Uncertainty looms ahead

In weeks our colleges and universities will be in full swing for the 2016-17 school year.

And what can we expect? A survey of 12 college presidents and a review of the literature give us pretty clear insights. If pushed to define the upcoming academic year in a single word, the word would be “uncertainty.”

The high visibility issues of the last several years – college costs, race, sexual assault, Division 1 sports, poor graduation rates – will not only continue to receive attention but be magnified. Students, faculty, administrators, the public, the press and policymakers have honed in on these important and unresolved matters.

The volatile economy will continue to introduce unpredictable, and possibly significant, ups and downs. State budgets, individual giving, and foundation and corporate support are as unpredictable as the stock market.

The upcoming presidential election creates massive uncertainty. The candidates, polarized on most major issues, have undefined views of higher education and its role in the 21st century. It is difficult to predict what path the federal government will forge in the next four years.

Technology continues to be a potential major force in colleges and universities but the future of online courses, online degrees and MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) is a drama that has yet to be played out. Given ongoing technological advances, it is unlikely that this will be ever reach a point of stasis.

Accountability – how best to measure institutional success and student outcomes and what we should be teaching – will remain a major issue but resolution will take time and compromise.

Campus violence and the decision by some institutions to allow concealed weapons mirror the national debate on crime and gun control.

The elite and rich colleges will remain elite and rich. Acceptance rates at the most competitive schools continue to drop while their endowments continue to grow. A number of schools are now accepting less than 10 percent and there are at least 10 colleges that have endowments of $10 billion or more.

Different kinds of colleges and universities will face different kinds of challenges. Higher education is a widely diverse set of institutions made up of almost 5,000 schools: public and privates, two- and four-year, selective and non-selective, urban and rural, big and small, rich and poor, liberal arts and professional, old and new.

Leadership in higher education is getting older and a new generation will soon take over the reins. Where these new leaders will come from, and their skills and emphases, has yet to be determined.

Much-needed partnerships with two other critical segments of society, business and K-12 education, will continue to receive emphasis but progress will be slow. Like higher education, these two segments are diverse and disorganized.

New models of colleges and universities – such as blended education, co-op programs, and shorter time to bachelor degrees – will continue to be explored but demand for these changes is still weak.

Uncertainty brings opportunity and those with whom we spoke are cautiously optimistic. Reasonable solutions to the problems exist. The stage is set for great improvement but it will require good will, compromise and cooperation not only within higher education but also with the many parties who have a major stake in America’s future.

Ultimately, success will require that we overcome the partisan divisions that divide us on so many other issues.

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