We often talk about the “great reassessment” coming out of the pandemic in terms of our jobs. But it’s happening on many different level—each with significant consequences for higher ed.
At the most basic level, the pandemic upended our lives, habits, and traditions, including college as the default after high school.
Such a shock to the system encourages us to reevaluate what we’re doing and try new things. In higher ed, we’re seeing growing evidence—both anecdotal and in surveys—that Americans are questioning the value of college (see “Americans’ Confidence in Higher Ed Drops Sharply,” The Chronicle, July 26, 2022).
Already, enrollment in higher education has declined by nearly 1.3 million students since the spring of 2020. It’s not that people think a post-secondary education isn’t necessary. Rather, the question they’re increasingly asking is whether a traditional, residential college is the right pathway after high school—or if taking time off or earning a two-year degree first or getting a technical education is a better route (see “How Higher Ed Lost Its Shine,” Hechinger Report, August 10, 2022).
This skepticism has only deepened with an expanding set of data about college outcomes and a recognition that employers want graduates with skills, not just degrees. As a result, prospective students and their parents want to know what the return on their investment will be, and they’re flocking to colleges that provide hands-on, experiential learning as well as show how well their graduates do in the job market.
On another level, the pandemic also afforded us options on where we wanted to live, how we worked, the ways we shopped—and how we learn.
Tradition-bound colleges abandoned their academic calendars and offered flexible classes in-person, online, and in hybrid formats. It’s clear that the word we heard so often on the Future U. Campus Tour last spring—optionality—is the new normal in every sector of the economy. Higher education can’t return to its old way of doing business and expect to survive. A focus on the student experience—making it flexible, seamless, and relevant—is critical in the coming years.
Finally, the experience of Covid-19 exposed challenges for higher ed’s financial stability and workforce that had been accumulating for years.
The decade ahead will require both financial and human capital that many colleges simply don’t have at their disposal. The path forward for many institutions is not one that they will take alone, but is instead one where they align with other colleges and universities as well as develop partnerships with private entities to accelerate innovation.
The risk facing colleges and universities in this decade ahead is one many leaders I talk with acknowledge is also an enormous opportunity. That is, if institutions are willing to rethink the legacy ecosystem that defines higher education—namely rankings and prestige and the perceived legitimacy that comes with both. Moving to “the next level” was the standard and strategic direction of much of higher education before the pandemic (see “The Way We Classify Colleges Is All Wrong,” The Chronicle, Oct. 13, 2021).
Operating during a global pandemic gave colleges permission to act differently. Indeed, few institutions approached the past two years in exactly the same way. Colleges have more agile mindsets coming out of the pandemic.
The question now is whether various stakeholders from trustees and presidents to faculty members and alumni will pull the levers available to them to gain a competitive advantage and make the needed changes that will endure.
Mark your calendar for the Next Office Hour a week from today: Wednesday, August 24, at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT. Our topic: what the trends in federal relief mean for higher ed post-pandemic and how colleges can be more innovative to gain a competitive advantage.
Joining me will be Bronté Burleigh-Jones, chief financial officer at American University; Randy Bass, vice president for strategic education initiatives at Georgetown University; and Jessica Wood, education sector lead at S&P Global Ratings.
4 in 10 applicants didn’t disclose a test score of the 51 colleges studied by the College Board.
Test-Optional Here to Stay?
The College Board recently released a report on 51 public and private colleges and universities that were test optional for Fall of 2021 and impact of the policy on admissions.
What’s happening: Maybe the least surprising finding was that applications were up across all types of colleges included in the report. Overall, we know students hedged their bets and applied to more colleges than usual the past two years, with application volume through the Common App skyrocketing by 21% the last two cycles.
In the College Board test-optional study, the biggest spike in applications came at “highly selective privates” (those that admit fewer 25% of students).
Despite getting more applications, those colleges admitted fewer students last year and their enrollment stayed basically flat compared to other colleges in the study. Thus, the ultra-low acceptance rates we’ve seen recently at many top-ranked colleges.
One note: the year before (Year 1 Covid) those private colleges put out a lot of offers and many over-enrolled. So last year might have been a course correction for many of them.
Driving the news: In all, some 4 in 10 applicants didn’t disclose a test score at these 51 colleges for admission in the fall of 2021.
Highly selective public colleges had a higher disclosure rate than their private counterparts.
Students with B-plus averages in high schools were more likely to submit scores than those with A averages, who probably thought their grades were good enough to get in.
By the numbers: How representative are these 51 colleges of the whole? The College Board said pretty representative on many fronts, but we don’t know because they don’t name names. We do know from the report that the public universities in the sample skew wealthier than publics as a whole.
The big picture: One chart in particular in the report caught my attention: the impact of test-optional on enrollment by race, ethnicity, gender, and GPA.
While the overall numbers showed that the enrollments of under-represented students of color and low-income students were basically flat, the column for the highly selective private institutions revealed those institutions were up in most numbers that are priorities for many of those campuses: Black students, low-income students, and students with high GPAs.
If those trends continue at highly selective colleges, it will be hard for many of them to go back to requiring the tests again.
Bottom line: We’re still in the early innings of whether elite colleges (beyond MIT and Georgia Tech) are going back to a test requirement. CalTech just announced they’re expanding their test-blind experiment (where they don’t look at scores at all) through 2025. But unless the campus-based data at elite colleges show that test-optional students aren’t performing well in college, it’s unlikely many will follow MIT’s lead. Test-optional gives these colleges what they like: maximum flexibility in shaping a class.
w Have We Reached Peak Enrollment? A must-read historical examination by Karin Fischer in The Chronicle of Higher Education about how decades of growth in enrollment has led us to today where every college expects to grow. “This time looks different. Higher ed may have reached the limits of Houdini-ing its way out of decline by getting bigger, and the prolonged pandemic downturn could be just one indication.” (The Chronicle)
Perhaps a Better Payoff at Flagship Publics. The degree payoff for state flagships is 10% larger than published data indicate, according to a new analysis from economists at the U.S. Census Bureau and the University of Michigan. The reason? Many of their graduates leave the state and wage data used to calculate degree returns only cover workers who remain in the state. (The Hechinger Report)
College tuition is going up, again. “Colleges and universities across the country, squeezed by sharply rising labor and supply costs, are taking steps to fortify their revenue and resume their pre-pandemic patterns of annual tuition increases,” often in the range of 3 to 4%, sometimes more. (The Washington Post)