News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 31,  Number 4   //    July/August 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Landmark Admissions’ Ruling

In a long-anticipated and landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to strike down race-based admissions policies at colleges and universities nationwide, ruling that they are illegal and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. As Inside Higher Ed stated, “the decision is expected to impact just about every college that uses affirmative action in admissions and some that use it in awarding financial aid.”

The decision came “just weeks before colleges open applications for fall 2024,” the New York Times said, so colleges will have to “scramble to revise their plans, but cautiously.” It suggested that the ruling would “not totally prevent universities from pursuing diversity goals similar to affirmative action, yet it warned they could see more lawsuits “as legal activists challenge the definition of ‘race neutral’ policies” that admissions offices have been using. The Times also said the ruling could pressure more admissions offices to rely less on standardized test scores.

The editorial board of the Washington Post weighed in saying that colleges will have to “step up outreach to well-qualified minority applicants” and should eliminate legacy admissions policies for alumni children as well as merit scholarships, which often go to students who can afford to pay for college. It also urged institutions to engage in more holistic reviews in which they can “still give credit to applicants who have overcome challenges related to their race or who would bring unique experiences to campus.” It concluded that “the most promising approach is giving a boost to applicants with low or no family wealth.”

Various other outlets covering the ruling also brought up socioeconomic diversity as a possible proxy for racial diversity, referencing author and policy consultant Richard D. Kahlenberg, a long-term advocate of that approach. Inside Higher Ed highlighted two other “race neutral” strategies that colleges might consider. The first is to follow the “percentage plan” model that Texas initiated in 1997, which allowed every graduate in the top 10 percent of their class in a high school to attend any public college in the state. The article noted, however, that the plan worked effectively because “many Texas high schools are monolithic: all Black, all Latino, or all white.” It might not be as viable in other states. A second option, it said, would be for four-year institutions to focus on encouraging students from community colleges to transfer and enroll.

In an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, economist Catherine B. Hill urged colleges to “redefine how they make admissions decisions,” so that “rather than putting weight on things that signal a higher income (numerous advanced placement courses, high SAT scores after multiple test attempts, fencing or squash skills),” admissions officials would evaluate each student’s potential to contribute to society. New York Times columnist David Brooks agreed, saying that colleges should look not only at students’ test scores but also for “examples of kindness and generosity in their lives.”

What strategies colleges, in fact, pursue in reaction to the ruling is unclear at this point. According to Higher Ed Dive, the U.S. Department of Education plans to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a list of lawful admissions practices to help guide them. Yet even “though the precise legal intricacies are to be worked out,” the publication added, “higher education’s immediate response was resounding: It would continue its work to cultivate campus diversity despite the ruling against an admissions cornerstone.”

Faculty Pay Up Yet Down

Data from the American Association of University Professors show that faculty pay has risen somewhat but continues to lag inflation. Average salaries of full-time faculty members rose by more than 4 percent during the 2022–2023 academic year—“the largest single increase since 1991”—but they actually dropped by 2.4 percent after adjusting for inflation, Higher Ed Dive reported.

The publication noted that “the decrease in faculty members’ real pay continues a trend seen in previous academic years.” Faculty salaries had already fallen by 5 percent in 2021–2022, “the largest one-year drop since the organization began tracking the data in 1972,” Higher Ed Dive said.

The National Education Association (NEA) found similar findings in its study, “The State of Educator Pay in America.” The data it collected showed the average salary for full-time faculty members was $93,914 during the 2021–2022 academic year, a 2.1 percent increase over the previous year. But even though faculty saw a rise in their paychecks, they “lost $4,837 in purchasing power due to inflation compared to 2020–2021,” according to University Business.

The NEA study also reflected some discrepancies among the average salaries of different faculty groups. For instance, faculty members at public four-year institutions made slightly more than average ($96,414), while those at public two-year colleges made considerably less ($74,173). Women made only 85 cents to the dollar compared to men in public institutions. And faculty members at historically Black colleges and universities earned only 75 cents on the dollar, or roughly $24,000 less, compared to their peers at other institutions.

Meanwhile, University Business reported, faculty members who worked at institutions with union contracts in place had significantly higher salaries—up to $15,000 more, on average—than those who did not.

A Rebound in Student Engagement?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, college student engagement plummeted significantly during the height of the pandemic in the 2020–2021 academic year. With remote classes and limited in-person events, students had far fewer opportunities to interact with professors and each other. But as students have returned to campuses, have they reengaged with their classes and campus life?

A report by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), “Rebounding Student Engagement: Has Higher Education Returned to ‘Normal’?,” aims to answer that question. NSSE has been tracking student engagement for years, focusing on first-year students and seniors.

The most recent survey data, on academic year 2021–2022, suggests that student engagement has increased. The survey found that students spent, on average, more time studying and preparing for class than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic. But in many cases, it hasn’t returned to the level it was before the emergence of COVID-19. “Collaborative learning remained below pre-pandemic disruption levels, especially for first-year students,” NSSE said.

For instance, in 2019 to 2020, half of all first-year students and 46 percent of seniors “often” or “very often” studied for exams by reviewing course materials with other students, but just about one in three did so in 2020–2021. And even after many students returned to campus in 2021–2022, the survey found that share had only increased to about two in five, or 40 percent of first-year and 38 percent of senior students. In addition, other collaborative activities, such as interactions with diverse peers, “lagged pre-pandemic levels by 4 to 10 percentage points.”

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education about the findings, Jillian Kinzie, interim co-director of NSSE, attributed the results, among other factors, to staffing shortages and students spending more time studying and working longer hours than before the pandemic.

For example, Kinzie said, if an institution doesn’t have enough advisers, it can’t alert students about possible programs and opportunities in which to participate. In addition, as the NSSE survey reported, “Students, especially first-years, said they spent more time working for pay off campus during the past two years than before.”

Ultimately, NSSE was sanguine about the results. “With the worst of the pandemic disruptions behind us, campus life has mostly corrected course,” the survey report concluded. “It may be too early to say that things are ‘back to normal’—and if ‘normal’ practices should be the goals—but they are headed in a positive direction.”

College Presidents Weigh In on the Job

College presidents are spending even less time in their leadership positions than in the past, according to a survey conducted by the American Council on Education. They are staying in their job for an average of 5.9 years—down from 6.5 years in 2016 and 8.5 years in 2006.

In addition, most presidents who are currently serving don’t expect to remain in that position in five years. The survey, which included responses from more than 1,000 presidents, found that more than half (55 percent) said they planned to depart in the next five years, and a quarter (25 percent) in the next several years. That’s higher than five years ago, when roughly a third (32 percent) said they planned to leave in three to five years, and 22 percent said they were planning to leave in a year or two. And the ones who now say they expect to leave don’t plan on going to another presidency, but intend instead to seek consulting jobs, work for other nonprofits, or return to the faculty.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the survey credited presidents’ departures to the pandemic and “political polarization in higher education. The newspaper concluded that shorter tenures have a major effect on how presidents behave when they walk into the administration building for the first time. Out are months-long listening tours. In is rapid action.” Linda A. Livingstone, who became president of Baylor University in 2017, told the Chronicle: “You have to listen faster and learn faster and then identify those two or three areas you can have a significant impact on in a shorter amount of time.”

Since presidents must get up to speed quicker than ever, the survey also asked them about areas where they thought they needed more training. Of the 32 options that respondents could select, those among the most frequently cited were entrepreneurial ventures, fundraising, diversity and equity, capital improvements, and risk management.

Given that presidents find their position increasingly challenging, the results of Inside Higher Ed’s annual survey of presidents, were somewhat surprising. As reported in an article about the survey, Inside Higher Ed reported that college leaders appear to be “quite optimistic about the state of their institutions and higher education as a whole.” It noted: “as many as eight out of ten said they thought their institution will be financially stable over the next ten years and close to 60 percent said they expected their institution to be better off next year than now.”

That said, the findings also revealed that “campus executives fully recognize the strains and pressures prompting many observers to question the viability of hundreds of institutions and to worry about the state of higher education generally.” About 60 percent, Inside Higher Ed reported, agree that “public doubts about the affordability of higher education are justified.” And around seven in ten agreed that “my institution needs to make fundamental changes in its business models, programming, and other operations.” In fact, when asked what word best represents how their institution is positioned now and in the near term, they most frequently said “transforming.”

As AI Erupts, Do Colleges Have Policies in Place?

ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence model that can effectively mimic human thought and language, has erupted at higher education institutions across the nation. “AI is changing the way the world works, especially on college campuses, where students must rely on technology for almost every aspect of their education, such as for watching lectures, taking notes, completing assignments, and writing papers,” as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Ethics and Policy blog characterized the phenomenon.

In the process, it is raising thorny ethical issues. As Higher Ed Dive stated, “The program’s meteoric rise in the months since it launched has forced higher education to grapple with concerns over academic integrity and AI’s use in the classroom.”

Yet despite ChatGPT’s significant impact and the difficult questions it has raised, less than 14 percent of faculty members in a new survey reported that their institutions have set guidelines for how they and their students should use ChatGPT in classes. Primary Research Group (PRG) polled 954 faculty members from about 500 randomly selected U.S. colleges and universities and found that those at private institutions were more satisfied than those at public ones with how their institution was handling AI technology’s challenges. It also found that “community college faculty were more likely to say that students’ unattributed use of ChatGPT was a major problem compared to their counterparts at other institutions,” Higher Ed Dive wrote.

In its coverage of the survey, Inside Higher Ed said that though its results show few institutions have developed policies for AI, “many appear to be making strides in this direction.” It described, for instance, how the University of California, Berkeley, has launched an AI policy hub “to cultivate an interdisciplinary research community to anticipate and address policy opportunities for safe and beneficial AI.”

The Boston Globe also reported on some of the varying approaches that colleges and universities in its region have been taking. For example, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst changed its academic policy to prohibit use of AI unless a professor expressly allows it. At Boston University, students must disclose any use of it and get permission to use it in exams.

Highlighting a survey by BestColleges in which more than half of students responded that they view using ChatGPT as cheating, Ethics and Policy urged more college and universities to “enact policies to clarify when students can use AI.” But it also said establishing sound ethical policies for ChatGPT and other forms of AI will take time, as the technology is moving faster than institutions can respond.

Jared Kaplan, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, observed that ChatGPT “is just the thing we have this year. But next year and the year after, we’re going to have something much, much more powerful.” Even as more institutions start to develop and implement ChatGPT policies, Ethics and Policy warned, “it is not clear how long any policy will remain effective given how quickly AI is evolving.

Tuition Discounts Continue to Climb

Private college tuiton discount rates have risen to their highest level ever, according to a recent survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). The survey of 341 private nonprofit institutions found the average rate was 56.2 percent for first-time, full-time freshmen and 50.9 percent for all undergraduates in academic year 2022–2023—“record highs in the history of the survey, which dates back to 1994,” Inside Higher Ed reported.

The tuition discount rate, as NACUBO defines it, is “the total institutional grant aid awarded to undergraduates” that colleges and universities award students “as a percentage of the gross tuition and fee revenue the institution would collect if all students paid the full tuition and fee sticker price.” It offers a snapshot of what students actually pay, “with few families shelling out the full cost,” Inside Higher Ed said.

Ken Redd, senior director for research and policy analysis at NACUBO, told Inside Higher Ed that the higher discount rate “demonstrates—from the perspective of families and students who attend or want to attend a private college—that institutions are devoting a lot of their own resources to make education more affordable relative to the tuition price.” And in the study itself, which stated that, even though enrollments have declined, the institutions that participated in the survey “delivered on their commitment to college access…. Many colleges and universities made significant investments to make higher education more affordable.”

Redd also acknowledged, however, that such an approach can be challenging, because tuition makes up a significant share of many private colleges’ revenues, especially those that don’t have large endowments. In other words, as the study put it, “Colleges and universities are giving up tuition revenue in order to provide greater access to students.”

In fact, net tuition and fee revenues dropped by 5.4 percent for first-time undergraduates and by 5.9 percent for all undergraduates, NACUBO found. To make up that revenue, colleges are trying various strategies: 72 percent have introduced new retention efforts, 58 percent have increased institutional grants or made other financial aid changes, 57 percent have expanded recruitment methods, and 42 percent have made changes to their academic programs.

The key takeaway, according to Inside Higher Ed, is that the rising discount rate not only reflects families’ increasing need for tuition assistance but also colleges’ intense competition for students. While higher rates have expanded access for lower-income students, they’ve also helped buoy enrollment in general.

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