The 21st Century Is Here: Is American Higher Education Prepared?

By James B. Hunt, Jr., JD and Javaid E. Siddiqi, PhD    //    Volume 27,  Number 5   //    September/October 2019

Colleges and universities nationwide are grappling with a wide variety of challenges and disruptors. But perhaps the most pressing issue facing higher education today is the need to prepare students to succeed and prosper in the global knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

As we approach 2020 and beyond, the system of higher education in America is at an inflection point. Looking back on the history of postsecondary education in this country, we see one of the greatest success stories of the 20th century. Higher education is the foundation upon which the American middle class, and our prosperity as a nation, was built. Higher education and the world-class graduates it produced made us the envy of nations across the globe. Now, the question at hand is this: What do we see as we collectively look forward to the future of American higher education?

In 2006, one of us (James Hunt) touched on these issues in an article titled “Educational Leadership for the 21st Century,” which was published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in its report American Higher Education: How Does it Measure UP for the 21st Century? Many things about our nation and its system of higher education have changed since 2006, but it is remarkable how many of the challenges and opportunities we currently face can be seen as continuations of trends that were evident back then. Higher education continues to be the single greatest gateway to economic and social mobility for the American populace. The global, knowledge-based economy continues to drive rapid innovations in how colleges and universities prepare their graduates. And, most importantly, our society continues to expand our collective notion of who should share in the benefits that a postsecondary education can offer.

The 2006 article described a number of watershed moments in American higher education, including the Morrill Land Grants Acts of the 19th century and the passage of the G.I. Bill following World War II. And there has been no shortage of major developments in the higher education world over the last decade. In 2008, a new pathway to higher education for our nation’s veterans was opened when the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill was signed into law. This investment in a new generation of those who served our country with honor was a proud moment for us all. However, developments in subsequent years—namely, the collapse of such major higher education institutions as Corinthian Colleges, Inc., and ITT Technical Institute—underscored the need to enact strong guardrails to ensure that all of the programs serving both veterans and the general higher education student population provide a high-quality education.

The year 2008 also brought drastic state disinvestment in public institutions of higher education due to the economic recession. As state leaders sought budget cuts, many turned to higher education funding, in part because these public institutions had another source of revenue: tuition from students and their families. Not surprisingly, the net tuition paid by students (often referred to as the “student share” of higher education revenue) increased dramatically in the years following the recession. Recent research has shown that the balance between state and student shares of higher education funding seems to have equalized at a “new normal,” but in almost every state the level of state funding remains below pre-2008 levels.

Rises in higher education tuition dovetailed with an increased reliance on student aid funding—from federal, state, and private sources—to finance a postsecondary education. Amid this increased reliance came another major shift in the higher education landscape: In 2010, the federal government assumed full control of federal student aid programs. No longer would commercial banks act as intermediaries by receiving guaranteed federal subsidies to lend money to students. Although the U.S. Department of Education began providing grants and loans directly to students, private organizations continue to service such loans and are still the consumer-facing entities that handle billing and other associated tasks.

When it comes to higher education developments in more recent years, we have been encouraged by two particular trends. The first is the increased availability of high-quality higher education data. For many years, as noted in the 2006 article, policymakers simply didn’t have access to information that showed whether our postsecondary initiatives were producing the intended results. That has changed thanks to the dedicated efforts of data champions at the federal and state levels. The federal postsecondary data horizon looks more promising than ever: The main higher education data collection within the U.S. Department of Education has recently expanded to include information about more students, and efforts in Congress to establish a more comprehensive, secure data system for higher education are steadily gaining momentum. But perhaps the most promising activity, as usual, has been at the state level, where such innovative groups as the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education are forging new partnerships to develop a more complete picture of how higher education students fare—both throughout their postsecondary journey and after they graduate.

Another promising development in recent years has been the widespread adoption of statewide postsecondary attainment goals. Thanks in part to professor Anthony Carnevale and his team’s  groundbreaking research at the Georgetown Center for the Education and Workforce, as well as calls to action from the Lumina Foundation and former President Obama, state leaders have realized that they must make concerted efforts to help more adults attain some sort of higher education degree or credential in order to meet future workforce demands. Currently, all but seven states in our country have adopted a specific statewide attainment goal.

Given all of this change, one would think that we must adopt brand new strategies to work toward our “North Star” goal: to ensure that America’s higher education system is prepared to meet the needs of the 21st century. But actually, we believe that our path forward consists of a simple refinement and evolution of the strategies on which the field has been working for many years and that is that policymakers and higher education leaders must continue expanding our collective concept of who can benefit from higher education, what types of institutions can best serve students, and which areas of content knowledge are most valuable in today’s world. As we push forward on this path, we must consider how to navigate these expansive changes while also holding the line on strong quality protections for American higher education.

Before discussing how best to move forward, it is helpful to consider recent developments in the effort to meet 21st-century needs across two broad areas of higher education policy: preparing for higher education and succeeding in higher education.

Preparing for Higher Education

Students’ higher education journeys do not begin upon graduation from high school; they begin in the K-–12 realm as they take coursework to ensure that they are prepared for the rigors of postsecondary curricula. One of the most common strategies that state leaders have adopted to ensure that more students are prepared for higher education is to create high school graduation pathways that are specifically focused on college and career readiness measures. These pathways allow students to meet high school graduation requirements by receiving certain scores on college readiness exams (Advanced Placement tests, the SAT assessment, the ACT assessment) and on workforce readiness evaluations that are aligned with the needs of regional economies. Graduates who follow these pathways gain the knowledge and skills that enable them to pursue a variety of postsecondary options—from short-term certificate programs to four-year bachelor’s degrees. This strategy has received renewed attention in recent years following the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, federal legislation enacted in 2015 that provided an opportunity for states to overhaul their high school graduation requirements.

States have taken different approaches when adopting this strategy. A total of 38 states and the District of Columbia (DC) offer some sort of college and career readiness pathway to graduation. Of that group, 21 states and DC have made the college and career readiness track the “default” pathway to graduation, meaning that students must opt-out in order to pursue a more traditional graduation pathway. Seven states and DC have taken things one step further by making the college and career readiness pathway the only option available to high school students.

Another development in recent years regarding postsecondary preparation has been the emerging consensus around the importance of higher education advising services. Traditionally, college advising has been administered by high school counselors—staff members who also shoulder a number of additional responsibilities, including providing mental health supports and counseling for students. In addition to having a wide range of responsibilities, high school counselors are often asked to handle an extremely large caseload. The national student-to-counselor ratio in high schools across the country is a staggeringly high 482 to one.

A number of organizations have begun to address this issue by placing recent college graduates in high schools to provide “near-peer” postsecondary advising services that inform students about all of the higher education options available to them. These advisors serve as complements to existing high school counselors by assuming the responsibilities of postsecondary advising and enabling counselors to focus on their other duties. A recent study by the College Advising Corps program showed that students who saw a near-peer advisor were 30 percent more likely to apply to a higher education institution and 24 percent more likely to be accepted.

One of the main roles of a college advisor is to provide high school students with information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form used to determine how much and what kind of financial aid students and their families are eligible to receive from the government. Students are required to complete the FAFSA in order to receive such funding as Pell grants (which do not have to be repaid), Perkins loans, Stafford loans, and the Federal Work Study Program.

Filling out the FAFSA, or failing to do so, can have major repercussions on a student’s ability to prepare and pay for higher education. And college advisors across the country still have plenty of work ahead of them to ensure that students take full advantage of the financial benefits that come with filling out the FAFSA. A recent analysis showed that the high school class of 2017 missed out on a total of $2.3 billion in free federal student aid grant funding because some students failed to submit FAFSA forms.

State policymakers have an important role to play in FAFSA completion efforts as well. Louisiana is an example of a state that has taken innovative steps to increase the number of students who complete the FAFSA form. In 2015, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education implemented a new policy that requires all graduating high school seniors to complete the FAFSA unless they submit an opt-out form or receive a waiver. To complement this new policy, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance took a number of creative steps to boost FAFSA completion rates including holding FAFSA completion community events, creating a “Compete to Complete” competition, and setting up regional computer labs to be used for FAFSA completion.

These efforts have paid off. Earlier this summer the Louisiana Department of Education announced that the high school class of 2018 posted the highest graduation rate in state history[i] and that the number of high school graduates who immediately enrolled in higher education reached a record high.

However, we know that simply helping students arrive on campus, or enroll in a program of study, is not sufficient. In order for our higher education system to prepare graduates for the demands of tomorrow’s workforce, we must work to ensure that postsecondary students are successful in their pursuit of whichever higher education pathway they choose.

Succeeding in Higher Education

Whether a student is seeking a short-term certificate or a graduate degree, it is important to ensure that they are able to complete their degrees in a reasonable amount of time. Students who do not complete their degrees on time are more likely to accumulate student loan debt and are not able to realize the earnings benefits that come with a postsecondary degree. These students, often categorized as “some college, no degree” in higher education data sets, have become a major focus of researchers and advocates who seek to help more students achieve postsecondary success.

In order to incentivize higher student completion rates, many states have adopted some form of an outcomes-based funding formula that is used for distributing a portion of state funding for public higher education institutions. These policies base a percentage of each institution’s funding on certain information about its graduates, such as student loan debt or postgraduation earnings.

Two states in particular come to mind when we think of innovative outcomes-based funding formula policies: Tennessee and California.

In 2010, Tennessee established a pioneering outcomes-based funding formula that allocates the vast majority of public funding for higher education on the basis of a variety of outcome measures that are aligned with the state’s education policy goals. One hallmark of Tennessee’s formula is its flexibility. There are different sets of outcome metrics used for two-year institutions and four-year institutions, and the weights used for those outcome metrics are tailored to each institution’s mission.

More recently, California enacted the Student-Centered Funding Formula, a new outcomes-based funding formula for community colleges that allocates a portion of each institution’s funding on a variety of graduate outcome metrics. In order to ensure that colleges continue to accept underserved student populations, each institution receives a supplemental funding allocation that is based on the proportion of low-income students who enroll each year.

So how will institution leaders meet the challenges set by outcomes-based funding formulas and other college completion incentives? One key answer can be found in the emergence of data-driven tools that schools can use to target supportive interventions that will help their students succeed. Georgia State University (GSU) is a well-known leader in this space, having developed a suite of on-campus initiatives that use information about students and their progress to help them reach their goals. (See “The Transformation” by Timothy M. Renick, PhD, on page 20) Before the freshman class arrives on campus, GSU administrators use data to identify the 10 percent of students who are most at risk of dropping out during their first year. Those students are then required to attend a seven-week summer program before the start of the school year to ensure that they have the proper support and knowledge base to succeed in college courses without requiring remedial education.

In North Carolina, Wake Technical Community College has developed a similar program called Finish First. School administrators use this data analytics tool to identify students who are close to attaining a certificate or an associate degree but may not realize it. Once the tool has identified these students who are close to the finish line, advisors help students chart the fastest route toward completion and ensure they have the supports they need to succeed.

It is clear to us that state policymakers and institution leaders are thinking creatively about how to enact strategies that will help students succeed in higher education.

Shared Responsibility, Shared Prosperity

Recent developments in helping students prepare for and succeed in higher education bode well for the future of our country. But we want to emphasize the most important point of this article: despite our previous successes, despite the promising innovation happening in states across America, we must do more. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that America’s higher education system is prepared to meet the ever-changing needs of the 21st century.

The postsecondary attainment need projections referenced earlier constitute a sobering wake-up call, and everyone with a stake in American higher education must treat them as mandate for immediate action. The exciting part is that we have an emerging evidence base of successful strategies to reform higher education in ways that help all students succeed. The task before us is to scale these solutions throughout states and communities across our country.

You may be asking yourself, who is responsible for leading this charge? The answer is everyone; we are all in this together. The 2006 article noted that, “Responsibility for and authority in American higher education are broadly dispersed—as are the resources for solving major problems—and this has always been a strength of our system…Shared responsibility is the way we get things done in America.” We still feel this way today. Every stakeholder must embrace this notion of shared responsibility and rise up to meet the challenges of our time.

We would also like to propose an additional notion for higher education leaders to keep in mind: shared prosperity. We will not meet the demands of the 21st century by just helping our most advantaged students succeed. We will not maintain our international leadership in higher education by serving only students from affluent communities. We have not only a moral but also an economic obligation to ensure that every person in our great nation is able to share the prosperity that higher education has to offer. That includes the single mother who needs on-campus child care and a flexible course schedule to earn her certificate while holding down her part-time job. The first-generation student of color who needs help navigating the registrar’s office in order to select the courses that will prepare him for an in-demand career. The veteran who returns home unsure of how her G.I. Bill benefits can best help her transition back into civilian society.

All of these people are integral parts of the America that will succeed in the 21st century—and we know that we will succeed. Make no mistake: We have no illusions about how difficult the path forward will be. But when we think about the imagination, courage, and conviction that exists all across our great nation, we remain confident that we are writing the next chapter in the great success story of higher education in America.

James B. Hunt, Jr., JD, chairs the Hunt Institute Foundation and served four historic terms as the governor of North Carolina.

Javaid E. Siddiqi, PhD, serves as the Hunt Institute’s president and chief executive officer and is a former secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Virginia.