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The Crisis Higher Education Needs

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The pandemic, the financial crisis, and the reckoning over race have precipitated a crisis that higher education needs to have.

By exposing and intensifying long-standing problems involving access, affordability, equity, and quality, the current emergency is forcing colleges and universities to confront problems that higher education has evaded and responsibilities that it has shirked.

Sometimes, institutions need a crisis.  Often, it’s only a crisis that can jolt an institution out of its lethargy and complacency, alter existing mindsets, and make stakeholders demand meaningful change.

I doubt, for example, that our current preoccupation with equity and inclusion would have occurred in the absence of the health crisis and the mass protests precipitated by the killing of George Floyd.

However painful and wrenching the pandemic has been, colleges and universities now have an opportunity to rethink time-honored but outmoded traditions, and adopt practices better suited to meeting today’s challenges.

The pandemic alerted us to facts that should have been dealt with much earlier, including the number of students who face basic needs insecurity, require more financial support, and would benefit from greater flexibility in delivery options and assessment modes.  It has also forced our institutions to confront biases in admissions and gaps in attainment that are no longer tolerable.

The damage that the pandemic has inflicted is grave.  Significantly fewer high school seniors are applying to college or completing applications for financial aid, fueling worries that the crisis will impair underrepresented and lower-income students’ future.

Staff and faculty, too, have suffered severe harm.  Over the past year, colleges and universities have lost about 150,000 jobs, a decline of nearly 14 percent.  The cuts’ brunt has been forced on staff, but administrators are also imposing furloughs, trimming benefits, and eliminating pay raises for faculty, shuttering and combining programs, laying off adjuncts, and, in a handful of instances, declaring financial exigency and eliminating tenure.

It’s imaginable, of course, that a vaccine will restore the status quo antebellum.  Perhaps a massive federal bailout will reimburse colleges and universities for the pandemic’s direct and indirect costs.  Almost certainly the Biden administration will reopen the doors to international students, restoring the substantial revenue that these students provide.

Alternatively, Congress might take steps to make a college education more affordable, by doubling the value of Pell Grants or making universities tuition-free for families with annual incomes below $125,000, triggering a significant increase in enrollment.  Or maybe there will be a massive infusion of funds for institutions that serve large numbers of low-income students or displaced workers who need to acquire new skills.

However, I’m not holding my breath that whatever occurs will make higher education financially whole.

It’s far too facile and sanguine to say that a crisis invariably presents opportunities; try telling that to anyone who has lost a loved one or a job.  But there are occasions when a crisis compels necessary changes.

I agree with the argument of two business scholars, Timothy Devinney and Grahame Dowling, that the pandemic offers colleges and universities a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put their dysfunctional strategies behind them and make necessary, if distasteful, changes.

Program closures, departmental mergers, hiring freezes, back office consolidations, administrative and academic reorganization, tenure-line reductions, retirement incentives — all are widespread.  Campuses have taken steps – like eliminating admissions test requirements or increasing the availability of pass-fail grading or rethinking policies regarding tenure and promotion – previously barely imaginable.

Already, the crisis has led campuses to ensure that all students have access essential hardware and software and has led colleges and universities expand mental health services. 

If our colleges and universities are to embrace their professed mission – to serve as an engine of social mobility and a force for equity and inclusion – then fundamental changes need to take place.

It is a distressing fact that brick and mortar campuses have failed in significant ways to meet the challenges that have accompanied the shift from mass to near universal higher education.  Let me suggest five long-standing challenges that our campuses need to urgently address.

1. Controlling costs without sacrificing quality.
One obvious way to break the iron triangle of access, cost, and quality is to welcome innovations that promise to shorten time to degree.  Simple steps include insuring that credits from AP and IB courses, early college/dual degree programs, and community colleges fulfill gen ed and major requirements. Campuses might also incentivize students to take summer or intersession courses to maximize credit accumulation.

Similarly, institutions should reduce or even eliminate residency requirements that make it more difficult for students to complete their degree.

Another promising solution is to blur the divide between the physical and the virtual.  Instead of bringing guest speakers or practitioners to campus, why not use video conferencing?  Or campuses might consider video course sharing for low-demand or expensive to staff classes.

2. Ensuring equity and inclusion across the academic journey.
The indispensable first step is to pinpoint barriers to equity and inclusion.  Campuses need to conduct a regular self-study of impediments to student success and contributors to equity gaps – and follow up appropriately.  This will require colleges and universities to “process analyze” the undergraduate experience and identify and address bottleneck courses, variances in grading among sections within the same course, classes with high DFW rates and achievement gaps, and overly complex major requirements.

Could your institution do more to recruit and admit students from lower-income backgrounds or underrepresented groups?  Do your course registration policies and practices discriminate against particular groups of students, making it difficult, for example, for transfer students to enroll in essential gateway classes?

Is your institution doing everything it can to tackle equity gaps in enrollment in high demand majors – for example, by instituting summer bridge programs or giving talented but unevenly prepared students the opportunity to participate in freshman or sophomore research experiences?

3. Increasing Student Persistence, Momentum, and Completion.
Most college student who dropout are in good academic standing.  They typically depart or stop out for familial, financial, or emotional reasons – issues that can be addressed if an institution is attentive and responsive and has the proper services in place.

Take the step that enhance student persistence and learning.  Make sure students are actively engaged in the learning process and that feel a strong sense of connection to classmates and faculty, and find personal significance in the college experience.  These are variables that conscientious and dedicated faculty and staff members can address.

The keys to increasing student success are not a secret.  Here, 4-year institutions have a lot to learn from their community college counterparts.  The answers lie in a comprehensive approach to student support: 

  • Place entering students in cohorts, Meta Majors, and learning communities, preferably with a faculty mentor and designated advising and a variety of co-curricular enhancements.
  •  Institute block scheduling, allowing students to better balance their academic, work, and caregiving responsibilities.
  • Make sure that every student meets with a professional advisor and receives a well-defined degree map with multiple off-ramps and on-ramps.
  • Replace not-for-credit remedial courses with co-requisite remediation and supplemental instruction to address deficiencies in academic preparation.
  • Expand the use of pedagogies that emphasize active and experiential learning and assessment strategies that involve frequent low-stakes, formative assessments and a variety of authentic, project-based assessments.
  • Offer proactive advising and interventions when students are struggling or are off-track or delay selection of a major or change majors.

4. Making the Transfer Process More Seamless.
With upwards of a third of college students swirling across a number of institutions, it is imperative that campuses make the credit transfer process more seamless.

  • Join the Interstate Passport initiative. Under this program, students who meet learning outcomes in oral and written communication, quantitative literacy, creative arts, intercultural knowledge, natural and physical sciences, information literacy, critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving at one institution do not have to repeat gen ed requirements at the receiving institution.
  •  Require institutions to publicize statistics involving transfer students, including the number admitted, their retention and completion rates and time to degree, and the proportion of transfer credits that do not count toward gen ed requirements or majors.
  • Admit transfer students earlier and expedite credit evaluation to ensure that these students can register for essential courses and take part in book camps and other transition programs.
  • Enhance coordination between 2- and 4-year institutions.  Keep community college advisors apprised of changes in prerequisites and other major requirements. Consider co-enrollment and course sharing opportunities. Negotiate articulation agreements that designate community college classes that apply to specific majors. Be transparent about whether certain majors, such as BSN programs, are unavailable to transfer students.
  •  Ensure that every transfer student meets with a professional advisor prior to entering the receiving institution and gets a degree plan.
  • To better support transfer students, offer robust transfer student onboarding and orientation sessions; establish special transfer student advising and support services; and make sure that transfer students are at no disadvantage in receiving financial aid, including merit aid, or in entering honors or research programs.

5. Better preparing students for entry into the job market.
Embed career preparation across the undergraduate experience.  Open windows into major and career options beginning in the first year.  Provide students with information about job market trends.  Offer skills and career preparation workshops and considering recognizing participation in such programming on students’ transcripts.  Expand career-aligned certificate programs.

Higher education, at its best, is much more than mere vocational or technical training.  It offers transformative and developmental experiences across multiple dimensions, including the aesthetic, the cultural and humanistic, the ethical, and the interpersonal.

Sure, a college education must stress skills development – including competence in oral and written communication, cross-cultural understanding, and numeracy.  But it must also emphasizes the importance of mentoring and social interaction, and it must include participation well-designed learning experiences, exposure to a variety of high impact educational practices, and participatory forms of pedagogy that treat students as partners and creators of knowledge.

It is my fervent hope that our current challenges are precisely the crisis we need if our institutions are to become more undergraduate focused.  You, no doubt, saw reports that the six-year college graduation rate has plateaued at around 60 percent – meaning that 40 percent of entering students exit without a degree and at great cost. 

Institutional efforts to increase degree attainment have certainly made a difference but these haven’t been sufficient, and the reasons are obvious.  Let’s seize the moment and recommit ourselves to better serving our students, closing equity and achievement gaps, and better preparing them for life.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Thursday, December 17, 2020
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Thursday, December 17, 2020