Remember When We Thought Higher Ed Was ‘In Crisis’?

Still, looking back at the book, I realize that several issues I highlighted have become even more relevant over the past seven months — particularly the racial and economic disparities in educational opportunity and the potential and limits of online education. Meanwhile, some of the crucial issues bubbling up today — the “trust gap” between college leaders and faculty and staff members, for one — didn’t seem as “live-or-death” important in 2014.

I wasn’t as farsighted as another author, Bryan Alexander, who actually speculated on the potential effects of a pandemic in his early-2020 book, Academia Next. And I feel no sense of satisfaction in seeing fissures I called out six years ago deepening today. Frankly, it’s painful. But I do think re-examining where I thought the sector was headed — and what its biggest challenges were — could help us comprehend the current crisis and, eventually, dig out of it.

Three troubling trends have intensified under the pandemic.

Covid-19 and its economic spillovers have hit hardest low-income students, as well as those who are Black, Hispanic, and Native American. While it’s still too early to have a firm sense of fall enrollments, early stats from the National Student Clearinghouse show that community colleges have seen the steepest declines: 8 percent over all. Those are the institutions where the highest shares of these students tend to enroll, and where public support is lowest. Of course the stratification in American higher education isn’t new. When OUP asked me to write the book, my chief reason for signing on was the chance to explore the idea that higher ed could be an “engine of inequality.”

Since 2014, projects like the University Innovation Alliance and the American Talent Initiative have come along to create new pathways to four-year colleges for historically marginalized students — with mixed success. The pandemic will further test such efforts.

Meanwhile, the pivot to online education has highlighted the many ways that students who attend the same institution come from divergent circumstances. In the book I paid heed to the very real, and still very prevalent “bandwidth divide” that leaves many students without broadband capacity. But I missed some of the other factors the online shift has revealed: While away from their campuses, many students lack quiet spaces to study or even attend classes online. This obstacle always existed, but it became impossible to ignore once campuses closed and professors could see into Zoom windows.

By this fall, most colleges seem to have responded to tech challenges by sending students laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots. The bigger issues go beyond that.

And then there’s the reality that the fragile business model underlying many colleges may not withstand the pressures of the pandemic. Long before Covid-19, some colleges (mostly private) relied heavily on tuition discounts and other financial sleight-of-hand maneuvers to bring in a class. In my book I highlighted both the economic risks of such tactics and the ethical ones, too, in cases where colleges deprive lower-income students of financial aid but award merit scholarships to lure in families that can pay a greater portion of the tuition bill. The more students become disenchanted with online courses or socially distant instruction and campus life, the less likely that enough tuition revenue will come in.

Add to that the risks many colleges face in losing international students (because of visa and travel restrictions) and state support (inevitable cuts because of the economic downturn made worse by Congress’s delays in passing another relief package) — and you can see the writing on the wall. It’s not a happy message.

But here are two trends that bode well.

I worked on my book from mid-2013 to late 2014, the era just after MOOC hype had subsided and conversations about other educational providers and alternative credentials were taking off. Honestly, though, for years afterward, it seemed most of that would never move beyond talk. But since the pandemic — and the staggering rise in unemployment that’s accompanied it — I’ve seen a change. Though hardly a tidal wave, there’s been a notable uptick in colleges’ interest in working with outside educational partners, in students’ enrollment in less-traditional institutions, and in employers’ attention to skills-based hiring and unconventional credentials. 

Some examples are the thousands of professors who have been dipping into the Coursera library of courses as part of its Coursera for Campus program, the record-high enrollments at the nonprofit University of the People, and the spate of new relationships that companies like StraighterLine and Minerva have forged with colleges over the past few months. As for employers, I’m referring especially to a new Chronicle survey of hiring managers that we’ll be sharing today as part of our “What Employers Want” event (Read on for more details on that).

The most obvious pandemic-prompted change is colleges’ growing reliance on online education. That, too, of course, isn’t new. But six years ago, thousands of colleges didn’t offer any online courses. Today I doubt that is true of more than a handful. As I wrote in my first Covid-era newsletter — about higher ed’s “black swan” moment — the virus has become the most significant catalyst for online education in the short history of the movement.

In the book, I wrote: “The number of college leaders who say distance education is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy has been growing, but many of their faculty members continue to doubt its effectiveness compared to face-to-face teaching.” I’m sure that’s still true today. But having heard from so many colleges recently about how, out of necessity, they’ve invested in online resources and beefed up faculty training — and from professors themselves about what they’ve come to value about online teaching — I have no doubt that this period marks a turning point.

I’m not saying that it’s a complete sea change. Indeed, that’s a point I plan to dig in on Thursday with a panel of online educators and company executives in a session called “Covid Changes the Game: Higher Education Forced Online,” which is part of the ASU+GSV Summit. What’s permanent about this shift, and what’s not? My sense from college leaders is that even after we get a vaccine, many institutions will continue to offer virtual options.

But I also still believe, as I wrote on the last page of the book, that campuses will long continue to play a vital role in the college experience — as intellectual centers, as places of refuge and opportunity for students, as hubs for activities vital to student development, as centers of political activism, and as the “third places” Ray Oldenburg has described as so needed by society for communal engagement. The pandemic has taken that from us, but (insert your own “wear a mask” message here) hopefully not for long.

Please join me for a virtual event today on “What Employers Want.”

Come for the release of a Chronicle survey of employers, followed by a conversation between Jeff Selingo and two college leaders: Joe May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, and Lynn Wooten, president of Simmons University, on strengthening the transition from college to career. And stay for my discussion with Mary Marcy, president of Dominican University of California, and Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at the American Council on Education, on smart ways for colleges to realign their curricula to better meet the demands of a changing job market. Sign up here to watch it live at 2 p.m. Eastern time today or later on demand.

And once again, here’s a reminder about voter registration. There’s still time (in some states, plenty of time) to make sure you and your friends and colleagues — and your students! — are all squared away to vote on or before Election Day, on November 3. After all, the federal Higher Education Act requires colleges to make a good-faith effort to encourage students to register. See here for details on registering and voting.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at [email protected] If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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