The Next Wave of Higher Ed Reform: Access for All?

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Some form of higher education has become a necessity for many well-paying jobs across the country. But the form of delivery for postsecondary education hasn’t kept pace with the changing and growing population of college students, according to a panel convened by New America and Washington Monthly on Wednesday. Slowly, individual institutions and community groups have begun creating innovative ways to reach those who previously haven’t had access to some form of postsecondary education.

During the event, “Higher Education for Everyone,” Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris said the demand for higher education to serve more Americans is a “coming wave of reform” in postsecondary education.

“Pressure for this wave is building up from a fundamental tension that exists—and has always existed—between colleges that were founded and often prefer to serve the select few, and the demands of our democracy, that is the desire of average citizens to be cut in on the deal of higher education and get some of the benefits,” he said in opening remarks.

Several decades ago it used to be the case that adults in America could make a living wage without obtaining a postsecondary certificate or degree, but due to changes in the economy over time, “expectations have changed for higher education,” Glastris said.

“A postsecondary credential has gone from being something every American ought to have a right to pursue to something every American needs to pursue just to have a shot at the middle class,” he said. “Higher education as a sector, however, has been drifting in the opposite direction.”

The group gathered discussed populations of students that have been marginalized, such as those currently incarcerated or who have come out of prison, those in rural areas dubbed “higher education deserts,” or those who have slipped through the cracks and dropped out of school without a degree.

Kevin Carey, director of New America’s Education Policy Program, spoke about the University of South Florida’s efforts to implement predictive analytics as a way to identify early warnings that certain students might be on the verge of dropping out of school—such as failing to go to class, going to the library, engaging in class chat rooms or with their professors.

Still, even after identifying those warning signs, the university recognized it wasn’t enough to prevent those students from dropping out, he said, because the offices that could help—whether it be residential services, the financial aid office, or the university’s health services—were all separate and run by different individuals.

To better address the issue, the university did a complete reorganization of several offices, having each report to one person: the vice president of student success. The reorganization, Carey said, was a “marriage of technological innovation and administrative innovation.”

That’s important, he added, because “new data tools are not something to be used without caution.”

“If you don't watch out you can wander into some trouble,” he said. “You don't want a computer system running numbers and determining that on average, students of color are more likely to drop out of organic chemistry, and therefore we should advise them not to be doctors. You need the human wisdom.”

For other students, it’s not obstacles they run into once enrolled that prevent them from succeeding—it’s getting to college at all, according to Anne Kim, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

In so-called higher education deserts, where there are no institutions within 60 miles and broadband access is often not sufficient to support online classes, a lack of access “can be fatal to both the prospects of the individuals and the community,” Kim said. Local businesses may struggle because there are not enough skilled workers to support their needs, but it may not be practical to try to create new institutions in areas where they don’t exist.

But Virginia is one part of the country experimenting with a way to get around those issues by creating higher education centers that provide the infrastructure for other accredited institutions to come in and deliver an education to the local community. One center in south-central Virginia, for example, is in a refurbished tobacco house. The centers, Kim said, are “closely tied to the economic development efforts” in each region, and offer courses that meet the needs of local businesses.

“We have to ensure universal geographic access to higher education,” she said.

Todd Clear, a distinguished professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Newark, also spoke about efforts to bring higher education opportunities into prisons—an idea that gathered steam with the federal “Second Chance Pell” pilot program.

Reaching out to current and formerly incarcerated individuals is a way for institutions to reach a “new and untapped population of students,” he said, and can significantly change the life trajectory of those adults. At the same time, it can be cost effective for institutions to run those programs, he said. The cost of providing opportunities for incarcerated individuals can be repaid if and when those individuals enroll in an on-campus program later on, are eligible for more types of financial aid, and can pay tuition.

Overall, expanding access also means “lowering barriers to entry,” said Joseph Nairn, founding president of Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, which has established higher education “hubs” that are strategically placed throughout parts of Pennsylvania that are not served by other institutions.

Rather than taking online courses, which did not prove successful for a variety of reasons, the students are able to go to a physical location and use cloud-based interactive television technology to interact with their instructors.

“We've brought education to them, as well as putting them in a situation where they could learn better,” Nairn said. “You show up for class, you have a chance of being called on, just as if you were in a real classroom.”


Publication Date: 10/25/2018

James H | 10/25/2018 10:20:44 AM

I wanted to add a link to this PBS story.

Why these veterans regret their for-profit college degrees — and debt

As a veteran myself I feel more pain being a veteran and in financial aid for 30+ years. These veterans are trying to get the skills to be competitive and have found themselves too far in debt and having not obtained the skills they need. I use the word WE as I am in financial aid. We have let these veterans down.

The solution for our workforces is complex and we can say what we think a solution would be sitting in our offices, but reality pushes back, and the solution for many is not so simple.

James H | 10/25/2018 9:41:29 AM

We are in an evolving economy where having a solid set of skills is becoming an entry point for any employment. There is a growing problem associated with students obtaining employable skill sets and that is debt.

We are having too many students working towards degrees that are overloading on debt. Student loan debt and credit card debt in combination are making the obtainment of those skills and degree less valuable when they have taken on unsustainable debt.

Many have become enamored with a name brand degree or a degree at all costs. There is a reality where there is a cost and benefit to obtaining the skills and degree necessary to be gainfully employed.

Many students go to a place of higher education and are stunned when they do not make sufficient salary to live and pay off their student loans. Often going for a masters Degree as the solution pilling on more debt for slightly more salary that becomes unsustainable. These students are taking a direction of paying as little as they can on their debt until some future time they believe they will be able to afford the full loan payments.

We can all agree having a mad set of skills is/will be necessary to be gainfully employed as we move into a uncertain future. How we get there is not a smooth road. Online education is not a nirvana and final solution. It may be part of a complex solution.

How we as a country fund students to get those mad set of skills is a somewhat difficult solution. Who will pay? Does everyone qualify? Does everyone's taxes rise to offset this funding? The minute we all have to take responsibility and our money for a solution we begin difficult conversations. We all like the ideal of free/reduced education but not everyone wants to pay for it out of their own money.

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