Seven Key Issues Facing Higher Education in 2021

William G. Tierney

University of Southern California

There are those who say everything will change in higher education because of the pandemic. Doomsday predictions about higher education have been around for over a generation and I see no evidence that all 4,000 postsecondary institutions in the United States will close in the next decade. Some institutions, such as small liberal arts college, are more at risk than others, and we will see roughly 200 colleges likely shutter because of a drop in enrollment and the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic.

However, long-standing issues are likely to be rekindled either because of the consequences of the pandemic, or the result of the Trump administration’s policies. My opinion is that roughly seven issues will have renewed focus on state levels and with the Biden administration.

A Push to Eliminate Transfer from 2-year to 4-year Institutions: Transfer rates from two to four-year institutions remains abysmal. The challenge is two-fold; on the one hand, some students only need a two-year degree or certificate. On the other hand, many students say they want to transfer but the curricular, financial, and administrative hurdles in place make transfer an enormous challenge, regardless of the well-intentioned plans by administrators and legislators.

Students should move from 12th to 13th grade much like they progress from 11th to 12th. This simple shift will create a significant increase in higher education. Similarly, all community colleges should be linked to a four-year institution, or not at all. If students say they want a four-year degree when they have finished two years, then they move on to the third year. They do not “transfer” from one place to another. If students want a certificate to gain a specific skill set, then they go to a community college.

A Desire to Improve College Preparation: A conundrum exists for students who graduate from high school. They receive various signs that they have mastered the requisite knowledge, but that knowledge does not necessarily prepare students for college-level work. Upper class students attend high schools where the overwhelming majority of graduates go on to a four-year institution. The curriculum is geared toward preparing students to do college-level work. Poor students attend high schools where some students go to a four-year institution, others attend community college, others join the military, or get a job. The result is that low-income and working class students, most of whom are Latinx or African American, are not prepared for college-level work. Although a reform movement is underway to eliminate remedial education, the main challenge pertains to college preparation in high schools.

High schools need to begin in the freshmen year with discussions that provide students with the “college knowledge” to succeed. Non-cognitive variables, such as financial literacy, and time management, play a key role in providing students with college knowledge and determining a students’ success in college. Coursework also needs to prepare students to do college-level writing and math. If students are not working at grade level then the institution needs to provide the necessary supports during the year and in the summer so that they master the cognitive variables necessary to do college-level work.

The Realization that We Should Reform, but Not Eliminate, For-profit Higher Education: For profit higher education has been with us for over a century, but it was not until the 1970s that for-profits became a significant postsecondary player. Since then, for-profit higher education has ping-ponged between being the fastest growing to the fastest contracting and back to the fastest growing sector in higher education during the Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies. Look to it to constrict again during the Biden presidency.

The strength of for-profits is that, at their best, they focus on services for the customer (aka student) such that courses are offered at convenient locations and times unlike the traditional postsecondary sector. The weakness of the for-profits is that they often offer advice that lands students in enormous debt and they do not provide an education that prepares students for the jobs they had been promised. A student thinks they are going to become a chef and becomes a busboy with $100,000 debt.

The Republican focus has been to let the market decide and not regulate for-profits. The Democratic stance has been to demand oversight on every aspect of the for-profit enterprise. There seems to be a place for the for-profits in the postsecondary environment given their ability to cater courses to the needs of a specific clientele, and their ability to scale up and down with rapidity. Without an adequate regulatory framework in place, however, the consumer and the state will be defrauded and the marketplace will not have an adequately prepared workforce.

A Reaffirmation of the Centrality of Academic Freedom: When faculty and administrations agree, or a professor has a research area without political ramifications, or when faculty have no issues with how the institution is governed, then individuals do not worry very much about academic freedom. Not all controversies fall solely within the domain of academic freedom, though it is to the state’s interest to defend academic freedom when controversy arises. All institutions should have procedures in place to provide support to individuals when their academic freedom is under attack.

The erosion of tenure and the increase in non-tenure-track faculty also has created a climate where people are less likely to speak out, lest they risk their employment. The culture of the organization is shifting in a manner that tamps down controversy at the expense of moving the institution forward, putting academic freedom in ever greater peril. Debate and argument on a college campus is the essence of academic life in a democracy. A democratic nation wants as large an umbrella as possible for thoughtful discussion on college campuses.

I have no problems debating issues about climate change, for example, even though the facts are clear. Every umbrella has some limits, and the recent rise of fake news tests those limits. Gatekeeping is always going to be controversial, but rather than sidestep the responsibility I am encouraging faculty to embrace it. Even a thoughtful discussion, for example, about why we might allow a conversation about climate change, but not one about a president’s birthplace would be helpful to all in the community, but especially students, about how to assess facts and information. There are no clear rules about how to enable or restrict free speech on campus, but institutions and states will have to deal with the topic over the next few years.

An Emphasis on How to Eliminate (Some) Student Debt: The cost of something is the price incurred to produce the product. The price is what the consumer is charged. At one point, both the cost and the price of higher education were not that difficult to understand. Of consequence, more than a half century ago, the cost of college was not much of a conversation. A culture of college-going did not exist in the vast majority of high schools in the United States. While higher education was not populated solely by the sons (and some daughters) of the wealthy, by and large, the poor and the working class did not attend college. However, during the 1950’s, college enrollment grew by 49%, and during the 1960’s, it grew by an astounding 120%.[i] Today, a significant number of college students come from working class backgrounds and find it necessary to work while they attend college. Today, it is estimated that approximately forty percent of undergraduates work at least thirty hours a week, and around twenty-five percent are simultaneously working full-time while they attend classes full-time. Sixty percent of all working students are women.[ii] The point is not simply that we have greater fiscal needs because the consumers are poorer. The cost of higher education has risen precipitously, and of consequence the price of a college education has risen, even after adjusting for inflation. Within a mere ten years (2005 to 2015), the price of undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board rose thirty-four percent at public institutions and twenty-six percent at private, non-profit institutions.[iii] From 1987 to 2017, the average tuition at four-year public and private colleges roughly tripled while wages stayed roughly the same, making higher education expensive not merely for the poor but also for everyone except the wealthiest amongst us.[iv]

One reason that price has risen is that we have switched the burden of attending college from the state to the consumer. Whereas in the 1960’s and 1970’s, students were able to earn four-year degrees from public colleges and universities with only a modicum of debt, that is no longer the case. In 1970–71, American students incurred $7.6 billion of debt to fund higher education. In 2012–13, American students borrowed $110 billion in student loans.[v]

There are three general parameters to consider with regard to how to help control debt. First, students who attend for-profits normally incur debt, and when that is egregious then that must be eliminated by regulation and oversight. Second, the wealthy, or those who study for well-paying professions such as medicine, do not necessarily need financial assistance. The debt can be managed either through personal resources or with future earnings. Third, where debt must be eliminated is for those low and middle-income individuals who earn a college degree but the debt, they have incurred will stay with them for a generation and shortchange their lives.

Encouragement to Speed Up Time to Degree: When I buy a book on Amazon, it arrives in a matter of days. When I shop online for a new shirt, I am disappointed when I learn it could take as much as a week to arrive. If the Wi-Fi at the coffee shop is slow and takes a minute to transfer my message, I will find another place to drink my cappuccino. Speed has become a commodity we all value.

Except in higher education. Students apply in the fall and, a year later, they set off on their academic career. The National Center for Education Statistics calculates the graduation rate for first-time, full-time students at 6 years by default. Even then, only 60% of students who started college in 2010 finished by 2016.[vi] The average time to degree completion among the 60% of students who completed their Bachelor’s degrees was 5.1 years.[vii] For Associate degrees that should take 2 years, the average time to degree completion was 3.3 years.

The leisurely academic pace exacerbates problems rather than solves them. Students need a speeded-up tempo for learning that more accurately reflects the 21st century rather than the agrarian 19th century. On-line learning, instruction in the summer and over holidays, and a rigorous focus on what students needs to know, rather than what faculty want to teach, has the ability to reduce inefficiencies and time to degree. The result will be better learning in a shorter amount of time.

Acknowledge that Students Are (Not Only) Customers: Due to an increasingly consumerist society and inexorably rising costs, institutions have responded by thinking of students as customers. This idea is not entirely wrong. We do need to meet the needs of the market. We do need to be more accommodating to what students need and want. Indeed, a large part of the initial success — both in attracting students and enabling them to get the credentials they wanted — of the University of Phoenix was simply that they were willing to offer classes at times and locations that their customers wanted. The University of Phoenix was among the first institutions to embrace online learning (in 1989), and by 1994, it was successful enough to have a public stock offering. By the turn of the century, the influx of public capital allowed the University of Phoenix to boast that it had over 100,000 students.[viii]

The problem is that when we think of students only as customers, then we lose the essence of higher education. Faculty are more than baristas trying to get the expresso delivered to “Bill.” We are not simply a business, and we need to go back to a framework that delineates the essential ingredients that define learning and helps prepare students to be active participants in democracy. When we forget that, we lose our brand — to use a business term — and although we may think we have solved one problem, we have created a bigger one. If we have learned anything in the last four years it is that the country needs a greater focus on the parameters of democracy and how to protect it.

William G. Tierney is University Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, and author of Get Real: 49 Challenges Confronting Higher Education (SU

[i] National Center for Education Statistics. (1993). 120 years of American education: A statistical portrait. Washington, DC: Author.

[ii] Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., Melton, M., & Price, E. W. (2015). Learning while earning: The new normal. Washington, DC: Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University.

[iii] National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Digest of education statistics, 2016. See https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76

[iv] College Board. (2017). Trends in college pricing 2017. See https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/published-prices-national#Published%20Charges%20over%20Time

[v] Baum, S. (2015). The evolution of student debt in the United States. In B. Hershbein & K. M. Hollenbeck (Eds.), Student loans and the dynamics of debt (pp. 11–35). Kalamazoo, MI: Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Also see Fry, R. (2014). The growth in student debt. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/10/07/the-growth-in-student-debt/

[vi] See “Fast Facts” at the National Center for Education Statistics: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40

[vii] Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Wakhungu, P. K., Yuan, X., Nathan, A., & Hwang, Y. (2016). Time to degree: A national view of the time enrolled and elapsed for Associate and Bachelor’s degree earners (Signature Report №11). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

[viii] Hanford, E. (n.d.). The story of the University of Phoenix. American Public Media. Retrieved from http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/phoenix/story-of-university-of-phoenix.html

University Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California and author of Get Real: 49 Challenges Confronting Higher Education.