The Forces That Are Shaping the Future of Higher Education … – Inside Higher Ed

MOOCs and beyond.
The true drivers of transformation lurk behind the headlines.
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 deindustrialization, 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, “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.
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, nonprofit four-year institutions have actually grown, and four-year publics have lost only about 100,000 students (out of roughly eight 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 or merging 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’s Staten Island campus, the 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 nontenured 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 and 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 brick-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, postdocs, 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 predated 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 two-year–to–four-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.
Twenty twenty-two didn’t bring changes that many wanted and others feared. Free community college? Nope. Loan forgiveness? Unlikely. A doubling of Pell Grants? Uh-uh. Nor were the dreams of radical disrupters 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 lifelong learning, what were the underlying developments that really will shape higher education’s future?
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 disrupters 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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