Crisis in Higher Education: Next Steps for Students and Universities

Jun 08, 2011

Over the last few days, reported on a few of the issues that have caused some to believe higher education's in crisis. Administrators are now trying to come up with innovative ways to combat diminishing funds and make their degrees more relevant to students. What do some think the future of higher education might hold?

by Eric Garneau

Making Ends Meet

Enrollment's up, but money's down. School resources, especially in community colleges and public 4-year institutions, are being pushed to their limit. In such an environment, how can colleges offer degrees that will truly benefit students? That's what a few innovative administrators are now attempting to figure out.

One thing that's relatively certain: most schools shouldn't count on getting more money to work with any time soon. Many states have withdrawn significant funding from their public universities, and some have instituted tuition freezes or caps as well. The situation has led some officials to come up with inventive ways to use what they're given. That includes Nasser Paydar, chancellor of Indiana University East. He's placed more economic power in the hands of his school's deans, giving them some direct control of their budget and rewarding them for finding new sources of funding. Although some might balk at treating education like a business, perhaps there are a few lessons in financial management to be learned from the corporate world.

college finance budget crisis

Raised Expectations

In 2009, President Obama announced his goal of making the United States the country with the highest college graduation rate in the world by 2020, which has increased the urgency felt by schools. It's a laudable objective that Obama has bolstered at the federal level, for instance by providing tax incentives to families that attend college. However, as we've seen, when students flock to schools in record numbers it actually produces a negative effect if the schools can't support them.

New Ideas

So what do some educators think about the future? Peter Smith, senior vice president for academic strategies and development at the Kaplan Higher Education institutions, has recently written a book addressing the subject. Called Harnessing America's Wasted Talent, Smith's text puts forth a number of suggestions being considered right now. Ideas include changing the traditional school schedule (for instance by implementing 3-year degrees and more regularly adopting yearlong classes) or, as the National Governor's Association recently suggested, tailoring college courses to real-world job market needs.

While those ideas may generate significant controversy, Smith also makes a few suggestions that might be better received, albeit difficult to implement. 'If we want to get numbers up, colleges are going to have to deal with people they've never seen, or who they've seen and failed' he told The Chronicle for Higher Education. That might mean embracing online classes with flexible schedules, for instance, or pushing for financial aid reform at the federal level to assist nontraditional students.

One thing's certain - as the United States' body of college learners grows, schools will have to adapt to accommodate them. What that means is far from set in stone, but schools will surely need to find some way to allocate their resources appropriately, especially if they want to meet President Obama's goals. Despite some naysayers, higher education isn't done for yet. Like any industry, they have to change with the times. Perhaps all the current 'crises' are really just growing pains.

Read more about what the National Governor's Association wants to do with college education.

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