NYT Opinion: How to Fix the Crisis of Trust in Higher Education

Started by Wahoo Redux, March 06, 2024, 08:11:13 AM

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Wahoo Redux

As a piece for the general public, the first half of this is a "no duh" background for those working in the industry and paying attention (because not everyone pays attention to academia who is working in academia). 

The second half is where the suggestions for change occur based on a number of sources.  Here is a link to a white paper mentioned in the editorial.


How to Fix the Crisis of Trust in Higher Education
March 6, 2024, 8:00 a.m. ET

By Jessica Grose

Opinion Writer

You're reading the Jessica Grose newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  A journalist and novelist offers her perspective on the American family, culture, politics and the way we live now. Get it in your inbox.
Since the beginning of the year, I've been keeping track of every report I see about major budget shortfalls at universities. The general trend seems to be that the schools facing these shortfalls have declining enrollments, and state and federal funding is not meeting the financial gaps left by fewer students. Every week it seems there's fresh bad news. Here's a sampling:

"SUNY Warns of Future $1B Deficit Without Higher Tuition or More Aid" — The Times Union, Jan. 2.

"As Covid-19 relief funding runs out, UConn is expecting a $70 million deficit in fiscal year 2025, which begins in July" — The Connecticut Mirror, Jan. 23.

"Penn State Plans Nearly $100M in Cuts for FY26 Budget" — Higher Ed Dive, Jan. 24.

"As U. of Arizona Confronts Budget Cuts, Workers and Students Brace for the Worst" — The New York Times, Feb. 21.

And those are all public universities. There are several private colleges, less-selective schools in particular, that are in dire shape — including schools in the New York metro area that are selling off some of their real estate in order to make ends meet, according to reporting from The Times's Sharon Otterman. Josh Moody at Inside Higher Ed clocked 14 four-year nonprofit institutions that closed their doors in 2023, and those schools "largely fit the same profile: mostly small, private, tuition-dependent institutions with meager endowments that have seen enrollment slipping for years and have been unable to recover from those sustained losses."

A few long-term trends have combined to create this growing crisis. One is the declining birthrate since the Great Recession, which is causing an "enrollment cliff" based on the numbers of potential students turning 18 over the next decade. The other is the decline in Americans' confidence in higher education. According to Gallup, in terms of party identification, that decline is sharpest among Republicans. Still, all of the demographic groups that Gallup assessed registered a significant decline in confidence since 2015.

This matters for the future of work in America, not just for the young people who may be missing out on the wage premium attached to a college education. In his 2018 book, "Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education," Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College, writes, "Analysts estimate we would need to increase degree production by approximately 40 percent to meet work force needs in coming years." But it's not just our national economic need that's at stake. We need an educated population to meet the civic and intellectual challenges of the 21st century — challenges that seem to be moving ever faster as technology continues its rudderless and frequently inhumane progress.

I called Grawe, who is also the author of the 2021 book "The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes," to ask how colleges and universities can help address the issues of fewer students and declining confidence. (As a side note: The most selective institutions will be just fine — for all the concern lately about their reputations, they are in no danger of enrollment declines or budget shortfalls.)

"One of the possible silver linings in demographic contraction is that it does focus the mind when the number of prospective students declines one way or another," Grawe told me. This will create more of a buyer's market for students and their parents, he explained. "That means that higher education will naturally be more inclined to ask the question, 'What do these students and their families want and need from higher education so that they choose us?'"

That question is incredibly important to answer right now. Grawe referred me to a 2018 report from Gallup and the Strada Education Network, which found that "there is a disconnect between what consumers want and expect from postsecondary education and what they are receiving." The study was a nationally representative survey of over 100,000 Americans ages 18 to 65 "who are currently employed and have taken at least some college courses." Only 26 percent of those surveyed "strongly agree that their education is relevant to their work and day-to-day life."

The report found, "Alumni ratings of relevance are two and three times more powerful at predicting quality and value than traditional college ranking inputs such as average SAT/ACT math scores, student loan default rates, average cost of attendance, alumni income earnings and graduation rates." Interestingly, two- and four-year institutions were neck and neck in their relevance scores, suggesting that the traditional college experience isn't the be-all and end-all.

What that means practically is that more colleges and universities need to differentiate their offerings. As Jeffrey Selingo, the author of "Who Gets In and Why" and one of my favorite thinkers on higher education, put it in his newsletter:

the way college leaders have long defined differentiation is simply by tweaking the same product offered by thousands of other institutions for the same type of student (i.e. the 18-year-old, well-prepared high-school graduate whose parents attended college). Rather, they need to understand that learners of all ages have vastly different needs and then design very different programs that appeal to them.

Selingo outlines possible changes in a white paper (underwritten by Workday) called "Building a Flourishing Institution: Sustainable Business Models for the Decade Ahead." In it, he notes that between 2010 and 2020, expenses per student outpaced revenues at both public and private institutions.

He offers suggestions for modifying the college experience, including the idea of a "low residency option," which would allow students more time and space for internships or research in their preferred field, and moving from a traditional degree format to a situation in which "every graduate earns an industry-recognized certificate or skills-based credential alongside their bachelor's degree." He also sees a future in which more bachelor's degrees can be completed in less than four years and more colleges create opportunities for lifelong learning.

But state governments need to do their part, too. Finally, in 2022, "for the first time since the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted education appropriations per F.T.E. were greater than pre-recession funding levels in 2008," according to the most recent State Higher Education Finance report — though some of that funding was Covid stimulus money, which, the report notes, will eventually run out, prompting states to face "difficult budgetary decisions."

So much of the cost of college has been pushed onto families over the past 40 years. Per the SHEF report, the student share — "a measure of the proportion of total education revenue at public institutions coming from net tuition revenue" — has doubled since 1980, going to 41.7 percent from 20.9 percent.

This is a decades-long problem in the making, and there isn't going to be one straightforward solution for every school or every state, because each has its unique challenges, history and population to reckon with. So higher ed needs to get creative — and fast — to stem the tide of school closings and regain the confidence of Americans. It pains me to think that education, which should be available to everyone who wants to expand his mind, has to come down to return on investment. But it's criminal to ask families to take on permanent debt with little guarantee of relief or success.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.