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Educational Road Bumps in 2017

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by Reginald Stuart

Looking back on last year, higher education appears to have been on a bumpy, roller coaster back seat ride. This assessment comes from a wide range of higher education executives, who collectively express hopes for a better 2018.

“Dizzying,” “disappointing,” “swirling,” “disrupted,” “tumultuous,” “steady” and “evolving” were words chosen to describe America’s higher education experience by those who were interviewed for this article. The descriptions ran across the spectrum, but unanimously fell short of enthusiastic.

President Donald Trump signs the Historically Black Colleges and Universities HBCU Executive Order, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in the Oval Office in the White House.

Executives say many of higher education’s major issues were headed toward the year’s end unresolved. These range from renewal of the massive federal Higher Education Act, with billions of tax dollars for higher education in limbo, to resolution of federal policy on thousands of undocumented young immigrant students, or ‘dreamers,’ and immigrants under special federal protection (DACA).

The higher education community was stunned by the Department of Education’s plan to hand over the management of its massive billion-dollar student loans program portfolio to one vendor.

The community was also rattled time and time again by the steady shutdown of numerous high-profile for-profit online education institutions. More than a handful of state-controlled and small non-profits also shut their doors. Many for-profits were abandoned by students and investors as they faced complaints from federal funders over delivery of services. Public and small non-profits faced losses of students and supporters, as competition on the provider landscape continued to grow.

The acquisition of Kaplan University, the major online education vendor, by Indiana’s Purdue University, a long-established traditional education institution, was seen as a wake-up call to the rest of the community about the emergence of a major recasting of players in the education vendors orbit, some say.

The growing movement to get states to embrace education ‘attainment goals’ continued to gain support this year, although the consistency of policies is at issue. Today, some 40 states have codified some measures of education attainment goals, according to several industry studies. As the attainment goals drive continued, it competed with a growing debate over what organizations should be recognized for accreditation standards and what programs should be recognized and at what levels of achievement.

With key policy posts at the U.S. Department of Education remaining unfilled as the year ended, final action in Washington was frustrated and delayed on a number of potentially game-changing plans envisioned by the new Trump administration. Meanwhile, the game clock kept ticking away.

“We’re in the beginning of a shakeout,” says Jamie Merisotis, president of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a non-profit group that is pouring millions of dollars into projects across the country aimed at boosting the number of people earning post-high school credentials and degrees of some kind.

Citing developments throughout the year, Merisotis echoes many colleagues when he says that “a broader conversation is going on about what people should get from higher education, the universe of post-secondary learning providers.”

“I don’t know the scope or scale of it,” says Merisotis, citing the Kaplan merger, the for-profits crash and other “tipping point” developments of the year. “You’re going to see more movement in the creation and dissolution of post-secondary providers,” Merisotis adds, offering a forecast voiced by peers.

The big structural and financial issues have been exacerbated by debates and civil disturbances focused on social justice, disputes about diversity and free speech, heightened concern about diversity and inclusion and new concerns about the values and risks of studying abroad.

“Higher education is one of the nation’s primary civil and justice issues,” says Lezli Baskerville, president of the Washington-based National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Describing the year as “dizzying,” Baskerville said the turn of events has “forced” higher education advocates, leaders and peers to “work on all fronts in full throttle.”

For sure, higher education veterans say 2017 was one dramatic event after another. Aside from the frantic pace of keeping the ball rolling, there were few big signs of the dust settling and lots of disturbing dissension, say many of those who were interviewed.

“The thing that disappoints me most is most institutions and students don’t honor what is meant by free speech,” says Dr. William Harvey, who has been president of Virginia’s Hampton University, the private liberal arts institution, for 40 years. “Our raison d’être is to allow free speech on all sides. I see that under assault.”

“A college or university has a chief reason for being the promoter of free speech,” Harvey says, citing higher education’s role in creating spaces in past decades for unfavorable appearances, debates over civil rights, religion, workplace rules, safety, health and welfare issues and American engagement in wars at home and abroad.

“It doesn’t matter which side you are on,” says Harvey, seeking to remind people of the values and meaning of the First Amendment. “If you deny free speech, it is not only un-American,” he says, “It undermines your [institution’s] reason for being.”

Indeed, passions across the social and political spectrum were stirred by the 2016 election that ended with President Trump’s victory, energizing many of his followers and opponents. The passions strengthened such impromptu movements as Black Lives Matter.

They also stirred the political right, with some engaging in protest marches in such quiet towns as Charlottesville, Virgina. The passions spurred some alumni, teachers and students to protest the participation of their school band in the inaugural parade of the President.

Several months ago, several students at Howard University sought to drown out the convocation speech given by James Comey, the former chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Political passions on the Berkeley campus of the University of California and several other institutions around the country prompted officials at the campuses to cancel appearances by conservative and right-wing political activists.

Higher education fell short of its mission to promote and embrace free speech — even if one disagrees with it — says Harvey, echoing peers who cited the official reactions to numerous potentially polarizing activities on campuses across the country.

Sarita F. Brown, the former White House Education aide who is co-founder and president of Washington-based Excelencia in Education, the higher education advocacy and think tank focusing on Hispanic issues, gave voice to a broadly held feeling.

“Everyone’s living with uncertainty,” says Brown, who characterized the year as “steady,” neither up nor down, on balance. “Everyone is unsure and worried,” Brown says, ticking off a list led by the concern about the fate of the dreamers and details of the pending federal Higher Education Act.

For sure, there was an enhanced focus on diversity and inclusion challenges in 2017, says Archie W. Ervin, vice president of institutional diversity at Georgia Technological Institute and national president of the National Association of Diversity in Higher Education (NADOHE).

Developments across the higher education landscape — from four-year institutions to two-year community colleges — have removed any doubt about the coming era of institutional diversity and reinforced the fact that “diversity is not a concept, it’s a reality,” says Ervin.

In a recent message to NADOHE members, Ervin offered a number of concerns for his group this year, citing signals from the Trump administration that would frustrate diversity efforts. Among other items, he cited reports of “potential challenges” by the government to institutional admissions processes aimed at enhancing student diversity and the Trump administration’s decision to “not accept or allow” transgender individuals to serve in the military.

“There’s a scramble going on in many ways,” Ervin says, characterizing higher education’s experience tin 2017 as “tumultuous.”

If there was an undisputed bright spot, it was the glimmering reflection of the balance sheets of institutions with endowments and foundation assets. Wall Street rewarded institutions with investments this year, says Ann E. Kaplan at the Council for Aid to Education, the New York City-based group that tracks investment income of higher education institutions. It will be springtime before hard numbers are collected and released, she says. Still, the numbers look good if you have invested funds gaining value.