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.
1. Confidence in Higher Education
According to a survey conducted by New America , public confidence in higher education’s ability to lead America in a positive direction has fallen 14 percentage points since 2020 (69% in 2020, down to 55% in 2022). A survey conducted by Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground had similar findings. “Americans are losing confidence in higher education – not because they think a college degree doesn’t matter, but because high costs and low success rates make college a risky proposition for students and families,” said Andrew Seligsohn, president, Public Agenda.
Today’s generation of students wants more evidence that what they pay for college will matter, said Stella M. Flores, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, but colleges are not getting that message across. Carnevale argues for more transparency and accountability in higher education to address students’ focus on greater employability and financial security.
A gap in messaging bears out in a recent annual survey of provosts. Only 2% of provosts strongly agreed that “students at my college understand the purpose of our general education requirements.” Said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, “I was struck by the fact that 90% of the provosts surveyed agree that general education requirements are a crucial part of any college degree, yet only 31 percent agree that students at their institution understand the purpose of general education requirements…we need to be transparent about why we are asking students to take general education courses and how the learning outcomes, skills and competencies embedded within these classes are not only connected but foundational to success in work, citizenship and life.”
Pasquerella said these issues particularly affect community colleges at a time of falling enrollment, mostly among African American and Latinx males between the ages of 18 and 25. “There needs to be a focus on strategies for retention and completion. This includes ensuring students understand the value of general education courses rather than merely viewing them as hoops to jump through.”
2. Enrollment, the Ivies and How Diversity Relates
Total undergraduate enrollment is down around 8% since the onset of the pandemic, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, yet the most selective schools still see strong demand. Application rates are rising substantially at almost every Ivy League school, while acceptance rates are falling to all-time lows each year. Buoyed by increases in minority student applications, elite universities are actively seeking to increase the diversity of their student bodies. The New York Times reported in May 2021 many elite universities admitted a higher proportion of traditionally underrepresented students – Black, Hispanic and those who were from lower-income communities or were the first generation in their families to go to college, or some combination – than ever before. The trend toward diversity also has sparked a university focus on international student applications and admissions, which saw a dip during the pandemic. At Yale, the student body is now comprised of at least 20% international students.
Some elite universities are pledging to expand financial aid resources to include more families. Beginning fall of 2023, Princeton University, for example, has extended its “full ride” pledge to include most families earning up to $100,000. More than a quarter of Princeton undergraduates are expected to qualify. Harvard, Yale and Stanford universities have similar grants for families.
Beyond financial need, an increase in student diversity has increased the need for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts on campus – an effort alumni can play a key role in supporting. Institutions are increasingly being held accountable by alumni and students for broadening their diversity initiatives on campus and in alumni programming. For example, Brown University is focused on expanding alumni engagement in career development and mentorship programs and continues to gather feedback from historically underrepresented and diverse alumni to share with university leadership, faculty and administrators. At Yale, initiatives include increased partnerships between alumni identity groups and their counterparts on campus, such as student organizations and cultural houses to help create mentorship for underrepresented student groups and increase networking and alumni support for first-generation, low-income students. Cornell University’s efforts center on helping coordinate the work of its diverse alumni associations, which maintain independent alumni volunteer boards; organizing engagement events; conducting fundraising initiatives to support diversity programs on campus; growing dynamic diverse alumni community to further inclusion; and working closely with the university’s on-campus diversity offices and programs to engage alumni in their work.
3. Enrollment and Retention
A sharp decline in American birth rates that began in 2007 leading up to the 2008 recession has long predicted an abrupt drop in high school graduates in 2026 , disproportionately impacting the enrollment at community colleges, mid-sized regional universities and small liberal arts colleges. Nathan D. Grawe, a professor of economics at Carleton College and author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education and The Agile College, projects over the following decade the pool of applicants for two-year and four-year institutions could contract by 10%.
There is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the decrease, prompting its own baby bust that could affect the college pipeline well into the next generation. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly 1.3 million students have disappeared from American colleges during the pandemic. Enrollment numbers continue to trend downward despite the re-opening of in-person classes. College attendance among undergraduates has fallen almost 10% since COVID emerged in early 2020; in the spring of 2022, enrollment dropped 4.7% from the year before – a deeper-than-expected decline, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Enrollment losses were particularly deep in areas with larger low-income and minority populations. Similarly, community colleges and less-selective four-year institutions sustained a greater hit during COVID.
This contraction has sparked fears that many students are not simply missing, but gone for good. Research shows if students stop out, or take a leave of absence, they may not continue with their studies. According to the State of Higher Education 2022 Report by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, 36% of bachelor’s degree students and 39% of associate degree students report it was difficult or very difficult to remain enrolled heading into the fall of 2021. Historically marginalized students, including American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian and multiracial students, are most likely to report it was very difficult or difficult to remain enrolled.
For those students who have considered stopping out, the most-cited reason in 2021 was emotional stress . While the overall percentage of students who have considered stopping out remained relatively stable between 2020 and 2021, 76% of bachelor’s degree students who have considered stopping out in the past six months say emotional stress was the reason – an increase of 34 percentage points over 2020. Students are about twice as likely to cite stress as they are to report the three next-most reported reasons (the pandemic, cost of attendance, and coursework difficulty). While a growing mental health crisis challenged institutions prior to the pandemic, feelings of isolation and academic difficulties caused by the pandemic have exacerbated mental health struggles nationally. (Source: Gallup and Lumina Foundation)
To help counteract enrollment losses, colleges will need to recruit and retain the very students they’ve historically struggled to attract, including students from low-income and minority backgrounds. College graduation rates for Americans in the lowest income brackets have barely budged over the last 50 years. Although nearly half of all undergraduates are now students of color, achievement gaps remain. During the pandemic, the share of students coming from high-poverty high schools or those with large minority populations dropped sharply, and many of these students have been slower to return to college.
Additionally, a focus on adult learners as a potential pool of candidates could yield enrollment gains. There are roughly 39 million Americans who have attended college, but left without a degree. According to the Gallup and Lumina survey, some of these former students may be open to returning. The survey found that 56% of one-time students who stopped out before the pandemic would be open to re-enrolling. Similarly, 40% of adults surveyed who had never attended college said they would consider going to college. Among the unenrolled, associate degrees and short-term credentials are the most considered degree/program. Based on data from McKinsey & Company, companies looking to upskill or reskill the technology capability of their workforce through continued learning opportunities and certificate programs as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution may present additional opportunities for adult learners. (Source: Gallup and Lumina Foundation)
4. Cost Concerns
The affordability of higher education is the largest barrier to attracting new students or reaching those who were once enrolled and, in a survey by New America , only one third of current college students and recent graduates said it was possible to get an affordable education beyond high school. Tuition has long been used as a growth strategy by colleges, contributing to an average cost increase of 175% for an undergraduate education over the past four decades. According to the Gallup and Lumina study, cost is the most significant barrier for the unenrolled with 54% citing it as the reason they remain unenrolled. Similarly, more than half of students who stopped out of a college degree/certificate program both before and during the pandemic say cost is a very important reason they remain unenrolled. Cost as a barrier to enrollment spanned similar percentages of adults across demographic/ethnic differences and income levels. (Source: Gallup and Lumina Foundation)
The cost of college has led to discussions among prospective and current students on the value of their education. In the Gallup and Lumina study, financial aid and perceived degree value are noted as important retention tools among half of those who remain enrolled. Given the financial burden, the New America survey also found a majority of Americans would like the government to pay more of the costs of college. President Biden announced a plan in August 2022 for student-loan forgiveness, which would forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans for individuals earning under $125,000 annually. Seemingly, the program addresses the notion the current cost of a college degree and ensuing loan debt may not yield the same earning potential it once did. In response to students’ concerns over cost, momentum is building among a handful of conventional colleges and universities to offer three-year degrees – shortening students’ entry into the workforce and reducing cost over a traditional four-year degree. The College in 3 program, offered at 13 colleges and universities including Utica College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, also is seen as a way to compete for new students, particularly those who may have chosen faster-paced training programs or question the need for a college degree.
At The Ohio State University, a new Scarlet & Gray Advantage program will raise $800 million for student scholarships, expand job and internship programs, provide grant assistance, and extend coaching on financial education. President Kristina M. Johnson said, “…we are building a new pathway to the American dream that will empower students to take control of their financial future. Through the program, thousands of future students will have the opportunity to earn their degree debt-free. It will be among the largest debt-free programs in higher education.”
5. Pathways to Student Success
With the pressure on American colleges and universities to deliver tangible results, the World Economic Forum has identified four education trends and reforms in 2022 that will reap greater rewards for student success:
1. Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a shift in online learning from “learn from anywhere” to a “learn from everywhere” approach. This reform incorporates both flexibility and immersion, allowing students to participate in experiential learning and apply concepts learned in the classroom out in the real world.
2. A move towards “fully active learning,” versus traditional lectures, incorporates spaced learning, emotional learning and the application of knowledge. At Paul Quinn College, an HBCU in Texas, fully active learning was combined with internships at regional employers. Focused on learning outcomes, the strategy has given students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds the opportunity to apply the knowledge gained in the real world.
3. Universities must trend towards teaching skills that remain relevant in a changing world. According to a recent survey, 96% of chief academic officers at universities think they are doing a good job preparing young people for the workforce. Only 41% of college students and 11% of business leaders share that opinion. At Minerva University in San Francisco, competencies such as critical thinking or creative thinking are broken down into foundational concepts and taught across all disciplines, regardless of major.
4. Move toward the use of formative assessments instead of high-stake exams when evaluating students. Continuing the trend prior to COVID-19 and accelerated during the pandemic, many American universities, with Harvard leading the way, are replacing high-stakes standardized exams with other measures to assess and improve learning outcomes. Formative assessment, which combines formal and informal evaluations throughout learning, encourages students to improve their performance rather than just have it evaluated.
Higher education institutions also have an opportunity to more clearly identify and remedy student outcomes and success through the use of data and advanced analytics, per a report by McKinsey & Company. Advanced analytics, or data science and machine learning, is more sophisticated than linear programs at targeting the highest-impact opportunities to improve access for more students. Using the power of algorithms, machine learning can look at 10 years of data to identify, for example, a student’s risk of attrition. Instead of relying on linear markers for attrition, such as low grades and poor attendance, machine learning can help identify students who may have decent grades and above-average attendance, but who have been struggling to submit their assignments on time or have had difficulty paying their bills. With more nuanced information, universities are better able to target students who could benefit from additional support.
To extend student success beyond the classroom and as colleges and universities seek to become more relevant to all their constituencies and engage them in lifelong relationships, the traditional “career center” is undergoing a major redesign. Key drivers of this organizational shift are the evolving needs and expectations of the “student consumer,” the dynamic realities of the job market and the demand by business for “skills-ready” employees. Several institutions have differentiated themselves by adapting their strategies and positioning themselves for leadership in this competitive space. The evolution of university “life pathways,” involving students and alumni over the course of the “60-year curriculum” and with career preparation as a core element, is one such example.
“Today, the colonial age and the industrial age exist only in history books, and even the office age may be fast receding into memory,” writes Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun in his provocative 2017 book Robot-Proof about remodeling U.S. higher ed for the future. As a pioneer in experiential learning with its co-op model of higher education, Northeastern’s mission has always been to prepare students for fulfilling and successful roles in the professional world. “We live in the digital age,” Aoun adds. “…A robot-proof model of higher education is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it refits their mental engines…to invent, discover or otherwise produce something society deems valuable.
“We have a responsibility to position graduates to thrive in their fifth and sixth jobs and also to secure that crucial first job,” said William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe in October 2021 in announcing plans to create funded internship opportunities for all students by increasing outreach to alumni, parents and friends, and current and future employers.
History documents “unambiguously,” according to The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future by Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt, that “since the earliest universities, students have come to college to prepare for jobs…The dichotomy between education for personal enrichment and education for participation in society, including the labor market, has always been a false one.”
The authors suggest that “restoring the connection between education and work requires colleges and universities to build on the research of the skunkworks,” involving such features as continually updating and modernizing programs and twenty-first- century skills, strong apprenticeship and internship programs and a career center “on steroids” from day one for students through postgraduation.
6. Partnerships, Partnerships, Partnerships
University-industry collaboration goes back to the 1970s and over the past few decades, 11,000 companies were started at universities, according to VentureWell, an organization facilitating such relationships. Today, with fewer federal dollars available for scientific research, industry is increasingly seen as the resource for research funding and the experience to commercialize a product, while universities have the talent to invent, develop and test products. Not only do students gain career preparation and jobs, companies are competing for graduates who understand emerging markets and often have acquired expertise and skills prior to starting work. From a university marketing perspective, students also are looking for universities with track records for job placement.
What matters to a business is not outcomes but impact – how the new knowledge from a collaboration with a university can contribute to a company’s performance, according to quantitative and qualitative data collected at 25 research-intensive multinational companies from a variety of industries and involving more than 100 university projects they sponsored. Published in Sloan Management Review , the study noted the most relevant impacts: Are new products made possible? New and more effective processes? Novel kinds of computer hardware or software? Patentable materials, designs or processes that enhance competitive advantage?
The same analysis found that promising outcomes of university projects often fail to translate into tangible impacts for the companies involved. To remedy this, the report proposed seven “best practices” that companies should follow to bridge this outcome-impact gap. For universities, the main takeaway is that the university project team appreciates the project’s strategic context for the company, that communications are strong and regular and that university teams interact with different functional areas within the company to build broad awareness of the project within the company. An important factor is not proximity but personal interaction between the academic research team and the company. Finally, these knowledge exchanges need to continue after the contractual research project is completed to continue to leverage successful project outcomes.
The “Power” of COVID
Despite shifting priorities and budget cuts, the pandemic provided an opportunity for universities to reevaluate budgets, goals and relationships with key partners, according to a University Business magazine special report. “In particular, COVID-19 brought to light the importance of resilient and long-serving partnerships, whether with industry, researchers, entrepreneurs or governments. These partnerships are the lifeblood of a modern university, creating new opportunities, driving economic engagement and promoting workforce development in the university’s home market.”
Citing the University of South Carolina’s Office of Innovation, Partnerships and Economic Engagement and its relationships with more than 25 industry partners, the article underscored the value of such collaborations – “to connect public and private partners with academic resources in order to solve real-world challenges.” Building on its relationship to technology giant Siemens since 2017, USC during COVID expanded that partnership to provide new software learning opportunities for students while helping develop innovation solutions for today’s manufacturing challenges. The 15,000-square-foot Digital Transformation Lab at the university’s McNAIR Aerospace Center demonstated how partnerships have helped sustain the university, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
New vaccines against COVID-19 are now household words, but their relative speed to market was due in part to well-established industry-university collaborations and the can-do spirit of universities, according to a special Nature magazine editorial. “The pandemic has boosted public awareness of science-industry partnerships. It has also led to greater public understanding of research, manufacturing and quality-assurance processes.” It cited two areas in which collaboration could be improved for the future – reducing IP disputes for the benefit of both university and industry and better mechanisms for researchers to access industry data in emergencies. “Future successes are not guaranteed…That is why every lesson from this pandemic must be learnt [sic], and barriers to collaboration must be dismantled as much as possible.”
7. The Space Debate
After a building boom at many American colleges and universities, shrinking enrollment and demographic shifts over the last decade – and accelerated by COVID-19 – have left many colleges with more space than they need or can afford. While the cumulative capacity of American colleges grew by 26% between fiscal years 2009-2019, enrollment increased by only 3%. The annual cost of carrying the resulting three million to five million excess seats, and extra personnel, could be as high as $50 billion.
While instances of colleges substantially shrinking their footprints remain rare – and some colleges continue to build new facilities to differentiate their campuses among prospective students – the scaling back or rethinking of space is a common topic. At the University of Missouri, nine aging buildings were identified for demolition that won’t be replaced. Reducing nearly one million square feet of facilities space saves $94 million in deferred-maintenance costs and $2.5 million in annual operating expenses.
Strategies being deployed by colleges to reduce space and associated building and maintenance costs include:
• Assessing a building’s value, maintenance and renovation needs to determine which buildings to fix, replace or eliminate. Reducing the number of buildings and deferred-maintenance costs allows colleges to apply the savings towards other facilities.
• Sell buildings not strategically close to campus, or end agreements on leased space.
• Renovate or reconfigure existing space and change facilities usage made necessary by COVID-19. A new College of Business planned at Florida State that originally called for large lecture halls and traditional classroom spaces is being reconfigured to accommodate large survey classes over Zoom, while making other classrooms more interactive.
• In the design and construction of new buildings, create space that is more flexible and dedicated to more active and engaged learning.
Spurred by COVID-19, office space on campuses is being reconsidered and presents the greatest opportunity for impact in reducing space needs. With offices accounting for as much as 40% of space on some campuses, colleges are balancing remote and hybrid administrative positions to reduce the amount of office space needed and, thereby, reduce cost.
(Alexis Marteslo also contributed to this report)