Counting down the top 10 stories of 2015

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From financial tsunamis to students protesting discrimination to welders and philosophers facing off, the higher education industry captured national headlines this year. Public scrutiny over the cost and value of college has never been stronger, but at the same time, colleges are facing multiple pressures to recruit, retain, and ensure the safety of students.

The EAB Daily Briefing team identifies the most buzzed-about stories and themes from the industry's news in 2015. We also count down to what we thought was the top story of the year.

10. Donors flex their muscles

You might well call 2015 the year of the donor. The clearest example of the power of major gifts might be found in the story of Sweet Briar College, in which alumni and donors banded together to bring a small institution back from the brink of closing. Other institutions negotiated with donors about maintaining grounds "in perpetuity"—or negotiated with protesting students who didn't like a division's new name.

However, one thing a major gift can't do? Rename Paul Smith's College.

--Kristin Tyndall, editor

9. Welders and philosophers face off

This year, public scrutiny over the value of college intensified. Booming student debt levels, stagnated wages, and rising numbers of borrowers in default fanned the flames. Recent grads are the age group least likely to report that they consider their college education to have been worth the cost. A proliferation of rankings appeared, each promising to direct prospective students toward the college that would provide the best value or the best return on their investments.

The scrutiny settled on liberal arts degrees and colleges in particular. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) joined the fray while on the campaign trail, declaring that "we need more welders and less philosophers." His comments pointed to the public's increased focus on the outcomes of a college degree and interest in creating clearer pathways between college and employment. Indeed, some of our biggest stories this year covered the job market outcomes and long-term success of recent graduates.

--Kristin Tyndall, editor

8. Sexual assault issues continue to plague schools

The spotlight on campus sexual assault that started in 2014 continued into this year with conversations, arguments, and pressure from multiple parties over how to count, investigate, punish, and prevent such cases.

Affirmative consent policies spread from campus to campus, as did new bystander intervention and training programs.

Meanwhile, institutions struggled to determine the appropriate role of local police officers, the best reporting policies, how many students actually are assaulted, and how to investigate.

The number of lawsuits brought against schools by students who say they were wrongly punished for a sexual crime also surged—as did the number of cases decided against the schools.

--Emily Hatton, senior staff writer

7. Gun violence, Internet threats shut down campuses

Colleges were forced to balance students' education and risk from violent online threats this year. Following a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College—in which 10 people died—preceded by an online threat, schools began locking down or evacuating campuses as threats rolled in.

There were also racially motivated threats against both minorities and white students—much of which was posted to the social media platform Yik Yak.

Meanwhile, parties debated whether or not campus police should be armed—and politicians argued for and against campus carry in an effort to prevent both sexual assaults and mass shootings.

--Emily Hatton, senior staff writer

6. Enrollment declines—again

While institutions are losing revenue from state funding, many were simultaneously squeezed for enrollment. Enrollment in colleges and universities overall declined for the fourth year in a row in fall 2015. Small colleges and liberal arts institutions, in particular, are feeling challenges to their business model. This year saw the closure of some institutions—and the dramatic near-closure of others—but many more made cutbacks to programs and positions.

A few institutions, however, are intentionally shrinking headcounts, saying it allows them to keep academic standards and revenue high. And some small colleges want everyone to know that they're doing just fine, thank you.

--Kristin Tyndall, editor

5. Debates rage about who should lead institutions

Several of our top stories this year focused on the leaders of colleges and universities and ongoing debates about their qualifications—and what makes for a truly great leader.

The story that exemplifies this is the story of the University of Iowa's new president, who comes from a business background and ruffled many feathers. But at other institutions, the search process and winning candidates are also facing more scrutiny. At some institutions, boards of governors took very active roles and made controversial decisions this year to cut programs or oust other leaders.

As a result, a new debate has sprung up around whether universities should always be led by academics, or whether businesspeople and politicians can also be good candidates. One popular editorial proposed that individuals with a student affairs background should be considered more often. More lighthearted reflections on leadership—such as this one about a partying president and his trusty dog, Quill—were also among readers' favorites.

--Kristin Tyndall, editor

4. Students take on racial tensions

Incidents of racial unrest and tensions in the larger American community also presented themselves on college campuses this year.

In March, a video of members of Oklahoma University's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter singing a racist chant went viral. The same month, a video of University of Virginia's black student president bleeding from the head during an arrest by local officers also went viral—leading to calls of police brutality.

As fall began, a series of protests demanding more diversity initiatives took off, resulting in resignations and some major changes at high profile universities.

At the University of Missouri's flagship campus, the president and chancellor stepped down in November, following weeks of protests—and just a day after the football team threatened to boycott a game unless the president left.

Protests then spread to more than 100 campuses nationwide, including Yale University, Towson University, and Smith College.

And in the background, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin as more students brought cases challenging affirmative action.

--Emily Hatton, senior staff writer

3. Colleges invest in big data to retain students

Retention continued to be a top priority for colleges and universities. More institutions are turning to predictive analytics software to identify, track, and intervene with students most likely to drop out. This year, some institutions also experimented with a new approach: they used the powerful tools to analyze the secret of successful students' success.

Lame-duck Secretary Arne Duncan also reiterated President Obama's completion challenge, saying colleges have a "moral necessity" to graduate their students.

--Kristin Tyndall, editor

2. Higher education plays significant role in presidential campaigns

The 2016 presidential race kicked into high gear in 2015 with higher education playing a central role in several candidates' campaigns as it ranked as the No. 2 issue in the nation.

Half of the primary debates were held on college campuses, and some of the candidates spoke at Liberty University's convocations.

On the campaign trail, many candidates touted their plans for college affordability and student debt repayment, particularly those from the Democratic party.

Hillary Clinton (D) outlined a $350 billion plan for higher education that pushes states to re-invest, focuses on student success, and reforms financial aid.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) implored students to treat free college "as if they're offering you heroin" and remain skeptical. He says he wants to close the Department of Education and replace America's College Promise with tax-deductible tuition. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) promised to "bust" the "cartel" of higher education and implement an income-based repayment system as well as a program allowing investors to cover students' tuition in exchange for a percent of the graduates' earnings. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) announced a plan to make college free—which some have criticized for limiting tenure.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Maryland) too joined in the fray, promising to tie tuition to median income.

Additionally, students noted Supreme Court Justice appointments, climate change, foreign policy, student debt, the job market, veteran support, and police brutality and the justice system as the topics most important to them for the coming election. 

--Emily Hatton, senior staff writer

1. Financial challenges continue to squeeze schools

State funding for higher education continued to lag this year. Only three states spent more on colleges and universities this year than they did before the recession in 2008. Overall, state funding has now dropped to nearly equal the level of federal funding for higher ed—and both sources together account for just over one-third of revenue at supposedly "public" institutions. Colleges in Illinois have gone months without any state funding at all. Other states saw rounds of layoffs or showdowns between higher education leaders and state legislators.

What did seem to change this year is public awareness of the situation. Higher education analysts and leaders are getting more vocal about the loss of state funding and its effect on college and university tuition. This has become even more important in an environment of increased scrutiny about the cost and return of a college degree.

To make up for lost revenue in an era of increased price sensitivity and falling enrollment many colleges are increasingly leaning on tuition discounting as a recruitment strategy. But tuition discount rates have gotten so high—48% on average—that NACUBO this year declared them "not sustainable." As alternatives, institutions are also experimenting with tuition "resetting" strategies and new net price calculators. The changing higher education revenue stream was one of the biggest stories of 2015—even if it wasn't one that got the most public attention—and is one worth keeping an eye on in the coming year.

--Kristin Tyndall, editor

What do you think were the top stories of the year? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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