--Emily Arnim, Kathleen Escarcha, and Kristin Tyndall
10: The year of the plastic-free campus
Colleges are taking new measures to eliminate waste on campus, most notably by banning plastic straws. Those plastic straw bans took the headlines, but some colleges went a step further by reducing plastic bag use in campus bookstores and eliminating all single-use plastics in campus dining venues. Other colleges have looked to reduce waste by opening thrift stores on campus to give usable items destined for the landfill—like rugs, lamps, and dishes—a chance at a new home.
And because prospective students are saying colleges' sustainability initiatives influence their application and enrollment decisions, publications have begun releasing a flurry of rankings listing the greenest colleges in the United States and Canada.
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9: Colleges experiment with new strategies for supporting mental health
Mental health is still top of mind for many campus leaders. More than a third of first-year college students show signs of mental health distress, and graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety, compared to the general population.
Everyone has a theory for why so many students face mental health challenges—from loneliness, to social media, to a lack of resilience. Colleges have continued looking for ways to keep up with rising demand for mental health services, and many campuses have experimented with new tactics—from peer-run mental health organizations to mental health triaging.
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8: Administrators and students grapple with federal immigration policies
The Trump administration's policy proposals about immigration and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have sent higher ed leaders scrambling to address students' concerns about their ability to pursue a degree or find work after college.
To support international students and DACA recipients, many colleges have established online or physical resources to help students understand how the administration's policies may affect them.
For example, Boston University revamped their website to include comprehensive visa information and updated information on DACA and executive orders related to travel. And the University of Texas at San Antonio opened a Dreamers Resource Center dedicated to supporting DACA recipients on campus. The center provides Dreamers with a main point of contact for comprehensive and consistent information and educates the campus community on the resources available to DACA recipients.
Keep reading: How to build your DACA FAQs page
7: Students vote in record numbers
Another turbulent year in politics all but guaranteed that students would continue to show record levels of political engagement. In November's midterm elections, college students voted at the highest rate in more than 25 years. In fact, analysts suggest that student turnout in the midterms may have contributed to Democrats taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
And we're rounding out the year with one last legislative shakeup by the Education Department: the release of a proposed rule with new guidelines for how colleges should handle sexual misconduct on campus. So we’re expecting to kick off 2019 with more student activism.
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6: Higher ed funding cuts reach their 10th year
The public continues to question the value of a college degree, citing high tuition costs, as well as doubts about graduate job readiness and employability. Even more, 74% of faculty believe that the current federal government administration is having a negative impact on the future of higher ed, according to one 2018 survey.
But regardless of why the value of higher ed is increasingly being called into question, campus leaders must deal with the consequences. Their top concern? Insufficient funding.
Although a decade has passed since the Recession, 41 states still spend less per student on higher education today than they did 10 years ago, and 31 states cut funding in the most recent fiscal year. And the outlook isn’t brighter at the federal level. "The [Trump] administration's proposals for 2018 and 2019 were the largest education budget cuts proposed since the creation of the Department of Education," according to one American Federation of Teachers report.
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5: Colleges give online learning a makeover
Online learning is growing in popularity, particularly among students under 25 years old and among students who are also taking in-person classes.
But while online education is often touted as a way to increase access to education, the quality of online courses varies drastically. And performance gaps persist amongst African-American and low-income students.
As more students enroll in online courses, colleges are working to ensure those students are successful. Simmons University, for example, hosts a daily online faculty-development workshop to teach online instructors how to use technology to engage their class, build relationships with students, and cultivate a sense of community. Similarly, the California Community Colleges System offers monthly webinars and one-day conferences to discuss online course design and online teaching.
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4: The year of the adult learner
The market for adult learners is becoming more competitive than ever before. Not only can adult learners help colleges meet enrollment goals, but they can also fill the more than 6 million open jobs in the United States and learn skills that won’t be easily replaced by automation.
For too many of these students, the financial barriers to degree completion seem impossible to overcome. Roughly 60% of adults have considered returning to school to complete their degree but worry about cost.
To ease the path to re-enrollment, some colleges have offered to forgive a portion of students' debt. Other schools have launched consumer-driven marketing campaigns to understand and appeal to specific adult learner audiences. And several states have implemented "Adult Promise" programs to reach out to and supply adults with financial aid.
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3: The second wave of faculty and staff diversity efforts
After a tsunami of student protests in 2015, many colleges pledged to increase faculty and staff diversity. Today, schools still face criticism that their efforts haven’t gone far enough.
In response, many of them spent this year doubling down, rethinking, and expanding their diversity efforts. We saw schools improving upon established practices, like diversity statements in job descriptions, and looking at best practices for specific departments, such as advancement.
We also saw more interest in looking beyond recruitment practices to retention practices. Some of the most popular articles this year offered advice for creating an inclusive culture for women and people of color.
Hiring diverse candidates is tough. Retaining them is even tougher.
2: Colleges zero in on achievement gaps
Equity emerged as one of 2018's hottest topics for educators. Six out of 10 student affairs leaders rated creating infrastructure that supports equity and inclusion as their highest priority. And roughly 130 colleges have recently pledged to close achievement gaps on their campus.
And it's no wonder why. Research predicts that the Class of 2025 will be the largest and most diverse group of students on record. But colleges still struggle to help underrepresented students graduate on time.
About 33% of first-gen students drop out within 3 years. In 2016, public institutions had an average fall-to-fall retention rate of 64.8% for African-American students, compared to 72.4% of white students. And while part-time students make up roughly 75% of the student population at community colleges, just 37% earn a degree within six years.
To close these achievement gaps, colleges are building students' confidence in their ability to succeed, creating more flexible and efficient degree pathways, and promoting support networks on campus.
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1: Demographic shifts threaten the traditional business model
Between 2025 and 2029, the college-age population in the United States is expected to drop by nearly 15%, and then continue falling another percentage point or two in the subsequent years, according to economist Nathan Grawe, who released a widely publicized book this year based on his research.
These demographic changes drove many of the other big stories of 2018, as colleges ramped up their efforts to recruit and support a more diverse range of students, including rural students, transfer students, adult students, and part-time students.
College leaders are responding by seeking bold new visions for the future of higher ed—and even looking to external industries for inspiration—to ensure that their colleges and universities remain relevant to the students of tomorrow.