Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Top 10 Higher Ed Stories You Should Be Covering, 2017 Edition

Undergraduate enrollment is slated to increase by 14 percent between 2015 and 2026, but some liberal arts colleges may not see a boost in their number of students or have enough faculty to support the few who enroll.

Grinnell College in Iowa saw applications drop by more than 20 percent this year, Warren Wilson College in North Carolina is laying off faculty and Wisconsin’s Northland College is slashing faculty salaries, said Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed.

“Liberal arts colleges are in trouble,” Jaschik said while speaking this month at the Education Writers Association National Seminar in Washington, D.C.

This trend was listed as one of Jaschik’s top 15 higher education story ideas to watch. The annual list usually includes 10 ideas, but this year he divided the list into two parts: stories less-related to Donald Trump’s administration (10) and stories directly related to Trump’s presidency and cabinet (5).

Here are the other nine story ideas for the former:

2. Free tuition: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo revived this idea that dominated the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, and it’s also being discussed in California, Massachusetts and New Jersey among other states, Jaschik said. In New York, college students who attend a State University of New York institution and fall within a certain income bracket may be eligible for the state’s new free tuition program, but there’s a catch: Only full-time students can attend school tuition-free. So what happens to part-time students? “Look at all of the fallout from what’s going on there,” Jaschik said.

3. Mega merger: There’s been at least one huge merger between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds of higher education. Purdue University, a prominent public research institution in Indiana, is buying the for-profit Kaplan University. This move “is really a stunner,” Jaschik said.

4. Campus protests: College campuses have traditionally been places for dissent, such as burning flags, using imagery that might get a thumbs up from comedienne Kathy Griffin, and voicing opinions that may not be heard elsewhere in society. Lots of college towns, however, were shocked to find out that the counties which surround them voted for Donald Trump for president, Jaschik said. In the current political climate, how can colleges serve as environments where young adults can openly share their disapproval of politicians, policies and similar issues?

5. Education, without college credit: Coding boot camps, and other types of education that don’t result in a degree, are appealing to some adults who would typically consider getting a master’s degree, Jaschik said. “Master’s degrees are a cash cow for higher education,” he said. If universities have a decline in master’s degree enrollees, that will become a big issue for these institutions’ overall revenue pictures.

6. High school transcripts: Some secondary schools are moving away from traditional high school transcripts and replacing them with ones modeled on competency-based education, which emphasizes a student’s grasp of certain skills or knowledge. As highly selective college-preparatory schools embrace this way of assessing students’ high school performance, the competency-based education model may affect college admissions as well as the curricula in other high schools.

7. Rights for gay and transgender students: Under President Obama’s administration, the federal government advanced rights and protections for LGBT students. The Trump administration has withdrawn some of these Obama-era practices, such as Title IX protections for transgender students, giving schools more room to be conservative. How are colleges that didn’t agree with the Obama administration’s guidance responding to the changes in Education Department policy?

8. Community college enrollment: Many community colleges are seeing a significant drop in enrollment, Jaschik said. And, at some schools, as many as 20 percent of students are dual-enrolled — which usually refers to high school students who are also taking college courses — and their numbers could be masking the extent of the decline. Because school budgets typically are based on enrollment and tuition dollars, a decrease in either can lead to big financial problems.

9. Liberal arts education: Even at liberal arts colleges, students aren’t exactly in love with liberal arts courses, it seems. At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, for example, there was a recent drop in students taking humanities classes and an uptick in students taking classes that fall under science, technology, engineering and math. Wellesley is only one of many liberal arts colleges facing this trend.

10. Libraries: Even in the internet era, brick and mortar libraries are still a central and important part of campus life. “This trend has been missed by a lot of people,” Jaschik said. Arizona State University, for example, is spending more than $100 million in renovations for its library. The people who work in campus libraries are also critical. In some cases, says Jaschik, librarians are training faculty members how to teach online courses.

In terms of more Trump-centric story ideas, Jaschik encouraged journalists to watch for:

  • a decline of international students and how this reduction could hurt universities financially;
  • a cut to indirect costs that help fuel research initiatives at universities that usually happen under federal grants;
  • Trump’s proposal to cut student aid programs;
  • Trump’s proposal to gut programs that disproportionately help black and Latino students, and students who attend minority-serving institutions;
  • and the lack of a champion for college education, which is a stark contrast from Barack and Michelle Obama’s enthusiastic and constant pro-college message.