Special report: Higher education's existential crisis

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo. Photos via Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

U.S. colleges and universities — historically cornerstones of society — are wrestling with a wave of rapid changes coming at the U.S.

The big picture: Higher education institutions — private, public, for-profit and not — are buckling in the face of demographic shifts, the arrival of automation, declining enrollment, political headwinds and faltering faith in the system.

Today's student isn't necessarily the "first-time, full-time" one that higher education is currently constructed around, says Julie Peller of Higher Learning Advocates.

  • Instead, 37% are over the age of 25, they often attend classes part-time while they juggle at least one job and nearly a quarter are parents, requiring the higher education system to serve across generations and situations of students.
  • They can be picking classes based on babysitter and bus schedules rather than who is the best professor, says Peller.
  • While more people of color and students from low-income families are attending college than 30 years ago, there is a striking gap in completion rate.

The higher education system is struggling to prepare students for today's — not to mention tomorrow's — economy.

  • A college education used to be tackled once in life, early on, and typically supported people through a lifelong career.
  • Today there are gig jobs, the risk of being replaced by a robot and an expectation that life will involve more than one career and require more than one go at education beyond high school.
  • State schools are receiving less funding per student than before the Great Recession, while private institutions face proposed taxes on endowments and scramble for revenue from tuition.
  • A key question then: Who will pay for lifelong learning?

Rising tuition prices and student debt (to the tune of $1.6 trillion across 45 million Americans) are sparking questions about the tradeoffs of higher education.

  • 65% of Americans aren't satisfied with the country's higher education system, according to a recent survey from the New America Foundation.
  • According to Pew Research Center, 59% of Republicans believe colleges negatively affect the way things are going in the country, a significant reversal from 2012 when 53% of Republicans had a positive view. In contrast, 67% of Democrats think colleges have an overall positive effect.
  • Meanwhile, employer beneficiaries of the system say they can't find employees with the skills they seek.

All of this is crashing down on the higher education system, which now has to figure out a new way to serve students — and society.

  • They're deploying AI and predictive analytics to try to prevent students from falling through the cracks of the system.
  • States are stepping up: This week New Mexico announced a plan to make tuition to state schools free for all residents.
  • Corporations are stepping in: They're getting involved in designing curricula and alternative credentialing programs that aim to place students in jobs and require some accountability of educators.
  • Yes, but: The tension remains between providing the short-term skills for landing a job and the general ones for further education and citizenry, and between what students borrow and what they earn.

The bottom line: Our idea of what college is and who it should serve has changed, but the institution has not caught up.

"Universities were designed to last, not change."
— Bridget Burns, executive director, the University Innovation Alliance

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