Just as an elementary school report card provides parents with a written record of their children’s academic progress and lays out areas for improvement, higher ed, too, would benefit from a detailed, no-nonsense and preferably standards-referenced and longitudinal assessment of its absolute and comparative performance and of the steps it needs to take to improve.
We are all familiar with the standard report card’s flaws: these assessments are at once overly specific and overly general. Report cards provide parents with a sense of a student’s overall performance in particular subjects while ignoring elements that are equally important, such as a student’s disposition, ability to stay on task, mastery of essential skills and intellectual curiosity and sophistication.
These documents also tell parents little or nothing at all about whether a student meets or exceeds national norms or is progressing toward college readiness. Worse yet, report cards fail to convey a sense of whether she is fulfilling the teacher’s expectations for that student’s individual growth.
Higher ed could certainly use such a report card. I’m afraid this isn’t it. However, I will follow the example of colleges without letter grades — like Evergreen State, Hampshire, New College of Florida and Reed — and provide a narrative evaluation of what we learned this past year and the issues that we need to tackle in 2021.
Three issues that topped higher education news in 2020 — political polarization along educational lines, the need to better prepare students for the job market and the struggle against systemic racism and racist legacies — need to propel colleges and universities forward this year.
1. Political polarization along educational lines deepened. The gap between college-educated voters and non-college-educated voters has grown steadily over the past 60 years. The 2020 presidential election hinged on the diploma divide, which in turn, contributes to differences in income, household wealth, jobs, place of residence, cultural values and access to opportunity. It appears that in 2020 racial polarization in voting actually decreased slightly, even as education grew more salient.
The reason is obvious. For the past four decades, incomes rose for college degree holders even as they fell for those without one, generating frustration, resentment and anger. With nearly three-quarters of new jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree, excluding nearly two-thirds of adults, earnings are linked to learning in ways that weren’t true during the 1950s and 1960s.
Expanding access to and success in higher education are more important than ever if we hope to reduce economic stratification and political polarization and make the public at large more comfortable with diversity. One recent study reports that as many as 30 million Americans without a four-year degree can realistically move into new jobs that pay on average 70 percent more than their current ones — if they have the right credential and training.
In the face of warnings that the pandemic will result in a “lost generation,” colleges and universities need to serve historically underrepresented groups much more effectively — including those individuals who don’t have the luxury of taking four years or more to pursue a bachelor’s degree. New, flexible approaches are necessary. These include:
Alternate degree pathways, which might include …
- accelerated tracks, which take advantage of prior learning assessment;
- applied bachelor’s, offered by community colleges, that provide entry into high demand technical careers in health care, network administration, information systems, engineering technology, advanced manufacturing, logistics and operations management;
- competency-based programs, which replace credit hours with verified assessment of skills;
- earn-learn models, which make apprenticeships, internships and other work experiences a part of the degree pathway;
- stackable credentials, which integrate industry-specific certificates, certifications, trainings and curricula into coursework; and
- structured pathways, streamlined, synergistic programs of study that offer more coherent and cohesive degree path with few electives.
Certificate and certification programs that are shorter, cheaper and more skills-focused than traditional degree programs must tightly align with existing job opportunities and incorporate career counseling and job placement services.
Serving previously untapped markets offers a win-win for colleges and universities and the learners that they can serve. But we must bear in mind a basic truth: these potential students need an educational experience that is different from what we now offer. It needs to be faster, cheaper and tightly aligned with job opportunities.
Equally important, this education must provide wraparound supports, including help with job placement. Otherwise, it won’t truly help those it is meant to serve.
2. The pandemic made career preparation an even higher campus priority. Even before the pandemic, a succession of college graduating classes have found it increasingly difficult to enter careers and accumulate wealth. Immediately prior to the pandemic, over 40 percent of recent graduates, and over a third of all bachelor’s degree holders, worked in jobs that didn’t require a college degree, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
With software filters often screening out underemployed job applicants, pressure to get advanced training, in a boot camp, certificate or professional master’s program, is intense if job seekers hope to enhance their employment prospects.
An obvious answer is to integrate academic and career development. Here are ways to do just that:
- Beginning in the first year, open windows into major and career possibilities.
- Establish first-year learning communities or meta-majors organized around broad areas of interest like business, education and health care.
- Provide career maps that identify the campus’ experiential learning and skills-building opportunities.
- Offer workshops on job application letters, résumés and interview skills, and consider incentivizing participation with transcript designations.
- Bring practicing professionals to campus and invite them to serve as career coaches.
- Create professional networks of undergraduates and alumni. Encourage students to create a portfolio of employment-relevant projects.
- Expand internship opportunities.
- Augment the curriculum with certificate, specialization and certification programs, including those provided by third parties.
- Embed applied and professional tracks within majors.
- Encourage faculty to offer more practicums, field and community-based courses, and experiential and project-based learning opportunities, including virtual mini-internships, supervised research and entrepreneurship hubs.
- Integrate professional development into students’ work-study and other on-campus jobs.
- Offer a skills transcript.
As Gary Roth argues persuasively in The Educated Underclass, as higher education has expanded, so has stratification among college graduates, with those who attend selective institutions or who graduate with select majors doing far better than others. According to a New York Federal Reserve study, a bachelor’s degree holder at the 25th percentile only makes $2,000 per year more than the median high school graduate.
The situation is especially worrisome for many community college graduates. Roth notes that half of all 25- to 34-year-olds with an associate degree earn $38,000 or less for full-time, year-round employment, not significantly better than minimum “living” wage of $31,200, or $15 per hour for a 40-hour week.
We know what to do: enhance career counseling, inform students about areas of economic opportunity and augment degrees with high-demand skills (for example, in data science, project management and research methods). Let’s do it.
3. Calls to confront institutionalized racism and colleges’ racist legacies intensified. Last year challenged higher education, as never before, to confront its racist legacies. Student activists pressed colleges to remove racist statues, rename buildings, reconsider and replace mascots and team names, and research campuses’ historical ties to slavery.
Symbolism and stirring statements about an institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, however, were no longer deemed adequate. Activists sought action on racism, not lip service. Antiracism action plans — calling for radical changes in recruitment, admissions, financial aid, curricula and faculty hiring — proliferated.
At Princeton, some 350 faculty, staff, postdocs and graduate students signed a petition that, among other demands, called on the university to:
- Implement administration- and facultywide training that is specifically antiracist
- Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus
- Enforce repercussions (as in, no hires) for departments that show no progress in appointing faculty of color
- Acknowledge, credit and incentivize antiracist student activism
- Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research and publication on the part of faculty
In general, institutions responded by committing to hiring of more faculty of color; creating and staffing diversity, equity and inclusion offices; revising orientation programs to include diversity training; mandating diversity training for search committee members; and increasing investment in programs that serve students of color. Many, including the University of California system, agreed to eliminate the SAT and ACT tests as requirements for admission.
Yet as the historian Matthew Johnson has observed, “Universities have shown a deft ability to make reforms that still preserve inequality and exploitation in the face of well-organized student movements.” No selective institution that I am aware of has eliminated preferential admissions for legacies or athletes in sports that largely enroll privileged students. While a handful of institutions have replaced loans with grants, no new institutions committed themselves to need-blind admissions or to a fully debt-free education for low-income students.
I have tried to call attention to the less visible but no less significant examples of inequity: courses with very substantial achievement gaps, high-demand majors in which students of color are grossly underrepresented and disparities in access to experiential learning opportunities as well as in graduation rates and time to degree that cannot be explained away by differences in high school preparation and standardized test scores.
Failure to address these academic inequities will mean that for far too many students, higher ed’s promise is illusory.
Then, there is the mistreatment of community college transfer students, who are much more likely than first-time-in-college students to be Black and Hispanic and to come from lower-income backgrounds. It is still the case that community college students are unwelcomed at many selective private schools. Even at public institutions, transfer students face a variety of obstacles to success, including credit loss, delayed course registration, course unavailability, inaccessible majors and inequities in financial aid, that delay graduation or lead students to drop out.
Then, too, there is the underfunding of the broad and open-access institutions that serve a disproportionate share of low-income students, where spending on instruction, student services and academic support is a fraction of the amount at elite private institutions and flagship campuses. According to the latest statistics I could find, four-year privates spent an average of $25,037 on instruction, student services and academic support, compared to $15,937 at four-year publics and $8,273 at two-year publics.
We certainly need more inclusive curricula, better advising and student support services, and a more diverse professoriate. We need to do a much better job at ensuring the representation of students of color, rural students and students from low-income backgrounds at selective institutions.
But let’s not delude ourselves: unless we dramatically increase funding for those institutions that serve the most vulnerable students and until we close the success gap by bringing significantly higher numbers of underrepresented students to completion in high-demand fields, we will have failed to truly advance equity.
Last year left American higher education with three broad challenges that it will dodge at its peril. The first is to serve those previously underserved or unserved: those adults who need to retool or upskill quickly. Federal and state-financed job training programs have, at best, an uneven record. Online training programs, in particular, have proven ineffective.
We need to do better and we need to do this now.
The second major challenge is to help our existing students make a successful transition into a job market that has been inhospitable to those without experience or verified skills. We know what steps to take. It’s up to us to implement those promising, evidence-based practices now.
The third key challenge is to make equity our watchword in every realm, from recruitment and admissions to hiring. But equity will be no more than a catchphrase if we fail to do what’s most important: to aggressively close achievement gaps and adequately fund the institutions that serve the largest numbers of low-income students.
It’s time to change rhetoric into reality.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.