The Year That Was
Election Stunner Aside, Familiar Issues Bedeviled Colleges in 2016
In a year dominated by a bitter presidential election campaign, more mass shootings and protests against police and a triumphant American Olympic team, higher education issues struggled to command much media attention.
Donald J. Trump barely mentioned higher education on the campaign trail, once talking about the student debt crisis before moving on to calling for opponent Hillary Clinton to be jailed. Clinton, for her part, forwarded detailed proposals and position papers on student debt and college costs. But her loss sends those plans into the historical trash bin.
In 2016, the issues that have bedeviled higher education for much of the past decade persist. The cost of college remains out of the reach of many Americans. Debt on student loans now exceeds credit card debt and is damaging the economy by eroding the ability of students to buy cars and homes and start families. Too many students enroll in college but never graduate.
Into this morass steps Trump, a University of Pennsylvania graduate with a scant record on higher education policy. His choice for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has virtually no record on higher education issues; her confirmation hearing indicated she is either unaware or out of her depth on many of the issues that have been consuming the higher education community.
Community colleges see the election result in broader terms. The past eight years have been the halcyon days for community colleges, a time when their prestige grew and their reputations were burnished in ways once thought unimaginable.
President Obama placed the two-year sector at the center of the recovery from the Great Recession and students flooded community college campuses. Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife and a longtime community college professor, provided an unprecedented and ongoing shot of credibility. Obama hosted a White House Community College Summit, drawing worldwide attention to the historic mission of access and equity of community colleges.
But Trump’s election as the nation’s 45th president will usher in a new and uncertain era for higher education in general and the nation’s community colleges in particular. Nobody seems to know what happens next.
Some leaders worry that community colleges will not have a significant voice as Trump develops and implements his higher education policy.
One thing seems certain: the Trump administration will resemble the Trump campaign, a roller-coaster ride whose finish is impossible to predict. In the meantime, here is a glimpse back at the higher education issues that dominated 2016.
1 Trump Elected President
In the biggest upset in American political history, Donald J. Trump, a billionaire real estate developer and reality television show host, defeated Hillary Clinton to become the nation’s 45th president. His election ushered in a new era of uncertainty for the nation’s community colleges, which had enjoyed unprecedented status and prestige under President Barack Obama. The sector is now in uncharted waters. Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has a scant record on higher education and none of her deputies has been named. College leaders hope the new Trump administration will turn to community college training programs and technical colleges as he tries to make good on his pledge to improve the economy and create thousands of new jobs. Trump also faces the dual challenges of reducing student debt and boosting access to higher education. How will he do that? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess.2 Free College Movement Grows
When President Obama announced his proposal to provide free community college to almost all Americans, nearly every Washington pundit predicted that the 114th Congress would do nothing with the proposal. A legislature that was too polarized, too deadlocked to get even simple things done surely would be unable to deal with such a sweeping proposal. The lawmakers did not disappoint. The majority Republicans who set the congressional agenda ignored the president’s proposal. But congressional inertia has obscured the emergence of a significant trend: all around the country, the movement to make two years of community college universally available to all Americans in the same way that a free elementary and secondary education is afforded all American youth gained traction in 2016. According to the College Promise Campaign — which is spearheading the drive for free college tuition — more than 120 free tuition promise programs exist in 29 states. New York and Rhode Island recently joined the list of states promoting free college. Supporters of the concept vow to move for ward with or without Washington’s imprimatur.
3 ITT Tech Shutters Campuses
Just 12 days after Obama’s Education Department imposed stringent new regulatory restrictions on ITT Tech, the for-profit college chain collapsed, shuttering 137 campuses across the nation and laying off 8,000 employees and leaving 35,000 students looking for educational alternatives. The company, which is now in bankruptcy proceedings, operated in 38 states. It had been under intense criticism for years; tuition was high — about $45,000 for an associate degree — and the quality of the educational programs was low, meaning many students were left buried in debt they couldn’t repay. The company’s collapse means that taxpayers are now on the hook for nearly $500 million in federal loans that ITT students are eligible to have forgiven. It was the second time in as many years that the crackdown has brought down one of the industry’s biggest players — in 2015 it was Corinthian Colleges that collapsed—and saddled taxpayers with potentially hundreds of millions in cleanup costs.
4 Crackdown Continues
The Obama administration’s crackdown on for-profit colleges reached its apex when it terminated the federal recognition of the nation’s largest for-profit college accreditor. The move could prevent hundreds of schools and thousands of students from accessing federal funding. The decision against the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools had been sought by prominent critics of forprofit colleges like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called the accreditor a “negligent” organization that had “rubber-stamped shady institutions for years. The accreditor’s work allowed billions of dollars in Pell Grants and federal loans to flow to Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech. Both colleges were accused of luring students through falsified job placement rates and both colleges are now out of business. ACICS-accredited colleges now must find a new accreditor or else their students would lose access to federal money.
5 States Retreat on Funding Colleges
In 2016, community colleges and their students encountered a financial landscape fraught with peril. Despite talk of free college tuition for all, and the rise of some free tuition programs, the cost of college is actually on the rise in most places. Part of the reason is that state governments are retreating in their support of higher education. Grants under the bedrock Pell Grant program now fall well short of what it actually costs to attend college, contributing to a decline in community college enrollment. A record number of student loans are in default. In 2016, more members of National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges report that their institutions were under greater fiscal strain than in any year since the Great Recession. The strain, in turn, is creating unrelenting upward pressure on tuition. More than at any time in their seven-decade history, community colleges rely on tuition rather than on state and local appropriations, placing more of the burden of higher education on the shoulders of students and parents. An Education Policy Center report put it this way: “Declining state funding has changed the social compact between states and the local boards of trustees responsible for governing community colleges. Seven decades after the 1947 Truman Commission challenged states to make the 13th and 14th years geographically universal, deep state funding cuts have changed the basic rules of the game.”
6 Forging a New Path
Thirty colleges. Eight leading higher education groups. Millions of dollars in support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And one overarching, ambitious goal: to revamp everything at community colleges from student intake to professional development, from marketing to student advising, and have it all in place in time for the start of the 2018 academic year. Those are the goals of the Pathways Project, being spearheaded by the American Association of Community Colleges, which vows that this is no boutique project destined to reach only a relatively small number of students. Rather, it is being billed as fundamental change, an effort to embed the guided pathways approach into every corner of participating colleges. As community colleges seek new ways to improve poor graduation and retention rates, the guided pathways approach has taken center stage. It is hoped that the project will provide a template for other colleges to follow, including training, materials and models. The idea is to replace the so-called cafeteria approach — where students are on their own to make education choices — with a structure guiding a student from the start of their academic career to the awarding of an associate degree or transfer to a four-year college.
7 Concealed Carry
Following numerous campus shootings, including at Umpqua Community College in 2015, states began considering legislation about whether or not to permit guns on college campuses. For some, these events point to a need to ease regulations and allow concealed weapons on campuses. Others see the solution in tightening restrictions to keep guns off campuses. In 2016, however, more states opted to enact campus carry laws. Eight states now have some form of campus carry, while about a dozen are considering some version of the law. Six states allow concealed weapons on campus without a permit. Most educators oppose campus carry but have been trumped by conservative legislative bodies. In 23 states, campus administrators give the decision to ban or allow concealed carry weapons on their campuses. The majority of the 4,400 colleges and universities in the United States prohibit the carrying of firearms on their campuses. Still, an aggressive pro-gun movement is expected to continue to pressure states to allow the carrying of firearms on college campuses.
8 Digital Badges Grow
It has become almost a mantra in higher education circles as technology continues to grow its footprint on a new generation of learners. Learning today, so it goes, needs no classroom, not even a teacher, and can take place anywhere, anytime and on any device. But how do you measure and report all that learning? Conventional tools — progress reports, grade-point averages, transcripts, even framed diplomas proudly hung on walls — seem wholly inadequate for the task of defining precisely who knows what in the digital age. Increasingly, the answer to that conundrum is digital badges — also called nanodegrees or micro-credentials, which have grown over the past several years from a mere curiosity into a mainstream movement attracting the attention of leading foundations and higher education heavy hitters. Digital badges are defined as a visual, verifiable demonstration of knowledge, shared online, allowing the identification of individuals whose skillsets can be proven rather than merely listed on a résumé. These alternative credentials can be used to recognize the attainment of skills and competencies, whether they are learned in formal or informal learning environments.
Professional associations, industry organizations and some nonprofits have embraced them as a way for members and employees to demonstrate participation in certain activities or in completing training programs. Higher education, however, has been slower to embrace digital credentials, but that is beginning to change.
9 Enrollment Decline Continues
After spiking after the 2008 financial crisis, postsecondary enrollment has declined for the past four years, undermining the national goal of increasing the number of Americans holding a college degree. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, fall postsecondary overall enrollments fell by more than 270,000 students compared to 2015. Enrollments declined in 39 states and increased in 12 states and the District of Columbia. There are currently more than 19 million students enrolled in all institutions. The enrollment dip is being fueled by a decline in the number of adult students, those over the age of 24. Overall in 2016, more than 153,000 fewer students (2.6 percent) enrolled in community colleges, and nearly 165,000 fewer students (14.5 percent) enrolled in four-year, forprofit institutions. The research center found that the greatest decreases in enrollment are happening in the Northeast and Midwest, while the West and South are seeing increases.
10 Drive To Boost STEM Grads
That the country and its economy need more graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is by now widely acknowledged. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country will need about a million more STEM professionals than it will produce over the next decade in order to remain a world leader in science and technology. The country is facing fierce competition from abroad in producing and retaining STEM talent. But while the shortage of STEM workers is a national problem, it demands local solutions. Into that void have stepped community colleges. For several years, colleges have ramped up their STEM education efforts, striving both to create short-term certificate programs and pathways to increase the number of community college students who ultimately earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. The work is not easy. According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, about 20 percent of community college students chose a STEM major at some point during their postsecondary academic career. But nearly 70 percent of community college students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 had left these fields by spring 2009. About half of these leavers switched their major to a non-STEM field, and the rest left STEM fields by exiting college before graduating or earning a certificate. For the nation to reach its economic goals, colleges will have to do better.