagement Center, which links internships and career services with workforce development, thus enhancing access and value for both students and employers.
  • Presidents around the country are responding to the demand for affordability in entrepreneurial ways. A number of states and institutions are offering “free college” for eligible students, but El Paso Community College president William Serrata has gone beyond this with an innovative program. Using philanthropic dollars from corporate donors, his institution created Finish Strong scholarships for students who had not completed their programs and were within two semesters of graduating. Serrata’s targeted funding links investments with the desired outcomes of degrees, an absolutely vital connection that should be more broadly replicated.
  • All the presidents noted a central focus on accessibility and flexibility. For an example, in an attempt to meet their students where they are, MiraCosta College in California now offers five different modalities to deliver courses. Students can choose face-to-face courses, completely remote courses, synchronous or asynchronous, and everything in between. Most institutions have retained remote options for student services and expanded their community partnerships to help students have access to the housing, food, Wi-Fi and childcare they need to complete their degrees. For working adults and parenting students, these increased options have advanced the college’s reach to far more individuals throughout its region.

Higher education needs to adjust to a post-pandemic world. The current calls for reform are often strident, yet justifiable. Dig beyond the inflammatory headlines, however, and you will glimpse places of innovation and inspiration, helmed by leaders who see a positive future for colleges and universities—and the students they serve.

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