Forbes. Jan 13, 2014.
The last several years have seen much white water in higher education. The currents of change have propelled the sector toward, or onto, one rock after another. This year offers no prospect for relief. The top issues of 2014 will undoubtedly include the following:
- Cost continues to top the list of concerns for the President, Congress and, most importantly, the public. Much of the cost increase over the past five years can be attributed to reduced state tax support for public institutions which has forced an offset through increases in tuition and fees. The highest increases have been at public colleges and universities where 75% of students are enrolled. President Obama will be drawing further attention to this issue with a White House Conference on the subject planned for January.
- Renewal of the Higher Education Act by Congress got started last year. However, the in-depth work of shaping and testing new policies and regulations will pick up steam in 2014. At this point, accreditation reform appears to be one of the few issues parties agree is needed although consensus on its purpose is lacking.
- Workforce development is taking on greater importance as employers are once again hiring but they are still having difficulty finding applicants with needed skills. This is creating dialogue around America’s “skills gap” and the need for higher education to do a better job of preparing future workers. Meanwhile, business and industry remain largely on the sidelines in terms of efforts to increase employee degree completion.
- Competency-based education (CBE) is receiving attention from the media as more schools dip a toe into these new waters. There is much to be done here. Few understand exactly what is meant by “competency”, know how to measure it, or comprehend what can actually be done with a degree attained through such a process (employers may like it, but what about grad schools). Even the appropriateness of the term “competency-based education” is questioned by some as such programs are focused on the assessment of one’s ability to apply learning already acquired rather than the attainment of new learning. Should this be “competency-based credentialing” (CBC)?
- Accreditation has become the “piñata” of both the political and policy communities. Few of those who are critical of it understand the present system, a big part of the problem. However, before any meaningful reform can be undertaken, there needs to be agreement as to whether the present system is “too difficult” or “too lax” and whether the desired end state is a regulatory enforcement body or one of quality assurance.
- Assessment has become a major concern for higher education. Increasingly, regulators and accreditors are moving away from input models and instead are asking, “What is the country receiving in return for the billions being spent on higher education and how do we know if it is effective?” Learning outcome-assessment has become the basis for determining institutional effectiveness. However, the availability of valid, widely accepted tools and methods needed to determine learning and skill acquisition are proving hard to come by.
- Quality assurance in non-institutional learning is one of several awkward terms attached to granting equivalency to similar learning within an academic institution. There is growing consensus that a need exists for standards and greater transparency in the process for determining the credit worthiness of learning achieved outside the academy. This is an aspect of higher education long dominated by the American Council on Education (ACE ACE +0.05%). As more institutions are starting to make such determinations independent of one another, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has created a commission to consider what is needed. All want some assurance of quality but no two assessors are using the same yardstick.
- There is a need to recognize the (not-all-that-) new majority in student bodies. While higher education has seen a dramatic shift in student demographics, neither the media nor the policy community appear to fully recognize that today’s typical student is no longer an 18 to 24 year old studying full-time on a campus. In fact, there is data which shows that fewer than 20% of the roughly 20 million now enrolled fit this traditional description. The rest are “post-traditional” students who are older, working part-time, and often commuting, either by car or, increasingly, the Internet. Yet, policies and programs still make assumptions based on the needs of a shrinking minority.
- A leadership crisis is looming. It is debatable whether the need to prepare new leaders in higher education is coming or has already arrived. Demographic data show an increasingly “seasoned” group at the top of our colleges and universities. According to an American Council on Education report (“The American College President, 2012”), “Two decades ago the average age of college and university presidents was 52. Today, it is 61.” Only the community college sector seems to recognize this as a problem and it is taking action. Community college leadership programs are springing up in schools of education across the country. And while some may question whether these are the right places to be training future leaders in areas such as the use of technology, innovation, advocacy and entrepreneurial thinking, there is little else filling the void.
- The economy is gaining strength and employment is once again rising. While this is generally good news, it also gives fuel to those who maintain that a college education isn’t necessary to employment. Cost-value comparisons that question the investment in a degree at today’s prices (always the “published” tuition for an elite private institution) are increasing in frequency. Student recruiting is likely to become more difficult as a result of improved economic activity and because of the political perspective that marketing is not an acceptable use of funds generated under Title IV.
You may observe a notable omission from this list: MOOCs. Increasing awareness of their limitations for certain audiences combined with a feeling of “enough already” will make these yesterday’s news in 2014.
Uncertain seas are still ahead.