5 higher ed issues facing the next president

College cost, outcomes likely to be top priorities

FirstName LastName, titleKristin Tyndall, Editor

Higher education was not a common topic of conversation or debate among the presidential candidates, but that doesn't mean there isn't work to be done.

As the nation prepares to welcome (or bemoan) a new president, here are some items the new leader is likely to face.

1: Public concerns about cost

The idea of "free college" seized the nation after President Obama outlined a plan for free community college in 2015. Many presidential candidates acknowledged the issue with their own plans for making college more affordable.

While tuition continues to rise, experts also point out that household incomes remain stagnant. The sticker price for tuition accounts for more than 40% of many families' earnings, according to one analysis. The result? Student debt levels are skyrocketing and the public is more critical of the cost of college than ever before.

It's worth noting, however, that tuition discount rates are also skyrocketing at a rate NACUBO has called "not sustainable" and state funding to higher education hasn't recovered from the recession.

Some advocates have urged the federal government to compel states to reinstate funding, and others argue that increasing federal funding for higher ed—via a "free college" plan—won't fix the underlying issue.

What students told us about affordability

2: The skills gap

A survey in May 2016 found that today's students are far more likely than previous generations to see college as a means to a good job.

In the wake of the recession, it's understandable that young people and their families would be more concerned about economic security. You can see this anxiety cropping up in the proliferation of college rankings promising to reveal which colleges will be the best value or which majors will lead to the best salaries.

Meanwhile, employers report increasing concern about a "skills gap." The employees who are most in demand are so-called "T-shaped professionals," those who have highly specialized training in one skill, often STEM-related, and a broad range of "soft skills." 

Some in higher education, especially faculty members, worry the emphasis on career preparation will take their schools too far from their liberal arts identity

But many politicians and education leaders are pushing higher ed to become more career-focused—Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) made headlines last year when he declared "we need more welders and less philosophers." Politicians and the public are so interested in career development that it is likely to appear on the future president's agenda.

How to build T-shaped professionals

3: Pipelines for transfer students

Times are tough in the for-profit industry—and when colleges close, their students need someplace to go. 

The Obama administration is finalizing new rules that would make it easier for defrauded for-profit students to erase their student debt. In 2015, the administration also began requiring colleges to prove that their students find "gainful employment" after graduation.

But some students, like those of a for-profit college that closed just last week, say they would prefer to transfer their credits and continue their educations rather than simply get their money back. Federal, state, and local government officials can play a role in building transfer agreements and collecting better data about transfer student outcomes.

How to build successful pathways for transfer students

Four reasons to focus on transfer students

4: Campus diversity

Student protests spread to more than 100 campuses nationwide in 2015, sparked by student protests at the University of Missouri that led to major leadership changes. Students demanded a better campus climate for underrepresented students and more diverse administration and faculty.

And although the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action last summer, they failed to provide a strong defense of the practice.

Lingering racial tensions on campus and questions about affirmative action could prompt a response from the new president.

How one university improved graduation rates—while serving underserved students

Build pathways for low-income students

5: Sexual violence

The federal government has taken a much more active role in recent years cracking down on campus sexual violence. Nevertheless, the issue has been picked up by student protestors and a much-discussed documentary released earlier this year.

Most of the action has come in the form of processing and responding to complaints that institutions are not upholding Title IX, which requires them to provide equal access to education for men and women.

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has a major backlog of Title IX complaints—an investigation by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that the office has closed only 19% of cases opened since 2011. 

Some student groups are demanding stricter regulation from the federal government.

Meanwhile, President Obama and Vice President Biden, along with their families, are taking unofficial action by refusing to visit colleges that have not taken serious action to combat sexual assault. Biden has also met privately with survivors of sexual assault and leaders of advocate groups. 

The holistic approach to sexual violence prevention

Next in Today's Briefing

Americans grow more skeptical of higher education

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