News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 31,  Number 3   //    May/June 2023

The Public Weighs In

Have Americans lost confidence in the value of a college education? A recent survey by the Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research center, has found that many have.

A majority of the individuals polled said they “don’t think a college degree is worth the cost, a new low in confidence,” the WSJ wrote of the results. Only 42 percent of all the respondents said they thought a college degree was “worth the cost because people have a better chance to get a good job and earn more money over their lifetime,” while 56 percent said it was “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and a large amount of debt to pay off.”

The survey also sought the public’s view on a few other controversial issues relevant to higher education, including affirmative action and transgender athletes. When it asked people whether they favor or oppose “colleges and universities considering student’s race and ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions,” only 15 percent said they strongly or somewhat favored it, while 56 percent said they strongly or somewhat opposed it. (The rest said they neither favored nor opposed it or didn’t know). Meanwhile, just 17 percent of those responding said that transgender athletes should be “able to play on teams that match their current gender identity” while 56 percent said they should “only play on teams that match their sex assigned at their birth.” Of those surveyed, 44 percent considered themselves to be Democrat, 38 percent saw themselves as Republican, and 18 percent said they were Independent.

Meanwhile, Fortune and University Business reported on a survey of 7,000 Gen-Z workers, conducted by Censuswide and the freelancing job platform Fiverr, which reflects similar questioning among the public about the worth of a college degree. That survey found that 40 percent of respondents said they didn’t believe a degree was necessary.

CNBC, however, was more positive in its news coverage about how Americans view the value of college, citing earlier findings by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that “bachelor’s degree holders generally earn more than those with just a high school diploma. The center’s report, “The College Payoff,” found that “finishing college puts workers on track to earn a median $2.8 million over their lifetimes, compared with $1.6 million if they only have a high school diploma,” CNBC wrote.

But CNBC also cited another previous study by Public Agenda that found only half of the people it surveyed thought the “economic benefits of a college degree outweigh the costs.” And it highlighted a recent report by the nonprofit ECMC Group, in partnership with VICE Media, that has been polling high school students, noting that one of the key findings was that nearly 60 percent of students from low-income, first-generation, or minority backgrounds believe they “can be successful without a college degree.”

CNBC offered an explanation for the students’ growing skepticism. “Some experts say the value of a bachelor’s degree is now fading as college costs remain high and a shortage of workers increases opportunities in the labor force—with or without a diploma,” it observed.

New Efforts to Improve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

At the same time that the U.S. Supreme Court is considering perhaps ruling against affirmative action in admissions—and as some state legislatures are passing legislation to curtail higher education’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion—various groups are initiating new efforts to increase DEI at colleges and universities.

For example, according to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, researchers from Brooklyn College and the University of Florida have created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion institutionalization assessment that will allow “colleges and universities to measure their DEI work at the institutional level. It will be particularly useful for large, complex bureaucracies in which DEI responsibilities are dispersed among many offices.”

Data that the researchers collected from 83 institutions revealed that institutions may have good intentions when it comes to diversity, but they often haven’t been able to follow through on them. While as many as 73 percent of those surveyed said supporting diversity was part of their mission, only 21 percent said they’d met or exceeded the progress they had hoped to make.

In the past, the go-to tool for measuring such progress has been climate assessments, or surveys of faculty or students, Diverse said, “But this doesn’t give schools a comprehensive picture of those efforts or a direct sense of how developed they are.”

The new assessment tool includes 41 items related to “institutional environment, faculty and staff hiring, faculty and staff retention, student admissions, student retention and completion, and curriculum,” Diverse Issues reported. Colleges and universities can then rate themselves on a four-point scale, with four as the top score. The team is working on an updated version of the tool that will include budget issues, as well.

Meanwhile, the National Student Clearinghouse, with support from the Cognizant Foundation, has launched a DEI Data Lab, that features extensive information to help give colleges and universities a starting point for understanding current equity gaps, identifying recent trends, and diving deeper into metrics on enrollment, persistence, and completion. It also includes case studies of institutions and organizations that are “working to close equity gaps.”

And, as Inside Higher Ed has reported, Achieving the Dream, an organization dedicated to community college student success, the educational consulting firm HCM Strategists, and EducationCounsel consultants have assembled the Level UP National Panel to help increase Black students’ enrollment in college. They decided to form the panel after a previous study by HCM Strategists found that Black enrollment peaked in 2011 but has plummeted since then.

The group recently issued a report offering strategies to help Black students enroll and succeed, along with a call to action to state and federal legislators, campus leaders, and philanthropists to commit to helping ameliorate the issue. The report lists some of the obstacles to Black enrollments and offers advice for helping remove them. According to Inside Higher Ed, it suggests, among other things, that “colleges build partnerships with local community organizations and seek their advice on how to better serve Black learners, offer flexible course schedules suited for students with work and caregiving responsibilities, and train faculty members in culturally responsive pedagogy among
other recommendations.”

Why Students May Be Opting Out

Mixed views among the public about the return on investment of college could very well be contributing to the fact that fewer young people are enrolling in higher education these days. The trend, according to a recent article by the Associated Press, “could signal a new generation with little faith in the value of a college degree” or that people “who passed on college during the pandemic are opting out for good.”

Across the nation, the enrollment of undergraduates fell 8 percent from 2019 to 2022, and “the slide in the college-going rate since 2018 is the steepest on record,” AP reported. And while individual states are still gathering college-going data, “early figures are troubling,” it said. The number of new high-school graduates going to college dropped from 49 percent to 42 percent in Arkansas during the pandemic, for example, while Indiana experienced a 12-point decline between 2015 and 2020.

Enrollment has improved a bit since then, and data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that the number of students enrolling in college is expected to start rising again over the next decade. Yet now and in the near future, more young people are pursuing apprenticeships in the trades and other education programs.

Many individuals who came of college age during COVID-19 were “largely left on their own during remote learning,” AP noted, and instead of attending college, they “turned to hourly jobs or careers that don’t require a degree.” Concerns about high tuition and taking on soaring amounts of student debt have also discouraged some students from enrolling in college.

Financial issues definitely appeared to be a determinant for the low-income students, first-generation students and students of color that the ECMC Group recently surveyed. As USA Today reported, as many as 70 percent of the respondents said “tuition payments are top of mind” when determining their path after graduating from high school, and “more than half of all students worry about how they will pay for college.”

Inside Higher Ed covered another study by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation of more than 12,000 people, which also cited the cost of higher education as the top reason respondents gave for not enrolling in higher education (81 percent). But it wasn’t the only reason that they gave. Many said that inflation (77 percent), work conflicts (69 percent), and emotional stress (63 percent) were top factors. When the students were asked to define what emotional stress meant to them, many said that “coursework can be overwhelming, particularly if combined with work and caregiving responsibilities or issues in their personal relationships,” Inside Higher Ed said.

A Building Crisis

Deferred maintenance, or deferred capital renewal, has long been a concern for colleges and universities, “but a range of events and forces seem to be leading to an inflection point,” in the words of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Colleges and universities “may be reaching a stage where the backlog of needs on campuses becomes so overwhelming that it threatens the viability of many institutions and demands attention.”

“The 10th State of Facilities in Higher Education” report of more than 52,000 higher education facilities by Gordian, a Building Intelligence Solutions provider, has warned that institutions face an “unsustainable” shortfall in deferred maintenance. Renewal costs have increased 27 percent, from $105 per gross square foot to $133, and as Inside Higher Ed has noted, “Inflation has greatly expanded the amount of funding necessary to steward existing space, creating a 36 percent shortfall.”

Compounding the problems, the Gordian report said, is that space has grown significantly while college enrollment has been falling off, due to the “long U.S. birthrate slide that has been occurring since 2008” and the impact of the pandemic. As a result, campus capital spending hasn’t been able to keep up with the amount of investment required, especially given inflation.

“For 70 years, higher education has built like never before,” the Chronicle reported, citing three major construction booms: after World War II to accommodate the growth in new students, during the Cold War years to expand research capabilities, and more recently to construct fancier recreation buildings, residence halls, and other facilities to gain a competitive advantage in student recruitment. And over the years, donors have also often preferred to provide funds for institutional buildings bearing their names rather than for operating expenses.

But as Lander Medlin, the president and CEO of APPA, an association of facilities managers in higher education, told the Chronicle, a building’s construction costs only are about 25 percent of its total lifetime expense, while maintenance, operations, and other recurring annual costs make up an additional 35 to 40 percent. In addition, a building usually needs significant updates, and renovations after 25 years and a “major overhaul of its structure and systems” after 50 years, according to the Chronicle. It also observed that the two key construction peaks for higher education facilities occurred in the 1970s and 1990s and early 2000s, concluding: “Do the math: Two building cycles will come due in the 2020s.”

Colleges and universities have the added challenge of not being able to sell off buildings like other organizations. So when they construct facilities, the Chronicle said, “they are binding themselves to a structure and a location for decades—probably centuries.” The confluence of events has meant that some individual colleges and universities have millions of square feet needing updating and billion-dollar backlogs of repairs and renewals.

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