Reflections on an Evolving Higher Education Environment
I’ve been provided the opportunity to reflect on the changes in higher education over the past three decades, which spans my career as a fellow, a faculty member and an administrator in higher education (including roles as a provost and interim chancellor).
Since the early 1990s, I have observed three major changes in higher education, which I think merit further commentary.
1. Politicization of higher education
One of these shifts is a change in the public perception of higher education based on political affiliation. Particularly over the past decade, the gap in views on higher education has widened with Democrats maintaining a more favorable perspective and Republicans a less favorable one. This rift has been one factor leading to a reduction in governmental support for higher education, with the burden of tuition falling more and more on the shoulders of students and families. This, in turn, has made it increasingly difficult for financially disadvantaged students to enroll–and stay enrolled–in a higher education institution. It has also made it more difficult to deliver a high-quality education to students, as many institutions are constrained from raising tuition substantially while being expected to be more accountable and deliver more services with less funding.
2. Evolving delivery models
A second change has occurred in the delivery of higher education. There has been a major shift in our ability to deliver online education, most notably this past spring when colleges and universities shifted their classes to the Internet in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. As is the case with businesses that have found productivity to be maintained at a lower cost with employees working at home, many faculty and students now have a better appreciation of online education’s potential, along with the flexibility it engenders. I suspect that the broad exposure of both faculty and students to online learning this spring will lead to more online and hybrid education going forward, but also an awareness that there are some areas (laboratories, studios, and others) in which in-person instruction will remain a critical component of the educational experience.
3. Increasing responsibility to address racial inequality
A third change has been a greater awareness of racial inequities and increasing pressure to address those inequities. Universities have been engaged in dialogue for many years about how best to address racial inequity both on campus and in the broader society. Those conversations have taken on a new urgency with the shocking incidents occurring over the past few months that have raised the national consciousness about race. Clearly there is much work that will be required to ensure that our universities are welcoming to all students and that they maximize the opportunities for student success.
Hopes for the future
With all these changes over the past three decades, what does the future hold for higher education? I am hopeful that higher education will be able to adapt to widespread and disruptive change in the years ahead. The rapid response to the pandemic this spring, requiring massive changes in the delivery of courses across all of higher education, clearly shows that institutions can be nimble in adapting to external forces.
Another facet of the higher education landscape that gives me hope is the focus on addressing racial inequities. Diversity provides the opportunity for broader perspectives to become part of higher education’s culture and decision-making processes. These more diverse sets of perspectives will, I believe, lead to better decisions about how to help more students succeed in completing their higher education journeys.
It is always a challenge–and often embarrassing–when one makes predictions about the future. However, I feel confident that the next 30 years will see even more change in higher education than has occurred in the previous three decades, and I have hope that colleges and universities will be able to rise to those challenges.