Awareness about issues facing our higher education system is high, sparking an active public dialogue about the role and responsibility of higher ed in society.
The new Secretary of Education will start their job at a dynamic moment for higher education. The “traditional college experience” is disappearing as more and more students are older, attending part time, commuting, caring for children or other family, and working one or more jobs.
College costs are becoming prohibitive for many students and families, and state higher education systems are struggling with decreased funding.
At the same time, colleges and universities are exploring new ways to deliver education that better meet the needs and schedules of students. They’re also offering more information about graduation and job placement rates, in an effort to help prospective students make better college choices.
And awareness about these and other issues facing our higher education and workforce development systems is high, sparking an active public dialogue about the role and responsibility of higher education in society, and of government in higher ed.
We regularly speak with the public, faculty members, college administrators and students about their needs and concerns regarding higher ed. We work with other researchers and organizations to improve our higher education system. And we coordinate the efforts of colleges and institutions to help more students get a meaningful degree.
Based on this work, below we offer the new administration six lessons we’ve learned about higher education:
Public confidence in higher education is waning
For the first time in a decade, a minority of Americans say that a college education is necessary for success in the workforce. Americans are also pessimistic about the motivation of our higher education system, with many saying that most colleges operate like a business, putting their bottom line before the education of students. Many also question whether a college education is a good investment, and they don’t believe that the majority of students qualified for college have the opportunity to attend.
Our workforce needs are shifting, and leaders and experts overwhelmingly agree that college credentials are critical for attaining a good job. The Obama administration made increased college attainment a central education goal. It remains to be seen if the Trump administration will continue to work toward that goal. But if they do, they will have some work to do to get the public on the same page.
Support for free college is high – but cost is not the only challenge for students
If you’ve ever found yourself in a heated conversation about the problem with higher education in the U.S., it probably revolved around college costs. And a lot of the public conversation about solutions for higher ed entails some form of free college – maybe for four years, maybe for two; maybe for all students, maybe for middle- and low-income students.
Most Americans support free college for low- and middle-income individuals, according to our survey results from 2016. And it’s true that costs represent a large barrier for students: 71 percent of students who dropped out of college said they did so because they had to work to make money.
However, many students end up stalled on their way to a degree due to faulty processes and practices on the part of a school. These faulty processes include things like unclear program pathways and poor advising. Perhaps the most acute problem, though, are the hurdles encountered by students looking to earn their bachelor’s by transferring to a four-year school from a community college.
One of the greatest obstacles for students is actually transferring between a community college and a four-year school
Every year, millions of students enroll at community colleges because of their affordability and accessibility. The vast majority plan to one day earn a bachelor’s degree. Most of these students will not realize their goals: only 14 percent of students seeking a bachelor’s achieve that goal within six years. The odds are worse for low-income students, first-generation college students, and students of color—those most likely to start at a community college. In general, the causes of broken transfer stem from policies and practices at the school level or within a state’s higher education system. They don’t stem from the habits, actions or behavior of students.
If we increased the transfer rate among all new students at community colleges by 10 percentage points, there could be about 70,000 more students earning bachelor’s degrees every year. If the new administration hopes to boost the number of Americans with college credentials, focusing on improving transfer would be a good place to focus their energy.
Students lack knowledge about for-profit colleges
about 7.4 percent of all college attendees. You’ve probably heard about for-profit colleges – they’re controversial and have been in the news a fair bit. The Obama administration cracked down on some for-profits for predatory behavior, and one of the biggest for-profit systems went bankrupt in 2015.
Yet for all the attention for-profits receive, the population they affect the most – students – seem mainly in the dark about what they are. In fact, in research we completed in 2013, many students who were considering, attending or who graduated from a for-profit school said “nothing comes to mind” when they hear the term “for-profit college.” Furthermore, a full 65 percent of current for-profit students and 63 percent of for-profit alumni are unsure whether their school is for-profit or not. Legislators including Sen. Dick Durbin find this news alarming, worrying that students may fall victim to fraud and abuse among some bad actors in this sector.
Many students looking for colleges are not using available information
Policymakers, private foundations and school leaders have spent money and resources researching and publicizing data to help students make better college decisions, including graduation rates, job placement rates and average salaries earned by alumni. While the data is not necessarily a proxy for quality, they see it as important information for consumers. Yet these efforts are falling short for many students. We witnessed this first-hand among a growing and important population of students: adults who don’t currently have a college degree but who are looking to go back to school.
These adult prospective students aren’t using college quality information. They don’t know it exists, don’t know how to find it or don’t view it as relevant to their own experiences and decisions. For example, less than half (47 percent) of adult prospective students say knowing a college’s graduation rate is important information to know when deciding to enroll at that school or not. The Obama administration placed a lot of emphasis on data and transparency for prospective students, developing the College Scorecard website, for example. If the Trump administration hopes to help prospective students become better education consumers and make more informed college choices, they must do a better job connecting students with informational resources and demonstrating their value.
Colleges and universities are making great strides in innovative approaches to education
We’ve worked for the past few years with the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), a group of colleges and universities across the country working together on competency-based education (CBE). CBE is an education model that enables students to progress at their own pace, measuring their progress against a set of skills, or competencies. Often, students can apply previously-acquired knowledge to progress more quickly. CBE can be a great option for students that have spent some time on the job before completing a degree, and who may already possess a number of job skills, or for veterans who have spent years developing leadership and team management skills. Have a free minute? Come here and enjoy some fun games!
While CBE has been around for a while, some students attending CBE programs now qualify for federal financial aid (in the past, they had to pay their own way through CBE programs). This opens up CBE to a whole new group of students. But schools setting up a new CBE program have a lot of work to do when it comes to designing a curriculum, determining competencies, deciding how to measure progress and ensuring their program meets federal standards for financial aid. Moreover, it’s important to make sure students and taxpayers are protected from waste, fraud and abuse on the part of irresponsible or predatory actors that may be looking to profit from federal aid money or that don’t have students’ interest as a top priority. The federal government can provide guidelines and regulation, as well as support and boundaries for responsible experimentation and innovation – for example, a space for associations like C-BEN, which provides opportunities for collaboration and shared learning.
The specific priorities of the new administration regarding higher education remain unstated. However, if their goal is to help more people gain the skills they need for a reliable job with sustainable wages, the lessons above will be critical for deciding the best actions to take.