As the 2022-2023 academic year began, topics of confidence in higher education and workforce relevance, higher education’s costs, university admissions practices and diversity initiatives dominate the headlines. With respect to confidence in higher ed and workforce preparation, The Chronicle of Education’s Special Report, “Building Tomorrow’s Workforce,” zeroes in on a critical theme summing up higher education’s relevance as the economy wobbles between recovery and lift-off: many employers, and not just in technology, are reconsidering longstanding requirements for a four-year degree.

The numbers tell the story:
• 95% of chief academic officers rate their institution as very/somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work, while 11% of business leaders strongly agree that graduating students have the skills and competencies their businesses need.
• That’s quite a gap. And it’s only reinforced by a third statistic in the same data – 13% of Americans strongly agree that college graduates in this country are well-prepared for success in the workplace.

And to illustrate the challenges facing employers in today’s post-pandemic economy, the State of Maryland announced in March that it would no longer require applicants to have a degree for many state jobs and a number of companies are starting their own bootcamps and training programs while colleges are seeing their enrollments decline, the report documents. With labor shortages, understandably employers need to find smart ways to attract workers in short-term timeframes; yet coupled with the other realities, such as students’ ability to fast-track to jobs and the cost of a postsecondary education, once again higher education’s agility to respond to dynamic forces is in the spotlight.

Nonetheless, for most Americans, a college degree does pay off. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, those with bachelor’s degrees earn a median of $2.8 million over their careers, 75% more than those with only a high school diploma. “This isn’t the first time Americans have questioned the value of higher education,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “This rhetoric that you don’t need to go to college has been a persistent problem in the United States,” he said, and it tends to resurface during recessions.

The Chronicle report also identified seven growing sectors of opportunity for higher ed – matched to employers’ needs: (1) specialized skills for elementary and secondary education, (2) renewable and other energy fields, (3) analytical skills for the financial services industry, (4) multiple, flexible talents for health care professions, (5) evolving skills for a robust and growing manufacturing industries, (6) the shifting and broadening world of retail and (7) the technology field that is completely “bursting at the seams” with opportunity.

Admissions practices, particularly those with respect to the Ivy League colleges and universities, coupled with their impacts on the diversity of the student body, also lead the trends narratives. The most selective institutions still see strong demand. While a college education is attractive because degree-holders earn more, there is concern that some students have decided if they cannot get into the most prestigious schools that promise the most earning power, college isn’t worth it. This threatens to drive an even wider wedge between the haves and have-nots. At the same time application rates are rising substantially at almost every Ivy League school, acceptance rates are falling to all-time lows each year.
This report summarizes key trends that administrators, boards, staff, faculty and students collectively face in postsecondary institutions today.

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In reporting on the trends in Pre-K–12 independent school education earlier this year, Donna Orem, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), cited several outcomes, questions and lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. With no single typical experience among the schools, she noted several common themes that can provide guidance for the future:

  • Average enrollment nose-dived early in the pandemic, then rose in 2021-22, but the picture is mixed for the years ahead. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, private school enrollments are expected to remain flat for the next decade. While this varies among schools and regions, Orem suggests the need to explore whether the potential for growth is higher if school costs were lower.
  • Student diversity is also on the rise – from 21% representation of students of color in 2010-2011 to 31% average today. Yet, children of color to age 17 represent 53.3% of the US population. “Our focus on belonging must be priorities as our communities become more diverse,” she wrote. (See more on the topic of “belonging” on page 3.)
  • The international student market appears to be falling as a result of the pandemic and the next five years might be worse or much worse according to an NAIS pop-up survey.
  • School leaders also prioritized keeping their communities together during the pandemic, but many were unsure whether they would be able to meet the increased demand for financial aid. At NAIS schools, the percentage of students on financial aid has consistently been around 23-24% since 2010, went up to 27% in 2021, but is coming back down again.
  • Other challenges and opportunities:
    • Schools accepted new ways of doing things (i.e., online school and online events) and flexed their ‘muscle of adaptability,’ while responding to the toll on mental and physical health of students and faculty. The next question is how to continue to be flexible as needs arise without feeling the pressures.
    • A deeper understanding that mental health is as important as physical health. “Schools can take the lead in becoming centers of community well-being and, in the process, improve student outcomes and more successfully recruit and retain a workforce in the future,” she counseled.
    • With widening inequalities between the haves and have-nots, and the U.S. middle class “virtually disappearing,” schools will need to affirm their purpose and their approach to this unequal society and the business model that aligns with it. If not, “the market will dictate it for us.”
    • With the dynamic demographic and social changes, “schools need to begin scenario planning now for the school market of the future, which may be unlike any ever faced.”[1]

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