Looking Ahead from an Insider’s Point of View: Six Leaders in Higher Education Weigh In

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There is no shortage of opinions about higher education and its current state and future. Voices not often heard are those of the practitioners — those who work daily with students and their families, faculty, staff, and any other interested parties in the day-to-day life of a higher education community. They are the ones who manage the issues that arise daily in any community ranging from financial issues to major issues of misconduct. They see students at their best and at their worst.

Six practitioners were asked to weigh in on the most pressing issues that higher education is facing or will face in the next few years. They either currently work or have recently worked at a higher education institution. Both public and private institutions are represented and several respondents have experience at multiple types of schools, including community colleges. In order to elicit candid and open responses, as well as to protect the privacy of these practitioners, we’ve chosen not to disclose their names.

Some answers have been edited for length and grammar.

Q: Looking at issues of diversity and inclusion, what do we need to do to truly have inclusive campuses including, but not limited to, our populations, processes, and institutional climates?

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at a medium public institution with experience at both public and private institutions: “Active recruitment AND retention of faculty and staff of color in addition to students of color. Ensuring curriculum and co-curricular opportunities challenge students to think critically about their assumptions, seek out knowledge, and develop informed perspectives. We must promote deep exploration and understanding of our own identities to then be able to seek out and understand the identities and lived experiences of others to be able to talk across, respect, and learn from differences.”

Title IX Coordinator at a large private institution with experience at both public, including community colleges, and private institutions: “Better articulation of what is expected discomfort in college vs. actual discrimination; actual diversity in leadership (or intentional training for leadership that does not appear diverse), and less opportunities for isolation.”

Associate Director, Student Conduct at a large Ivy League institution with experience at both public and private institutions: “We need to require all community members to be educated on issues pertinent to the community, whether it be the collegiate community or national community, including but not limited to privilege, classism, racism, heteronormative privilege, etc. and not limit discussions to just race.”

Consultant with practical experience at public and private institutions: “Colleges need to be honest as to if this is a priority on their campuses, and why and why not. There needs to be a recognition of the historical context regarding institutions of higher education and the power structures that existed and continue to exist. People need to be open to being uncomfortable and being challenged in ways that they have not done in the past.”

Former Vice President for Student Affairs at a small, private institution with experience at public and private institutions: “Higher education leaders need to stop capitulating to demands by students and faculty that, if granted, erode academic rigor and civility. At the same time, white people need to acknowledge, without irritation, the cost of racism on our campuses and beyond. We need to figure out how to move the needle on self-awareness without alienating white folks, primarily but not exclusively men, who feel under siege.”

Financial Aid Director at a large public institution: “We need to find a way to help students move beyond access to education. We need to do our part to help them succeed. This means tackling housing and food insecurity among other things. We also need to promote diversity in all levels of campus leadership. so diversity is considered in all conversations.”

Q: What do you think is the most pressing issue higher education will be facing in the next two to five years?

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs: “Articulating the value of (and need for) a college degree — increased public scrutiny and doubt about value/need combined with escalating costs and demographic declines in many regions further add to this challenge.”

Title IX Coordinator: “Institutions finding their ‘niche’ — only a few can be all things to all people; cost vs. enrollment; finding balance in regulation vs. over-regulation.”

Associate Director, Student Conduct: “Organizational misconduct (specifically, hazing), free speech/bias issues, mental health.”

Consultant: “Financial issues, especially those spurred by enrollment issues. States are funding colleges at their lowest rates since the ’80s and institutions cannot look to public funding for help. Instead, the focus turns to money generated from enrollment. We know that the college- aged population will continue to decrease, especially in 10 years, and institutions need to prepare now for that drop-off.”

Former Vice President for Student Affairs: “Controlling costs to maintain enrollment.”

Financial Aid Director: “College costs and differentiating institutional identity.”

Q: What do you see as the top three priorities for higher education institutions in the next two to five years?

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs: “Rising cost/access, articulating value of degree, and addressing completion rates.”

Title IX Coordinator: “Quality of teaching/outcomes, campus safety, and mental health which all relate to keeping costs down.”

Associate Director, Student Conduct: “Campus safety, equity and inclusion in the student population, and mergers and closures of smaller institutions.”

Consultant: “Financial stability, college completion, and regulatory compliance.”

Former Vice President for Student Affairs: “Right-sizing costs so average families will at least consider sending their child to a four-year institution; restoring confidence that higher education institutions (and their leaders) know what the heck they are doing; and withstanding and pushing back against the demands of a social-media-driven student body that does not want to ever feel uncomfortable or, god forbid, ‘unsafe.'”

Financial Aid Director: “Maintaining affordability, student safety, and deciding to be either all things or keeping a narrow focus.”

Q: How has the political landscape impacted higher education institutions?

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs: “Free speech has been attacked. People with significant bias against persons of various backgrounds, identities, and experiences have been emboldened to act and speak out more publicly.”

Title IX Coordinator: “Some good, some bad. Attention to the issues has been good to get some to pay attention; however, over-regulation and intrusion into the good judgment of college professionals have been bad.”

Associate Director, Student Conduct: “Higher education institutions have had to address an increase in bias-related concerns on campus, which includes event management and risk management protocols being developed/strengthened; Presidents have put out more statements regarding behaviors that are inconsistent with University values.”

Consultant: “Generally, we have seen changes in financial aid, accreditation, online learning regulations, and a greater focus on workforce development. More specifically, the proposed changes to Title IX, changes to the rule on designation of bathrooms for transgender students, narrowly defining the definition of ‘sex,’ and issuing an Executive Order on Free Speech on Campus are all examples.”

Former Vice President for Student Affairs: “The polarity in the student body mirrors that in the general population. Trump has given students and faculty permission to say and do abhorrent things that erode a sense of community, esprit de corps, and curiosity.”

Financial Aid Director: “There is an overwhelming sense of mistrust and this permeates to students.”

Q: What higher education issues will emerge as the presidential election heats up?

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs: “Further polarization of groups, attacks on civility, mutual respect and civil discourse.”

Title IX Coordinator: “Campus safety, sexual assault, over-regulation, financial aid, and state vs. federal control.”

Associate Director, Student Conduct: “Free speech, hosting of controversial speakers, hate crimes, etc.”

Consultant: “Front and center will be access and affordability by means of ‘free’ public college as well as the forgiveness of student loans. First Amendment issues and how colleges respond to sexual harassment will continue to be raised, including those at the state level.”

Former Vice President for Student Affairs: “Loan forgiveness. Cost. Academic freedom.”

Financial Aid Director: “Student loan debt. More candidates are talking about past, current, and future borrowers and where this positions us economically.”

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