Halloween is generally the benchmark for the midway point of the fall college semester. Students are completing midterms and planning campus parties, executives are gearing up for end of year fundraising campaigns and praying that those parties do not result in crimes and general mischief, and IT staff are counting down the days until everyone leaves the campus and system upgrades can be made in peace.
But the fall also brings a time to assess emerging and established trends in higher education, and a chance to project where campuses, and the industry at large, will be in six months, a year and beyond. Here are seven current higher ed trends which should frighten administrators heading into the scariest night of the year.
Declining public funding
Metropolitan State University of Denver President Stephen Jordan recently projected that in nine years, public funding will be at zero. Institutions continue to push to balance growing campus costs, the demand for capital projects and construction and added amenities to attract students and growing administrative costs — including rising healthcare and increasing wages associated with the new overtime law — against the mandate for affordability.
Several states have bans on tuition increases, and many others are pressuring systems and institutions to accept more in-state students rather than aggressively recruiting out-of-state and international students, who pay a higher amount to be there. Many leaders are frightened by the prospect that if they can't find ways to boost public-private partnerships and attract outside funding, their institutions could be in danger of closing.
Decreased alumni giving
From disenfranchisement over recent campus protests and generally bad PR, to the idea that colleges have enough money, alumni are finding more reasons to hold back on giving to alma mater, according to trend reports. But perhaps the biggest detraction from giving among recent graduates are the extraordinarily high amounts of debt they're facing immediately after graduation, which not only makes it difficult to find additional discretionary funds to give, but difficult to become upwardly mobile at all.
Some alumni groups are utilizing the Obama fundraising model, however, leveraging social media and peer giving challenges and asking for only small amounts that alumni — and even current students — are finding more manageable.
Attacks on relevance
Report after report has been released saying graduates are entering the workforce without the necessary skills to be successful in their careers. The trend of the U.S. Department of Education to overemphasize STEM in its funding priorities has led to a decreased effort in the liberal arts, which more employers are citing as important.
This trend is forcing schools to put more training and scholarship resources behind the majors supporting these industries, and often to the detriment of majors in the social sciences and liberal arts. And, given the federal government’s growing emphasis on job training in manufacturing, tech development and low-level healthcare management, the money and the will is creating dissonance between higher education’s function in workforce training, and developing the skills which make employees ready for leadership and mobility in any industry.
Research suggests that the liberal arts, which have developed a negative connotation in certain disciplines and industries, remains an ideal training asset in helping graduates to become good writers, creative thinkers and innovators in the marketplace. A lack of blending arts and sciences not only sets back graduates in their professional development, but could limit future recruitment and funding opportunities for when markets invariably change again.
If college leaders thought cuts to appropriations were bad, adjunct and graduate student mobilization efforts are making the financial outlook even worse. And this isn’t a bad prospect for faculty; institutions are in the news weekly for holding billions in endowment funds and reaping millions in various business and investment projects. So why not seek to improve the salary, benefits and healthcare coverage for 50% of the teaching workforce?
But for campuses, balancing the demands and protests of contingent faculty is a difficult proposition against the realities of increasing interest for capital projects, rising healthcare subsidies for students, staff and full-time faculty, and pension payouts. These financial elements, often unheralded in conversations about what is killing higher education, are very real and hard numbers which will not decrease over years, but will increase as costs and the workforce expands.
Executive perks gone wrong
The University of California set a new standard for public relations catastrophe when two presidents were accused of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR consultation and crisis management for stories which eventually led to their ouster anyway. These, in addition to scandals in Iowa with presidents striking business deals with board members and using private planes, and other revelations of benefits turning bad, has turned up the fear factor on the public’s concern over money and perks being misused in the higher ed space.
With increasing focus on tuition affordability and cuts in appropriations to higher education from state legislatures, the last thing any campus should want to hear is highly paid executives wastefully spending. But for too many schools, this is exactly the nightmarish case many find themselves scrambling to solve.
Presidential appointments without a search
The surest way to bring out ghastly charges of racism, sexism and elitism against a university is for its board of trustees or its system to appoint a controversial president without a formal search. States like Georgia, Mississippi and Florida are prime examples of boards claiming strategic personnel decision-making in hiring former lawmakers and appointees to serve as presidents, riling the passions of faculty and students alike.
Could there be a benefit to hiring officials with legislative or fundraising ties? Absolutely. Is it worth the cost of public protests, diminished alumni and student relations and negative media coverage? Maybe not, especially since most presidents themselves no longer see higher education as a stable industry with high capacity for improvement.
Anti-political correctness vs. safe space
Ongoing racial tensions hiding behind constitutional rights and academic freedom present a scary prospect for many campus administrators. The rise of minority students seeking ‘safe spaces’ on campus has spurred a counter movement of mostly white students calling for an end to political correctness on campus. Considering that colleges must encourage diversity to continue to receive federal student loan disbursements and avoid discrimination lawsuits, they must remain steadfast in minority student recruitment.
But colleges can’t change the minds or politics of individual students. In fact, those perspectives often grow in college, because they are challenged and bolstered by varying views of the student body. That’s the nature of academic expression, and at its core, the growing sensitivities of both sides of this precarious college cultural trend.