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Trends That Will (Re)Shape Higher Education in 2017

The EvoLLLution | Trends That Will (Re)Shape Higher Education in 2017
Alongside the federal government changeover, 2017 will bring a number of shifts front and center that will affect the way institutions do business.

After the surprising and unexpected result of last fall’s presidential election, predicting the future seems to be an exercise in futility. This is especially true in higher education, because we are not only dealing with a major political change at the highest levels of government, but also a shift in the attitudes and perspectives of the folks who now have the ability to make significant decisions at those levels.

Given this atmosphere going into 2017, where will we see changes to the higher education domain we have known over the last few years?

First, let’s talk money.

For years now the pursuit of a college degree has been held under scrutiny because of its high cost. Is a degree truly worth the investment? Does a degree translate to more earned income over the life of its recipient? These questions will only get harder now. While the changes in the FAFSA application cycle have been implemented to make it easier for students to apply for financial aid, the funding for it may not be increased and most likely will be decreased going forward.

We don’t yet know what impact the shift in federal and state governments will have on grants and loans, but given the pre-election rhetoric, our newly elected officials will not likely be increasing amounts or opening the door wider to disenfranchised students. And, for colleges and universities to stay robust and viable, tuition costs may continue to increase.

Next, what about students?

What will our student population will look like going into 2017? Well, we know that the number of high school graduates has been declining for a few years and that the number of so-called non-traditional students has actually surpassed the traditional students. This trend will probably continue. The big question, though, is how undocumented and other historically disenfranchised students will fare in this new environment of isolationism. If immigration controls move forward as proposed, what impact does that have on the international students already studying, or wanting to study, in our country? According to the Institute of International Education, the number of international students in U.S. colleges and universities increased to nearly 1,000,000 for the 2014-15 academic year. This is almost a 5 percent share of total U.S. student enrollment. Not only is there a risk that entering the country on a student visa will become more difficult, but students from other countries may also elect to forego the U.S. as an educational option if they don’t feel welcome.

Once 2017 begins in earnest and the new government structure gets underway, I think we will see a resurgence of the student activism like we saw in the 1960s. Though, historically, younger students have taken up the cause, even non-traditional students will be rising up and getting more involved in civic and political issues. Higher education has always been a place where diverse philosophies were aired. The current climate is ripe for this type of Socratic dialog again. Though students of color may have more concerns in this new normal, I think they will continue to be vocal and united as they march forward in support of a country that treats all of its citizens with respect. Whatever the powers that be, they cannot ignore these voices, and out of necessity, must respond. I sincerely hope the response is positive.

Programs will change.

The type of academic programs we see now will continue to morph in response to the demand of the student consumer. We already are seeing a rise in requests of specialized certificates for entry into high demand jobs, and an increased demand of health-related degrees. Nothing new here—the U.S. has a huge generation of baby-boomers who are on the downward slope of life and experiencing—or will soon be experiencing—failing health. Hundreds of forecasts in the media about the large numbers of people who will be seeking medical care over the next 5 to 10 years are not falling on deaf ears. Prospective students are hearing it and flocking to health care programs that are virtually guaranteeing jobs upon graduation.

There is even a new initiative out there called “nano-degrees” that are shorter and focus on quick, intense and precise delivery of skills and knowledge intended to drop students directly into a specific profession. These “micro” programs remove the necessity of taking unrelated courses outside the major, but also undermine the philosophical tenet of a general education contained in a liberal arts degree.

Campus safety issues will continue to be a big concern.

Bad press about sexual assaults and violent crime on campuses over the last couple of years has raised awareness about physical safety at locations where college courses are being offered. While the issue is more relevant to traditional students, even non-traditional prospects, applicants and students are asking about security measures in place at the extension locations they attend. Online security is another arena where safety concerns are being addressed. Just this year, our institution added mandatory training on computer security for all staff and faculty as a response to student expectations for protection of the integrity and privacy of their information. Increasing access to online educational programs means that the potential for identity theft and fraud is even more prevalent.

Students will continue to demand accountability from their colleges and universities.

It won’t only be students pressuring institutions to take responsibility for student success and academic quality. Accrediting agencies and employers will expect colleges to produce the graduates they claim to have, who are well educated and can hit the ground running when they enter the workforce.

Tomorrow’s students will continue to carefully look at the value of college in terms of how their degrees will translate directly to salaries. They will continue to comparison shop—which has become incredibly easy online. And, the last few years of public scrutiny on for-profit institutions has shed light on all higher education, forcing all colleges and universities to vigilantly vet the degreed graduates they are turning out. Students are becoming more savvy consumers and they have many choices in today’s education market, so colleges must continually re-evaluate, tweak and improve the educational services they offer in order to stay viable.

Though it is easy to be cynical and harp that today’s non-traditional college students are merely consumers putting money in our virtual vending machine and expecting a degree/diploma in return, I still hope and believe that most people see higher education as much more. True, it is—and should be—a path to a “brighter tomorrow” in terms of career choice. But I also think that many of our students today and next year will still see college as an opportunity to expand their minds, to meet and interact with people who have diverse backgrounds, and to engage in active, animated and exciting discussions about the world in which we live. I know this is true. I’ve seen single parent students who travel three hours to attend a commencement ceremony so that their children can scream “that’s my MOM!” as they walk across the stage.

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