News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 31,  Number 1   //    January/February 2023

Emerging Public Attitudes Toward Higher Ed

How does the public view the value of a college education today? In an episode of Inside Higher Ed’s “The Key Podcast,” three experts explored recent research on the topic.

Sophie Nguyen, a senior policy analyst with New America, which annually asks people what they think about higher education, reported that 80 percent of the respondents to this year’s survey said they believe obtaining a bachelor’s degree or certificate will help them find a stable and well-paying career. Yet only about half said college and universities are having a positive impact on the nation—down from more than 60 percent since right before the pandemic—and as few as 38 percent said they thought higher education is fine as it is. The survey also found that younger generations like Millennials and GenZers are more negative than older ones about higher education’s value or return on investment.

David Schleifer, PhD, the vice president and director of research at the national research organization Public Agenda, said the results of its survey, supported by the Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation, showed that “people do understand the economic benefits of education” but still question “whether the investment really pays off for people.” The ultimate takeaway, he said, is “that the prices are too high,” not that Americans “are losing faith in higher education because of ideological reasons” or “that there’s some kind of anti-intellectualism.” Natasha Quadlin, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, agreed: “I think people in higher education should be very concerned about the public’s awareness of these cost issues.”

But Quadlin also added that the research that she’s conducted with Brian Powell, PhD, a professor of sociology at Indiana University, reflects a shift in who Americans think should bear responsibility for paying for college. “Increasingly, people want the government to play a much more active role in the funding of higher education,” she said, “not only because this will reduce their individual contribution but also because this will theoretically broaden access to students who haven’t had access in the past.”

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 43 percent of Americans polled in 2019 in Quadlin and Powell’s most recent survey said that government should have the main responsibility for paying for the costs of college, up from 31 percent in 2015. And 60 percent of the respondents said government should play at least a major role.

Schleifer of Public Agenda also told Inside Higher Ed that while more Democrats than Republicans said they generally want to see increased public investment in higher ed, “support was quite high across political affiliations” for government funding for specific initiatives—such as hiring more faculty so students can take the classes they need or providing funds for short-term credentials. “We saw strong cross-partisan support,” Schleifer said, when it comes to affordability and access. “There is quite a mandate for substantial change. Even in an environment where we see a lot of polarization, there is no shortage of things that are doable if politicians and system leaders are willing to take their cues from the public.”

Endowments Face Legislative and Financial Challenges

Legislators are again focusing on endowments. Emmanuel Cleaver II, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Missouri, has introduced the Endowment Transparency Act of 2022 that would require colleges and universities to report how much of their assets are managed by women-owned and minority-owned firms.

Previous research by the Knight Foundation found that asset management firms owned by white men control almost 99 percent of the assets in the United States. More recently, a study by the foundation and the Global Economics Group found the percentage of assets under management by diverse firms at some of higher education’s largest endowments ranged from about 6 percent to 10 percent for public institutions and 16 percent to 32 percent for private institutions, based on information colleges and universities were willing to share. The relatively small percentage of asset managers of diverse groups has occurred even though research has demonstrated that “there are no statistically significant differences in performance between diverse and nondiverse-owned firms,” Ashley Zohn, the vice president of earning and impact programs at the foundation, told Inside Higher Ed.

Rep. Cleaver has called the fact that White men control most of the $82-trillion asset management industry “unacceptable.” In introducing the bill, he stated, “As colleges and universities tout their efforts to diversify at every level, from the student body to the faculty and staff, I believe they are the perfect place to encourage greater opportunity in this intractable industry.”

Managing Lower Returns
Meanwhile, in contrast to last year’s rocketing returns, endowments across the higher education sector have experienced significant declines in 2022. Yet experts caution against panic, given the traditional ups and downs of managing investments. In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Tim Yates, the president and CEO of Commonfund Asset Management, also advised against “getting hung up on peer comparisons, noting that every endowment is different in terms of risk profile, liquidity, giving trends, operating budgets and more.” He encouraged foundations to rely on the “smoothing mechanisms” that many have put in place to adjust endowment spending policies to make up for years with greater market volatility and lower returns like the current one.

“What’s really important is that your endowment keeps pace with inflation and grows over time,” said John Griffith, an endowment specialist at the investment firm Hirtle Callaghan, who recommended that, due to this year’s high rate of inflation, institutions should probably consider spending less of their endowments than they traditionally do. He acknowledged, however, that the current environment of market volatility, shrinking enrollments, and demands from employees for higher wages may force the least wealthy colleges, those who depend more than others on endowment spending, to take greater investment risks instead.

Responding to the Great Resignation

Much has been written about the “Great Resignation” from higher education, referring to the large numbers of faculty members and administrators who say they have considered leaving the sector—or, in fact, have left—often due to burnout. Meanwhile, as many as two-thirds of the college leaders who responded to a recent survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that during the months of 2022, it had become more difficult to hire new employees. In response, institutions are working to retain the employees they have by improving morale through pay raises, more flexible work schedules, and programs and perks that might help reduce job stress.

The Chronicle cited Northern Kentucky University as an example, which plans to invest at least $35 million over the next five years in higher salaries and benefits for current employees. In addition, the university is striving to improve working conditions: It still allows employees to continue to work remotely and has recently adopted a new policy that offers six weeks of paid parental leave. To measure the effectiveness of such steps, a faculty group is studying the institution’s campus climate for employees.

Similarly, in response to discussions and focus groups with campus constituencies, the University of Kentucky is doubling the amount it spends on pay raises and offering additional benefits to employees, especially student affairs administrators who have been on the frontlines supporting students during the pandemic. Those benefits include a $300 credit for services like massages and acupuncture at the campus integrative medicine center, as well as free memberships to campus gyms.

The challenge for many colleges is that higher salaries and more benefits can come at a cost that they simply can’t afford, as Matt Cecil, PhD, the provost at North Kentucky told the Chronicle. And the jury is still out on whether modest pay increases and various perks will truly improve employee retention, Kevin McClure, PhD, an associate professor of higher education leadership at the University of North Carolina, said.

Moreover, as Margaret W. Sallee, PhD, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Buffalo observed, colleges must make sure that their efforts truly benefit their employees. For example, allowing a shorter work week doesn’t really help if institutions still demand the same output from workers, she said. “We’re changing our practices, but not our expectations of people.”

Top Issues in Campus Technology

Cybersecurity, digital fluency among faculty members, student-centric and equity-minded technology systems, and campuses with better blended digital and physical spaces were some of the major higher education technology issues in 2022 that Educause, a nonprofit association of technology, academic, and industry leaders, highlighted in a recent report.

As Susan Grajek, PhD, a vice president at Educause, observed in a session at the association’s annual conference, which was covered by Inside Higher Ed: “The pandemic sparked a great rethink that upended previous models for management and working. In 2023, institutional and technology leaders are ready for a new approach.”

That new approach, she continued will require that chief information officers have more of a seat at their campus’s leadership table “to facilitate a dialogue between institutional aspiration and digital possibilities.” Technology experts must learn as much as possible about the culture, mission, and operations of their college or university to support it most effectively, she explained. Grajek also said institutions will increasingly have to offer more flexible work options and higher compensation to compete with industry for the best and brightest tech talent.

In addition, she advised institutions to rethink how they consider and use new technologies. Rather than let the technology define what issues to tackle, “leaders need to develop an institutional culture of ‘here are all the problems we need to address—let’s find a good solution.” More-over, Grajeck said, “The focus of data analytics needs to change from a historical approach using data to understand what’s happened to a future-oriented approach of using data to project where we’re heading.” Inside Higher Ed has also looked at technology on campuses from the student perspective. Among the biggest concerns that students expressed in a survey it conducted with College Pulse was the lack of fast and reliable access to the internet—just 20 percent of the respondents said WiFi was reliable in most or all areas of their campus. The students also stressed that they should play a role in campus decision-making about technology: At least half of the respondents said they should have some input on the tech investments their college or university makes, and more than a third thought they should have significant input.

Evaluating Enrollment Losses

College enrollment has declined for the past three academic years since the fall of 2019, the head
count for undergraduate students dropping by 7 percent, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This year, enrollment fell by only 1.1 percent based on preliminary data, a smaller dip than the previous 12 months. But Doug Shapiro, PhD, the center’s executive director, told the Washington Post, “We’re seeing smaller declines, but when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging it a tiny bit further is not really good news.”

Colleges and universities worry that “such declines will reduce the revenue they need to keep pace with higher costs as inflation raises the price of goods and services,” the Post said. Moreover, as Nathan D. Grawe, PhD, the author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, commented in Inside Higher Ed, higher education institutions are depending more on tuition revenues from enrollment now that pandemic relief money is no longer coming in.

According to Higher Ed Dive, the situation is more mixed than the topline figures might suggest. For example, community colleges saw a slight enrollment decline this year but nothing like the double-digit plunges they experienced in the first days of COVID-19. And Historically Black Colleges and Universities even saw upticks in enrollment. Meanwhile, Hispanic-Serving Institutions showed a bigger drop than the national average, declining 1.2 percent this past year and 6 percent over the past two years, compared to a 4.2 percent drop among all colleges and universities.

Institutions in different parts of the country have also experienced strikingly different enrollment trends. Inside Higher Ed has reported, for instance, that enrollment at the University of Arkansas increased 8.3 percent over last year. Meanwhile, more colleges in the Northeast and Midwest have confronted enrollment losses.

In addition, while the pandemic may have hastened some of the enrollment declines, they also reflect longer-term demographic changes, Inside Higher Ed noted. The University of Maine System, for instance, has been dealing with dwindling college-going rates of high school graduates for a while now. And even within the same system, enrollment trends can vary. Rural institutions like the University of Maine at Fort Kent lost more than 16 percent of its head count this past year, while the more urban University of Maine flagship lost about 5 percent.

This year’s enrollment winners seem to be primarily online institutions, where, as Higher Ed Dive reported, enrollment jumped 3.2 percent, erasing undergraduate enrollment losses from the previous year. These institutions, such as Western Governors University, have traditionally attracted older adult students but are now also seeing enrollment hikes in students in the 18-24 range. Inside Higher Ed has cited a national survey that “the number of high school juniors and seniors planning to attend fully online colleges has more than doubled since before the pandemic.”

In general, the enrollment drop has become a major issue for many college leaders. Higher Ed Dive published the results of a survey by the consulting firm BDO in which more than half the respondents cited declining enrollment and retention as their largest challenge besides budget limits. More than 80 percent said improving enrollment and retention was a top priority, compared to seeking new revenue or funding (74 percent), improving staff retention and recruitment (55 percent), or increasing board or staff diversity (15 percent).

College leaders cited the following as the key ways they planned to increase enrollment in the future: 1) embarking on campaigns to encourage more students to enroll (68 percent), 2) discounting tuition (55 percent), 3) adding new degrees or courses (55 percent), and 4) increasing online or remote offerings (47 percent).

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