Sometimes our attention is so focused on certain developments that we ignore other equally important trends.
Thus, the focus on the fall of Eastern European communism in the late 1980s had the effect of obscuring another change that occurred in plain sight: the rise of groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the Middle and Near East and national terrorist groups at home.
Psychologists call this tendency for perceptual or inattentional blindness: The inability to see something right in front of our faces. Blindness, in cases like these, is in our minds, not in our eyes.
A rather similar phenomenon could well occur in higher education.
Today, our attention tends to focus on three major challenges:
- A demographic challenge: How to best respond to a decline in the traditional college-age population, especially the number of students who do not need financial assistance.
- A challenge of achievement: How to increase graduation rates and reduce time to graduation.
- A challenge of equity: How to get many more students from low-income backgrounds to a bachelor’s degree, especially in high-demand fields.
At the same time, other looming challenges threaten the college business model and deserve far more attention than they are currently receiving.
Here are some of these “invisible” developments:
1. The blurring of the border between high school and college.
A growing number of students are earning college credit in high school through college / dual degree programs and advanced placement and International Baccalaureate programs.
These programs promise to speed up graduation and lower the cost of college education, which is undeniably good stuff. But the effect is to reduce enrollment in general courses, which until now have tended to subsidize the smaller upper classes. The results: Increased pressure on college business models and decreased enrollment in departments dependent on service courses.
2. The emergence of new areas of knowledge and employment accompanied by changes in the interests of students.
New fields of study are opening up quickly. Some of these emerging areas are advanced manufacturing, applied acoustics, artificial intelligence, biomedicine, clean energy technology, data analysis, human-machine interaction design, materials science, nanoengineering, and robotics.
Meanwhile, demand for students is increasingly shifting to expensive fields of study including healthcare, STEM, and business areas such as business analysis and financial technology.
How campuses that are already in financial difficulty can respond to changing student interests and the proliferation of new disciplines is one of the greatest institutional challenges of our time.
3. The need to significantly expand support services.
How can institutions meet the many support service needs faced by their students and faculty? Among these needs:
- The growing demand for psychological and disabled services.
- Need of faculty for course design and educational technology support.
- The challenge of implementing data-driven consulting.
- The need to expand access to coaching, tutoring and additional instruction in high demand courses with substantial DFW rates.
Providing these services on the scale needed will require ingenuity, innovation – and money that will likely come at the expense of existing initiatives.
4. Pressure to increase financial support, including emergency aid.
As costs and tuition fees rise, the number of full-salary students stagnates or decreases, and the pressure to admit more Pell-eligible and transfer-eligible students increases, institutions must redirect more and more from income to financial aid. Where will these funds come from?
In addition to these challenges, let me mention a few more.
1. The growing pressure to offer courses online and in person.
Many students who work, commute, provide care, or have some disability want their institutions to offer many more options online. No problem with that. At the same time, students who suffer from illnesses or injuries would also benefit from the increased availability of distance learning. Meanwhile, asynchronous online learning also offers the opportunity to solve course planning issues that delay graduation.
Institutions are faced with a dilemma: how to increase high-quality online offerings cost-effectively while not reducing access to in-person classes or forcing faculty to take a hyflex approach to teaching .
2. The need to improve employment outcomes after graduation.
In a premonitory 2004 essay titled “Vocation is Not a Dirty Word,” Jamienne S. Studley, chairperson of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, the regional accreditor and former deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of Education and former president of Skidmore, called for more thoughtful ways to introduce undergraduates to the world of work and weave career development throughout the student’s educational journey.
Almost two decades later, the challenge remains, with more than 40 percent of college graduates working in jobs unrelated to their degree, or not even requiring a degree. Obviously, the use of guidance services is not enough. We need to embed career development into students’ educational pathways, open windows to potential careers, offer students more career assessments and advice, offer more job-aligned skills workshops and expand the ‘access to internships. But this too will require a reorientation of existing financial resources.
3. The quest for new markets.
Few institutions can narrow their path to success. For colleges and universities to thrive, they must tap into new markets, whether they are international students, international students, transfer students, graduates, adult learners, online learners or master’s students.
In many parts of the country, competition for new students is a zero-sum game: the gains of one institution are the losses of another. The master’s market has become increasingly problematic as this market becomes more saturated, online program managers absorb a high share of revenue, and online mega providers threaten to dominate the ecosystem.
Worse yet, competition is increasingly coming from new entrants, especially the lower-cost certificate programs offered by Amazon, Google and Microsoft.
4. Reinvent the student experience for a new generation of students.
The old-fashioned student experience, organized around fraternities and sororities, intercollegiate athletics, various clubs and organizations headed by a student senate, as well as various campus traditions such as the end of year celebrations or the campfires persists, but for many students this approach has lost much of its appeal.
On today’s highly diverse campuses, no student experience meets the needs of most students. Innovation is imperative.
It’s pretty obvious what needs to take place on the academic side of the house. Pacesetter institutions institute freshman research experiences, freshman seminars, undergraduate interest groups, creative spaces and entrepreneurship centers, extracurricular, immersive, experiential and learning opportunities. expanded applied, career development programs, expanded study abroad programs, and a host of job-aligned certificates and certifications. Everything expensive; everything is necessary.
What the next generation’s non-university experience should look like is less clear. Is the answer to cultivate sub-communities, organized around an artistic pole, an Asian, black or Latin center, a business or entrepreneurship club, a student center in transfer, a center for veterans and a center for women, alongside targeted activities, such as e-sport?
Or should institutions strive to foster a much broader sense of community through concerts and theatrical performances, expanded intramurals, international food fairs, student-faculty lunches, and various activities? campus-wide wellness?
The obvious answer is both, but these represent yet another substantial campus expense.
5. Identify and train effective leadership.
Running a college or university is like running a small (or not so small) town, and that, of course, is not hyperbole. Not only does each campus have its own housing, health and food services, technology, transportation infrastructure, and sports and entertainment venues, but each has very engaged stakeholders with very distinct interests who wish to influence communities. campus priorities and decisions.
The skills a campus leader needs – budgeting, fundraising, legal, interpersonal, strategic – are not widespread, and the stress these leaders are under could hardly be more intense.
Like you, I’ve seen the difference a great campus leader can make (for example, Renu Khator at the University of Houston or the late Diana Natalico at the University of Texas at El Paso). But finding these talented leaders is like looking for a goosebumps and even the best burnout.
Sometimes selective attention is needed; in the face of information overload, we need to filter stimuli and focus if we are to function effectively. But just as it is a mistake to mask our surroundings in our personal lives, we must be careful not to allow the hyperfocus to let us ignore the critical developments emerging around us. That’s why we feel caught off guard when predictable, but ignored, eventualities bite us.
We must take to heart the warning of Matthew 13:13: “[T]hey look, but don’t see, and they listen, but neither hear nor understand.
We are repeatedly told that higher education is at a crossroads or an inflection point or a critical turning point. It is certainly true. But even as we tackle the big challenges of access, affordability, graduation, and equity, we need to tackle other challenges that some mistakenly see as less urgent. .
After all, we can’t fix what we don’t see.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.