Learning from our Students: Issues Shaping Administrative and Professional Thinking in Higher Education Administration
We are a small but mighty higher education administration graduate program at the University of Wyoming, composed of just two faculty members but approximately 140 graduate students spread across our master’s, post-master’s certificate and doctoral programs. We specialize in an Ed.D. degree in higher education administration aimed at practitioners at the community college and university levels. Students in our three programs include entry-level academic advisors, program heads, school directors, deans and vice presidents. One is even a college president.
One of the required classes for our doctoral students, entitled “Issues in Higher Education,” allows each student to propose and pursue study on higher education administration and policy issues of their choice. At the beginning of each semester, students in this course identify and then vote on the most salient issues facing higher education today. The instructor then creates course content around the top issues chosen. We have been watching the issues our students have selected to study and discuss across four “Issues in Higher Education” classes over the past two years.
Below are the top five issues students selected in every one of the four classes, with lessons or concerns we suggest are implicated:
1. Student debt
Our students are hurting, and with enrollments plateauing, we should put away reservations about debt relief. Just as we are growing increasingly concerned about post-graduation outcomes, we should recognize that one outcome we want to see are degrees leading to gainful employment and resultant quality of life—without crippling student debt. Promise and free college programs may well be a start in helping learners advance through their educational journeys positioned by jobs with low or no debt burdens (Carrier, Scull, Perkins & Schaffer, In Press).
2. Value of the college degree
Is it time for traditional higher education to consider alternative credentials? Note that while many of us in the online, continuing and professional education fields have enthusiastically embraced this movement, traditional academics have failed to adequately respond to the possibilities alternative credentials present. A recent Academy of Arts and Sciences (Brown & Kurzweil, 2018) report is perhaps the most notable exception.
3. Funding and budget cuts
Out-of-the-box thinking is required to rid ourselves of today’s higher education focus on austerity and resource scarcity. We have to think about resources in differently. Could some fiscal and human resources come from government, independent, and business and professional sector partnerships? Could we see donors as providing more than just money: career advising and practicum or internship opportunities?
4. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
We must consider the possibilities of invigorating higher education by renewing a widespread commitment to justice. Administrators, faculty, staff and students all play significant roles in creating and sustaining diverse, equitable and inclusive higher education environments.
Higher education must compete in a market of students increasingly made up of working adult learners. Competition is not just among traditional institutions; business and for-profit education organizations are now producing sought-after credentials such as the Google certifications. Michael Horn and Bob Moesta (2019) recently noted in a Harvard Business Review article that traditional colleges and universities need to think about what today’s learners want and need. Citing authorities such as Clayton Christiansen, Horn and Moesta note that students need opportunities to explore their learning and career options (reentry and first-year experience courses can be helpful in this regard), and they need to acquire and have powerful ways to document their skills (alternative credentials noted in trend/issue two above are again helpful).
While we do not suggest that these trends will necessarily predict the future, we do think that this analysis can provide insights on what a small but significant group of graduate students employed in higher education might be seeing as trends worthy of further study. These trends will surely be used to guide our graduate curricular and programmatic planning, but to our audience here, the trends might be useful in thinking about possible futures for higher education by critical consumers. Trends are always products of a complex interplay of pedagogical, administrative and institutional factors. As David and Gill Armstrong remind us in their recently released book (2021), a “Jupiter Metaphor,” the foundation for educational “truths” can change and shift in ways much like the planet Jupiter, which has a rocky core but layers of liquids and gases that change and shift over time. In this metaphor, there is a truth within a discussion, but there is a considerable movement surrounding the truth that can make that truth hard to discern. The usefulness of watching the movements in such a world increases with the observer’s sense of critical thinking.
Armstrong, D. & Armstrong, G. (2021). Educational trends exposed: how to be a critical consumer. Routledge.
Brown, J. & Kurzweil, M. (2018). The complex universe of alternative postsecondary credentials
and pathways. American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Carrier, J., Scull. W., Perkins, M. & Schaffer, J. (In Press). Understanding institutionally supported free college programs: the Rediscover LCCC program. New Directions for Community Colleges.
Horn, M. & Moesta, B. (October 15, 2019). Do colleges truly understand what students want from them? Harvard Business Review.
Author Perspective: Educator