The education sector often seems to be the last to embrace change. In fact, if you walk onto a college campus today, you will not initially see much difference between now and the 1960’s. Students attend classes, large and small; professors give lectures, students take notes and write essays and papers; mid-term and final exams are still in place. And students still buy textbooks at exorbitant prices. During their “downtimes,” kids congregate in the student center, participate in activities, parties, and generally sleep late on the weekends.
A few changes in student campus life have come over the years. Dorms are co-ed and there are no “curfews;” academically, technology has taken hold, so that students submit their assignments and take exams online; most can also access the library from their dorm rooms and conduct research from there.
Top Issues in Higher Education
But change is coming, however slow, and there are several trends that will continue throughout this year and beyond. Here are 6 of them.
Erosion of Importance of a Four-Year Degree
Private colleges and universities continue to raise tuition and fees. And many state universities face funding reductions from their legislatures, forcing them to raise tuition as well. Students and parents alike are beginning to question whether the cost and the resulting loan debt is worth it.
Certainly, some academic programs require degrees – both undergraduate and graduate, and there is no getting around those. Students who aspire to be doctors, researchers, etc. will find themselves in programs where they must be on campus, in labs, and working with peers and professors. However, there are many other educational programs that prepare students for lucrative careers without that four-year and beyond the college experience.
Community colleges have picked up where universities have dropped the ball. They are partnering with business sectors to develop programs that will prepare kids to enter great career fields in technology, in law, in medicine/health care, and many other service industries with shorter and much cheaper post-secondary programs. This trend will continue throughout the next year and beyond.
It seems that continuous improvement in higher education is being embraced by community colleges and vocational-technical programs, while four-year colleges remain stuck in their old general ed requirements, trying to maintain their “classical” concept of a college education. And Generation Z, entering college now will not stand for what they consider irrelevant and pointless coursework. They want high-paying career positions and a rapid way to get there. Four-year colleges will have to become far more relevant to this generation. They will have to re-evaluate the core mission of higher education for this generation. Many Gen Z’ers, in fact, believe that they should have the right to design their own college programs rather than to submit to the antiquated and sometimes wasteful requirements of a traditional degree program
Changing Models of Higher Education
Years ago, there were correspondence courses for students who wanted to get through faster or who needed a course that did not fit in with their schedules. These were laborious, involving assignment completion, “snail mail” those assignments, getting responses and feedback the same way, and ultimately getting through the course. How things have changed.
Today, there are full degree programs offered online. They are cheaper; the reputable ones are receiving acceptance by all sectors of the economy; and students have the flexibility of receiving lectures and instructions, of participating as their schedules allow, and of foregoing the travel back and forth to attend a class in a physical environment. While traditionalists decry the “loss” of the college experience, these programs are a perfect fit for newer generations who want to prepare themselves for careers in more efficient and cheaper ways. And, given the technology that allows virtual classrooms and “meet-ups” among peers, online education is only getting better and better.
Online programs simply solve many of the problems in higher education that students face. And, given the trend toward more global perspectives on higher education, colleges and universities that open up online programs for foreign students, who can remain in their home countries while getting their degrees, is especially attractive.
Those General Education Requirements
There is a case to be made for general ed requirements that many colleges and universities have. They encourage a larger perspective, allow for cultural awareness and diversity, and certainly help students to become more intellectually competent in a variety of areas outside of their majors. Further, they serve to foster more creativity in student life, as students gain those perspectives.
The issue is this: how do colleges make these gen ed courses relevant to students? It’s tough to make a chemistry major understand that he needs to study fine arts or history. Of course, curricula can be designed so that students understand the value of being a part of the general citizenry in matters unrelated to chemistry, this may be reduced as one of the most controversial issues in higher education today. Combining gen ed courses and providing a more general perspective, thereby reducing the numbers that are required is challenging, but it can be done.
Free Speech, Activism, and Getting a Balance
Controversial speakers on college campuses are nothing new. What is new is the rise of hate groups and their insistence upon being heard on campuses. When they are denied or shut down, colleges are accused of shutting down free speech. There have even been lawsuits based upon this issue. Finding the balance between free speech and the potential for violence when hate groups target campuses for their rallies and events will continue to be a challenge for campus administrations.
As Generation Z moves onto campuses over the next few years, there is the potential for big conflict. This generation is the most diverse and accepting of all socio-cultural groups and lifestyles, and it is very vocal about these principles of equality for all. It is unlikely to tolerate any groups that promote racism and intolerance of any type.
Challenges of Using Technology in Higher Education
Technology has brought wonderful efficiency to college campuses, and students arrive with all of their devices to take advantage of this. This brings several challenges to campuses and universities as a whole. All of these will continue to loom large going into the next year and beyond.
- Maintaining systems to serve the growing demands of devices on campuses has been a huge challenge. Systems literally go down due to overloads. Colleges will continue to have a need to upgrade their systems, and this will be an ongoing expense
- Maintaining systems for online access is another challenge, in order to serve both remote and handicapped students.
- Sophisticated detection technologies allow us to consider plagiarism issues for higher education being virtually eliminated. It’s a clear positive outcome of the recent IT achievements. However, globalization and the Internet allow students to find new ways to cheat. Everyone can go online and find a paper writing website through a simple Google search. It has never been easier for lazy learners to get their assignments done by others. Now, thousands of other students and former journalists are constantly looking for new gigs and clients.
- Still another challenge relates to the resources and information to which students have access. While technology allows students all over the world to interact and communicate, it also allows a wealth of fake news and information sources. Students who have not been taught to fact check and to research reputable sources can become victims of lies and inciteful “news.” One needs only look at the issues on Facebook during the 2016 election cycle to understand how fake news can sway the entire swaths of people.
Safety and Security Issues in Higher Education
This is a complex and multi-faceted issue, and campuses are grappling with a multitude of specific concerns.
- Every year there are multiple instances of student deaths due to Greek orientations and hazing. And each time one occurs, campus administrators vow to the crackdown. Certainly, some Greek organizations have been suspended or banned from campuses, but no permanent or more effective solution has been found. Administrators tend to be reactive rather than proactive on these matters.
- Sexual assault and misconduct are now in the spotlight with the “Me Too” movement. Political leaders and other celebrities have effectively been “taken down” because of it. This take-down has also included university coaches and professors. The most famous recent case, of course, was the U.S.A. gymnastics doctor employed at Michigan State University. This problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon, so universities must brace themselves for additional negative publicity when they do not take swift and public action.
- Campus shootings are also very much on the minds of both students and parents. Most campuses are taking additional security measures in attempts to be proactive, but they must also brace themselves for the reality that the potential for violent crime looms large.
Meeting the Challenges
This is by no means a full list of challenges. There is the overriding issue of evolving bases of knowledge and the need to keep up with them. Ten years ago, no one even knew about cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Now it is taught in universities all over the place.
Educators are looking for ways to improve higher education on all fronts, and they have their work cut out for them. Old habits die hard as they say, and bureaucracy is hard to dismantle. But the challenges today are different, and identifying higher education problems and solutions will take considerable thought and certainly unique approaches.
21st century problems call for 21st century solutions.
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