Higher education remains in many policymakers’ and key stakeholders’ crosshairs as needing organizational change. Changing student demographics and declining national and state funding compound the situation, leaving university and college leaders struggling to find ways to keep their institutions relevant while also serving their key stakeholders.

Furthermore, many higher education leaders are making decisions that might eventually compromise their institution’s vitality long-term. For instance, New York Times reporter Jon Marcus wrote, “Many small, private nonprofit colleges are giving away a record 51 percent of their tuition income in the form of discounts, according to new figures from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.”

This blog continues to explore the tidal waves of change that higher education institutions are facing.

A  Continually Changing Focus

The cherished vision of faculty members carefully cultivating young minds in a higher education version of the movie Dead Poets Society is quickly fading. “The popular conception of college students is a vestige of a bygone era,” wrote Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities President and Michigan State University President Emeritus Peter McPherson in a Washington Post op-ed.   Instead, today’s institutions face a sea-change in both who their enrolling students are, how these students need to be educated, and what they need and should learn to be successful going forward.

Currently, higher education campuses are competing for 300,000 fewer undergraduates annually due to the decreasing number of 18- to 24-year-olds nationally. The loss of enrollment is most problematic at small private, nonprofit and second-tier public institutions located in the Midwest and Northeast; this slide is expected to continue through 2023 at the earliest.

To fill these gaps in enrollment (and ultimately budgets), many institutions are increasingly trying to fill their classes with nontraditional students.  McPherson noted that many of today’s college students work, have family commitments and come from low-income backgrounds.  “And as more Americans pursue a college education and the opportunities it confers, students will only diverge further from what we consider ‘traditional,’” he noted.

Additionally, the internationalization of the student body is accelerating in higher education, although the Trump Administration’s moves to change immigration laws have impacted enrollments (declines of 40% in international student recruiting have been reported). The American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement issued a report identifying this internationalization as “a strategic, coordinated process that seeks to align and integrate international policies, programs, and initiatives, and positions colleges and universities as more globally oriented and internationally connected institutions.” CIGE’s analysis also found that increased funding existed for studying abroad and international student recruiting. However, support for faculty involvement in international opportunities was mixed. Many institutions encouraged international professional development opportunities for faculty; however, international engagement was only considered in promotion and tenure decisions in approximately 10 percent of higher education institutions.

Preparation to Enter the Work Force

Many of the changes being suggested for higher education revolve around preparation to enter and remain in the workforce. According to Community College Daily, the Business Roundtable released a report that suggested that gaps in having a skilled workforce may be due to lack of information on the labor market, difficulty in finding training for specific occupations and the expense of learning a skill without having a clear path to employment after graduation or certification.

In the wake of the entry of non-traditional students into the educational pipeline and the challenges faced in preparing them for the workforce, it is not surprising that the Trump Administration is encouraging the use of apprenticeships for job training. U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta noted that these apprenticeships give students the chance to “earn while they learn” while also connecting with potential employers and, in some cases, earning college credit. The Trump Administration is expected to expand the use of apprenticeships, which could lead to changes in higher education accreditation and student aid programs. (However, there are some who feel that this is more of the “ruling (rich) class” attempting to reinforce the growing barrier between the rich and the working class.)

Adding fuel to the fire for higher education change, reports are emerging such as one recently published in The Wall Street Journal that found that large groups of college seniors scored at basic or below-basic levels on critical thinking skills. For this study, researchers asked students to use data, articles, blog posts and emails to demonstrate skills that are important for school, the workplace and life. Another report by The Manpower Group that was cited in a New York Times story described a chasm between the job skills required and the actual skill level possessed by employees. In fact, 40 percent of the surveyed 42,000 employers said they were experiencing difficulties filling roles in their companies due to applicants’ lack of skills.

These recent reports suggest renewed opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaborative approaches to learning. This hallmark of liberal arts education prepares students who bring specific skill competencies as well critical thinking and analytical skills to their career paths.

Changes in Other Parts in the Educational System

This focus on workforce education also is trickling down into other parts of the educational system. For instance, the Hechinger Report noted that starting in 2021, Maine high school students must show mastery of specific skills in order to earn their diploma. The state is the first in the nation to pass such a law.

For-profit higher education institutions also are not immune from the call to change. An Inside Higher Ed story pointed out that these institutions need to both articulate and live a new vision for the future. This vision will include dedication to stronger student outcomes, transparency in practices and measurement, development of degree programs that lead to jobs and creation of innovative programs.

Online education also is under the gun. A new Brookings Institution study found that students who are ill-prepared for traditional college will also struggle in online courses and have higher dropout rates and lower grades. “Thus, while online courses may have the potential to differentiate course work to meet the needs of students with weaker incoming skills, current online courses, in fact, do an even worse job of meeting the needs of these students than do traditional in-person courses,” the study’s authors stated in Inside Higher Ed.

However, some on-line education developers are making progress in strengthening their offerings. Education Dive reports that Strayer University is trying to develop ‘viral-worthy’ course content that engages students and encourages them to continue to explore additional content. Other technological advances are allowing some providers to offer a live classroom experience. Additionally, Facebook is teaming with Udacity to create training programs, prompting speculation that these features may eventually be used to turn the site into a platform for online learning.

All in all, just as in other sectors in the United States, we are observing many changes in higher ed.  We wish we had a crystal ball to be able to predict where these changes are going, but there are some things that are “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer:”

  1. Education is undergoing profound changes in multiple areas, including affordability and budgeting. The norms of yesterday are fading in the rear view mirror, and those who continue to wish for the “good ol’ days” of tenure, 3-martini lunches, and just doing research will go the way of the dinosaur.
  2. Affordability will be critical going forward. Universities will need to be run more like businesses and we will see more non-faculty presidents and chancellors as hires.  This will create tensions between faculty and administration.
  3. Boards will need to be more proactive, and reach out to greater numbers of stakeholders, but especially businesses who really are their customers. Those days where they can let the president run everything and dictate to the board are (and should be) finished.
  4. Faculty will continue to vie for more power, and there will be a continual tug of war with administration. More and more universities will do away with, make it harder to get, or modify tenure for financial and other reasons which will, to some degree, erode quality and standards in education.