Is higher education hot or shiny? (opinion)

As colleges and universities welcome students back to campus this fall, the news for the future of higher education couldn’t be gloomier. In a recent Inside Higher Education Titled “Higher Education Must Change or Die,” Temple University President Jason Wingard likens our current higher education system to a burning oil rig, concluding that “the value of the college degree…has peaked and is in decline” (and offering new meaning to the phrase “incendiary title”).

It’s hard not to accept Wingard’s conclusion. Compared to before the pandemic began, there are now about 1.4 million fewer undergraduate students enrolled in US higher education, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. In a recent Gates Foundation-funded study, nearly half of high school graduates surveyed who had given up on college or dropped out of a two- or four-year institution agreed with the statement that “graduating university is not worth the investment, because I cannot afford to go into debt without being guaranteed a future career. And more than 39 million Americans have earned college credit but not a degree, a number that has risen dramatically over the past 30 months, perhaps reflecting growing disillusionment with post-secondary education.

What is happening here? The fall from grace of higher education has been dramatic, with each successive education watcher reaching even greater metaphorical heights to signal the decline of a system that was the envy of the world not so long ago. One could blame the pandemic for the reversal of higher education’s fortunes, but the sustainability of traditional colleges and universities was already a concern before the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic has accelerated and intensified our questioning of a system that seems to be in disarray. In the same way that the pandemic has made us rethink the value of our jobs, we should invite a similar reassessment of higher education, even as we might resist the view of some that higher education is “in decline “.

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

This value was echoed by the community college presidents we surveyed over the past six months about their “pandemic leadership lessons.” We asked them what worked and what didn’t. We were particularly interested in how the experience of leadership during a pandemic informed presidents of new perspectives and fostered different approaches. We focused on how they move the dial for the millions of Americans with some college and no degree and how they meet their needs in concrete ways.

Their responses and accomplishments have encouraged us. Not because they succeeded in every situation, they didn’t. Yet they are asking tough questions about the value of their institutions and making major adjustments in key areas. Their answers correspond to what the students ask.

  • Presidents are keen to provide (and articulate) higher education relevance alongside guaranteed career boosts. Attracted by higher salaries, a growing number of high school graduates are choosing to enter the workforce directly instead of attending college in high school. Northern Virginia Community College President Anne Kress has focused on employment by creating a new one-stop entity, the Business Engagement Center, which connects internships and career services to workforce development work, thereby improving access and value for students and employers.
  • The country’s presidents are responding to the demand for affordability in entrepreneurial ways. A number of states and institutions offer “free college” to eligible students, but El Paso Community College President William Serrata has gone above and beyond 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 less than two semesters away from graduation. Serrata’s targeted funding links investments to desired degree outcomes, an absolutely vital link that should be replicated more widely.
  • All chairpersons highlighted the emphasis on accessibility and flexibility. For example, in an effort to meet its students where they are, MiraCosta College in California now offers five different modalities for delivering courses. Students can choose face-to-face lessons, completely remote, synchronous or asynchronous lessons, and everything in between. Most institutions have retained remote options for student services and expanded their community partnerships to help students access the housing, food, Wi-Fi and childcare they need to get their degree. For working adults and parenting students, these increased options have extended the college’s reach to many more people throughout its region.

Higher education must adapt to a post-pandemic world. Current calls for reform are often strident, but justifiable. Dig beyond the incendiary headlines, however, and you’ll spot places of innovation and inspiration, led by leaders who see a positive future for colleges and universities — and the students they serve.

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