This hand holding a piggy bank with college savings demonstrates how higher education is under scrutiny.

Overcoming skepticism in higher education

As higher education faces growing scrutiny over mounting costs and massive student debt, institutional leaders must work to communicate the success of positive programs and initiatives

The promise of a college education, particularly in the U.S., has been viewed as a path to better job opportunities, higher income, and increased satisfaction in many areas of life.

Going to college is often presented as an important rite of passage to adulthood as well, and for many first-generation families, it’s a significant achievement. Earning a degree in higher education is laden with meaning–a symbolic and practical step toward independence, maturity, and self-sufficiency.

Related content: 3 ways higher ed needs to rebuild to survive

For the past several decades, however, the cost of college has risen precipitously. The expense of earning a degree has left many students and their families wondering whether it’s still worth the investment, especially when a college degree might not be the career-gateway it once was.

The student loan debt crisis has caused many to rethink their approach to higher education and look for new ways to develop skills for the future, without saddling themselves with crippling debt.

As a “mega-trend,” the skyrocketing cost of higher education is driving other trends: the rise of transfer activity, expanding ideas on enriching credentials for career-readiness, and a growing focus on the meaning of student success.

Transfer activity

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, higher education’s fall enrollments dropped again in 2019 for the eighth consecutive year. Demographic shifts, decreased international student enrollment in U.S. schools, and reduced federal and state funding for higher education are all factors that have contributed to the shrinking student population.

However, it is also worth noting that after more than a decade of cuts, the funding trend is finally starting to change. In 2019, all but three states increased their higher education funding.

As institutions see a smaller pool of freshman candidates and an increase in drop-outs and stop-outs, transfer students have become more attractive. In fact, studies indicate that transfer students are more likely to persist and complete degrees than direct-entry students.

From a student perspective, horror stories of insurmountable student loan debt after graduating with a higher-ed degree incentivizes the completion of generalized subjects at schools with lower tuition, such as community colleges. Universities are sometimes seen as “finishing schools” where a student plans to do the bulk of their major work and earn a baccalaureate.

Understandably, transfer students are frustrated by any lack of transparency in regards to whether their existing credits will carry over to a new school. A deficiency of public, course-to-course, and program-to-program articulation guides contributes greatly to students’ fears of losing hard-earned credits when moving between institutions of higher education.

For these reasons, many institutions have become, and are becoming, more transfer-friendly. With the goal of enrolling a higher number of transfer students, they have put increased time and effort into transfer credit evaluation, externalizing those decisions in a useful manner, and building resources aimed at helping students with their transition.

Dedicated transfer orientation programs and transfer centers are more common than they were a decade ago, as are efforts to recognize non-traditional forms of credit from advanced placement courses to work experience to military training.

Additionally, many institutions, often encouraged by state mandates, have created idealized pathways that illustrate partnerships between two-year and four-year public schools. These established transfer guides, sometimes accompanied by guarantees of admission and graduation assuming student performance, make it possible for students to complete many pre-requisite courses at lower-cost community colleges.

Enriching credentials for career-readiness

The skills gap is a growing concern among HR professionals and employers. A recent study by SHRM found that half of survey respondents thought that education systems have done little or nothing to address a widespread and growing workplace skills shortage issue.

Significant obstacles interfere with the ability of institutions to rapidly respond to specific market needs. Fast-growing professions like data analytics and cybersecurity, along with the ever-changing landscape of technological innovation, in some ways make a broad-based education more important than ever.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are poised to make a number of careers irrelevant, while simultaneously giving rise to entirely new ones. Emphasizing the practical over the theoretical might mean training students for a fading career rather than training them to tackle the “next” career.

Adding to the problem is the ongoing migration of subject-matter experts in academia to higher-paying positions in business. Between these forces and the time it takes to establish a new degree-granting program and have it accredited–a feat measured in years rather than months–it isn’t hard to understand why the supply of graduates doesn’t always meet the demand of employers.

Forward-thinking institutions have begun to offer credentials enriched with qualitative statements that highlight competencies and experiences. These schools understand the critical difference between a student who can clearly articulate the meaning of their degree as well as their readiness to perform an important role, and one who simply presents their diploma to a respective employer. In part, this means designing alternative education products and intelligent stepping stones within traditional degrees, such as a competency-based curriculum, professional certifications, bootcamps, and accelerated programs.

Other institutions are tackling the problem with more streamlined degrees, creating structured pathways that guide students through a curriculum and provide ongoing support services to ensure completion. In addition to embracing online learning, some institutions are also adopting ready-made courses from employers to supply focused skillsets.

Forging creative partnerships with employers that recognize investment in education as vital for employee retention may be the most important sea-level change in higher education over the coming decade. Institutions that increasingly award credit based on work experience and design programs that allow students to work and pursue a degree at the same time will be seen as active partners in providing a working and workable future for their charges. Partnership programs also allow the current workforce to go back to school for professional development and to acquire the new skills for jobs that perhaps didn’t exist until recently

Redefining success

Students and their families are reframing the discussion about what it means to have a successful college outcome. Higher education has traditionally been viewed more as an investment than an expense. More than ever, those “investors” want to understand the potential return before committing their funds or accepting debt.

Traditional metrics like graduation rates, time-to-completion, retention rates, and academic performance have less meaning to students and their parents than they once did. Now, families want to understand how the institution rates in the area of post-graduation and gainful employment. If college graduates are underemployed and/or over-committed financially, it can indicate that the degree is out of alignment with the needs of the job market or incapable of providing the student with stability.

Data science also promises to play a role in shaping the definition of student success. With the potential to aggregate and correlate thousands of data points into meaningful conclusions, institutions are experimenting with predictive analytics to enhance their own performance. Institutions want students to be successful. Harvesting data from tools like degree audit programs, institutions can discover “red flag” indicators that suggest when students are in danger of not completing their degree or returning for another semester.

Understanding the factors that contribute to student success enables schools to focus resources appropriately, from squeezing the most out of their facilities to marshaling career advisers or mental health counselors where they are most needed.

Final thoughts

Economic and sociopolitical factors in the U.S. are more than ever fueling discontent with higher education institutions. Rising student debt from reduced funding and escalating tuition, along with the hyper-partisan political environment, have damaged the credibility of colleges and universities.

A Pew Research Center study shows that 61 percent of Americans believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction. The same study indicated widespread public skepticism that today’s colleges are preparing people for the workforce. Only 16 percent rated a four-year degree from a college or university highly in preparing someone for a well-paying job in today’s economy.

Whether this study reflects perception or reality, higher education institutions must address the issues with concrete initiatives, and they must better communicate the success of existing programs that have proven to create satisfaction and well-being in students’ post-graduate lives.

Efforts to build and maintain a transparent and portable system of education must continue. Eliminating obstacles that casually “discredit” or negate transfer student’s previous educational experiences is critical to the integrity of higher education.

We must strive to provide the skills employers need for a competitive workforce and redefine the measures of student success to include employability and sustainability.

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