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The Forces That are Shaping the Future of Higher Education

The past’s meaning only becomes clear in hindsight.  Who would have guessed during the 1970s, a decade when it seemed like nothing happened, that a series of developments were underway that would transform the future:  the politicization of evangelical religion, accelerating de-industrialization, the deregulation and financialization of the American economy, a profound shift in the nation’s demographics.

Even as we fixate on headline news, the true drivers of transformation occur out of sight. It’s these long-term developments, processes, and trends, which take place under the surface, that even the most powerful politicians or institutions must respond to.

This is the case in politics, but it’s also true in higher education.  Shifts in demography, the economy, and cultural values have far greater influence than the stories that dot the higher ed press.

What were the most important events in higher education in 2022?   The list would certainly include test optional admissions, tuition resets, increasing discount rates, student loan abatement and proposed loan forgiveness, the decade-long enrollment decline, the hype surrounding AI and ChatGPT, and the controversies surrounding college rankings, not to mention the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.

But are these really the most important stories?  What if we were to look back at higher education in 2022 a decade or so in the future?  What might we see?  

Here are my observations.

1.  The sky wasn’t falling.
Derek Newton, a leading higher education commentator and former Vice President of the Century Foundation, has observed that “The higher education community has an unlimited capacity for doomsaying.”  How true.  

Hyperbolic and apocalyptic headlines to the contrary, the news isn’t all bad.

  • The cost of college has stopped rising faster than inflation for the first time since the 1980s
  • State spending on higher education bounced back; direct expenditures increased by an 8.3 percent over 2021
  • International enrollment nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels.
  • Students are completing college on time at higher rates nationally at 2 and 4-year institutions.
  • Multi-million dollar donations and multi-billion dollar fundraising campaigns proliferate
  • The number of part-time adjuncts has fallen sharply.
  • The December 2022 federal funding bill increases Pell Grants by $500 (on top of last year’s $400 increase), raises spending on TRIO programs for low-income first generation students by 5 percent, provides more support for childcare for student parents and HBCUs and other minority serving institutions, significantly raises federal research spending, and provides over $400 million in institutional earmarks.

Take the claim that there is a college enrollment crisis: That over the past decade enrollments have dropped by 13 percent, with Black and Latino/a enrollments down 20 to 30 percent. You wouldn’t know from these figures that the enrollment decline is confined largely “to specific sectors and [is] not nearly as dramatic or drastic as the doomsayers say.”  Community colleges and for-profits have borne well over 90 percent of the drop. Private, non-profit 4-year institutions have actually grown and 4-year publics have lost only about 100,000 students (out of roughly 8 million) over the past decade.

Rather than signaling a rejection of college, the decline reflects a decrease in the size of the college-going population, especially in the Midwest, and a shift away from institutions with the lowest completion rates.    

How about the defunding of higher education?  Between 1977 and 2019, in 2019 inflation-adjusted dollars, state and local government spending on higher education increased from $110 billion to $311 billion, according to the Urban Institute.  That’s roughly equal in size of state spending on health care and hospitals.  During the pandemic, the median college received $13.2 million in federal relief funding.  In fiscal 2022, total state support for higher education increased by 8.5 percent year over year.  That’s the largest increase since 2008.

To be sure, some less resourced, less selective institutions do face a financial reckoning.  A handful of small institutions either closed their doors or are in the process of closing in the face of enrollment declines and revenue shortfalls.  These include Holy Names University, Cazenovia College, Presidio Graduate School, Bloomfield College, Chatfield College, St. John’s University Staten Island campus, San Francisco Art Institute, Wave Leadership College, Marymount California University, and Lincoln College.

It’s also the case that a larger number of schools are in serious financial trouble.  Arkansas’s Henderson State cut its faculty and staff from 330 to 230.  New Jersey City University will close 48 undergraduate programs, 24 minors, 28 graduate programs, 10 certificate programs, and one doctoral program, and eliminate up to 30 tenured and 19 non-tenured faculty positions.

That isn’t to say that these institutions are incapable of responding to enrollment declines.  Underserved markets exist.  A key question is whether community colleges and urban and regional institutions will take the steps needed to better serve community college students, college stop-outs, and working adults, for example, by eliminating barriers to transfer providing shorter, accelerated classes and degrees and certificate programs tightly aligned with labor market demand.  Underserved international student markets, especially in Latin America, might also be tapped.

None of this is to say that there aren’t genuine grounds for concern.  Gaps in completion rates between middle-income and low-income and Asian and white and Black and Latinx students have grown.  But bricks-and-mortar higher education isn’t falling off a cliff.

2.  Higher education quickly returned to its pre-pandemic old normal.

Did the pandemic transform higher education?  Not really.  

Sure, colleges offered more online classes and made more support services available remotely. Certainly, activism among graduate students, post-docs, lab assistants, and researchers surged.  But most undergraduate classes are still taught in person.  Within a year, the higher ed workforce returned to its pre-pandemic size.

Trends that pre-dated the pandemic persisted:  The declining number of humanities majors.  Skyrocketing applications to highly selective private institutions and public flagships.  Above all, the shift toward STEM fields.

Meanwhile, the essential reforms and innovations that higher education needs failed to gain traction.  

Did the 2-year to 4-year transfer process become more seamless? No.

Did more faculty adopt active and experiential learning strategies, make purposeful use of technology, adopt more valid, reliable forms of grading, or assume a greater role in mentoring?  Not that I could see.

Are more undergraduates benefiting from the high impact practices – supervised internships, mentored research, study abroad, community service, and participation in learning communities — that can make a college education more meaningful?  I only wish. 

All we can say with confidence is this:  The overwhelming majority of college-goers prefer something that looks more or less like a traditional college experience.

2022 didn’t bring changes that many wanted and others feared.  Free community college? Nope.  Loan forgiveness? Unikely.  A doubling of Pell Grants?  Uh-uh.  Nor were the dreams of radical disruptors realized.  To be sure, some states and corporations eliminated degree requirements for some jobs, but the impact remains uncertain and likely quite limited.  Are apprenticeships addressing the economy’s workforce needs?  Not really and certainly not at scale.  How about industry credentials: Are these replacing traditional degrees?  Ain’t happening, certainly not yet.

If not alternate credentials, innovative pathways to a career, or life-long learning, what were the underlying developments that really will shape higher education’s future?

1.  The flight to quality.
Higher education is stratifying, some might say bifurcating, as the gaps in campus wealth, facilities, programs, and student qualifications widens.  Traditional-aged undergraduates, in unprecedented numbers, seek admission into the more selective, better resourced institutions with higher reputations.  One consequence is that high needs students are increasingly concentrated in the institutions with the fewest resources.  

2.  Mounting competition.
The days when a public institution largely monopolized a particular locality or region are over.  The admissions marketplace has expanded, with undergraduates increasingly willing to enroll in institutions farther from home  The student swirl has increased.  Competition from mega online providers like Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire is enough to threaten the financial health of many local and regional institutions.

3.  A rush to exploit new markets.
Even as undergraduate enrollment stagnates in the United States, other potential markets loom.  Already, the professional master’s market is saturated.  Who will serve the increasing global demand for high quality higher education?  Local institutions or aggressive online providers?  How about corporate training? Will this be conducted in-house or by MOOC providers like Coursera, traditional universities, or some other intermediaries?

4.  Fraught politics.
Non-profit colleges and universities, which are extraordinarily dependent on the public purse, exist in a highly polarized, hyperpartisan political environment that can support or harm their mission.  2022 introduced one modest example of how government can help: California’s College Corps initiative that will provide $10,000 grants to some 6,500 undergraduates who complete 450 hours of public service.      

But what government gives, it can take away.  Expanded early college/dual degree programs might expedite time to a college degree, but also threaten to radically reduce enrollment in the lower-division service courses that subsidize specialized upper division classes and help cover research expenses.  At the same time, new accountability measures (including proposals to expand gainful employment requirements or to force institutions to have skin in the game for student loans) and proposed restrictions on tenure could, if adopted, alter higher education in unpredictable ways.

5.  The intensifying crisis of the humanities.
The decline in the number of humanities majors – by half over the past decade – is old news.  What is now apparent is a sharp decline in the number of tenure and tenure track faculty in traditional humanities disciplines and a significant overproduction of Ph.D.s relative to the available pool of academic jobs.  Intensifying these problems is that the many alternate employment options – in law, journalism, publishing, libraries and archives, and museums – are also shrinking.

6.  Increasing campus acrimony and animosity.
I would submit that a lot of campus acrimony (including recent labor strife) grows out of perceptions of gross unfairness within the academy.  As an older faculty member, I am particularly sensitive to the charge that aging baby boomers hog the best professorial positions.  Doctoral students and post-docs worry, with good reason, that they’ll never get a tenure track job.  The disparity between the professoriate’s existing composition and student demographics is a particular source of frustration.  As one recent article put it (with some exaggeration, in my view): “At this rate, faculty diversity will never reach parity.”  Making matters worse is a widespread (and not mistaken) belief that professional and disciplinary associations and accreditors and privileged senior faculty members are not doing enough to address this situation.  

7.  The deepening gulf between universities and the emerging sectors of the economy.
In an earlier student success role, I was struck by the gap between the number of well-qualified undergraduates who wanted to become nurses and the number of slots available within BSN programs.  Why, I asked, were campuses unable to meet an essential societal need and overcome existing capacity constraints?  At the same time, many campuses not only cap admissions into nursing programs, but programs in business, computer science, economics, and engineering.  Barriers to entry into the sciences abound, while striking racial and gender disparities persist.  

If we want more diverse students to enter rapidly advancing fields – in actuarial science, applied economics, cognitive and neuroscience, computational and applied mathematics, corporate accounting, database management, health informatics, industrial engineering, information security and information systems management, logistics, materials and polymer science, operations research, optical science, robotics and automation, software engineering, strategic management, telecommunications, 

8.  Diminutions of rigor and quality
Recently, intelligent.com reported that 64 percent of the college students surveyed said that they put “a lot of effort” into their studies.  But a third of those who said they worked hard spent less than 5 hours a week studying and 70 percent devoted less than 10 hours a week.  Those disturbing figures resemble those publicized in Academically Adrift a decade earlier.

If colleges and universities are serious about the quality of the education that they offer, then the faculty need to increase reading and writing requirements; ensure that students complete their homework through frequent quizzing; require students to complete more skills-building and problem-solving activities inside and outside class; and require them to complete larger projects in a series of discrete, component parts.  At the same time, campuses need to provide the full range of supports that will help students meet the faculty’s learning objectives.

Don’t ignore the headline news.  But do recognize that the real drivers of change rarely make the news until long after the underlying trends have already materialized.  If there’s a single theme that 2022 underscored, it’s that even a disruption as wrenching and far-reaching as COVID has only a limited ability to fundamentally alter this nation’s system of higher education.

But much as a tree’s roots can crack a house’s foundation and dislodge sidewalk slabs, so too will certain long-term developments force colleges and universities to adapt, like it or not.  As campus demographics shift and costs continue to rise, innovation is imperative.  We stand at a crossroads.  One option is to let the disruptors have their way, and try to replace a well-rounded education with shorter, faster, and cheaper paths into workforce and substitute alternate credentials for degrees.  Another option is to continue to do what we are currently doing: Rely heavily on international students and recent immigrants and their children to almost single-handedly lead today’s ongoing technological revolution, while relegating most other students to less innovative and lucrative fields of study.  Or we can do everything we can to bring many more students to success in the difficult and demanding fields of study that will reshape the economy and our ways of life.  

Let’s do the latter. 

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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