Without a doubt, today is one of the most difficult, rapidly changing, and ultimately promising times in the history of higher education in the United States. An explanation is needed and warranted for such a bold assertion. After all, everyone is aware of the problems plaguing US higher education generally and public higher education in particular. The pandemic has made all of these problems worse, and in many cases, it has increased the urgency of the situation and accelerated the need for change.
We have seen rising costs and rising expectations, along with falling public support. We have witnessed the rise and fall of interest in historically popular academic majors while the emergence of new fields of study and entirely new disciplines has necessitated the development of new capacities and sets of skills. While traditional student markets have declined, the race is on to attract the increasingly scarce non-traditional and international students who are being called the “new traditional” by some in the industry. To compete for resources, rankings, and talent with institutions that have become more sophisticated and strategic about competing and winning, our colleges and universities are doing more with less and expanding their reach beyond the traditional and comfortable boundaries of campus.
In general, students change and adapt more rapidly than teachers. The campus’s infrastructure can’t keep up with either of these trends. More and more of a university’s funds must be allocated to improving students’ access to support services, information technology, health care, and basic research infrastructure. To generate the revenue needed to not only meet expenses but to invest in faculty, facilities, programming, and both physical and virtual campuses, most universities have become increasingly reliant on revenue from graduate and professional degree tuition, research indirect, private and corporate philanthropy, and activities unrelated to awarding of degrees.
Also, the national political climate seems to be contributing to and, in some cases, causing these differences. We are a nation increasingly divided, exhibiting little respect for and even less confidence in our leaders, and (it seems) increasingly willing to ignore facts and accept falsehoods. Anger, divisive ideology, and partisanship have replaced civil discourse. There is a lack of consistency in the use of scientific terminology, and even less comprehension. The availability and accessibility of information (whether true or false, complete or partial) has made it simple to bolster one’s position without having to recognise the existence of opposing viewpoints or ideas. We’re leaving the complex, nuanced, and often muddled middle and moving to the more straightforward extremes. Instead of being a country built on open dialogue, we now take firm stands on everything from politics to religion. Instead of having conversations that might help us see things from different perspectives, we’ve decided to dig in. We tend to be less receptive to growth of this kind. We choose to stand with people that look like us, sound like us, think like us, and believe what we believe. We share a similar taste in the news and entertainment outlets we follow. When we become more polarised, divided, ideologically focused, and intellectually isolated, it becomes more difficult to strive for true inclusivity.
The American higher education system has long been the envy of the world; however, like the rest of the United States, it is currently facing challenges to its long-held dominance. New information is being generated, and they are at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs and the promotion of social innovation, equity, and justice. However, they are also criticised for being too liberal, for indoctrinating students rather than educating them, and for protecting students from exposure to different points of view. There is a widespread belief that today’s higher education institutions are too soft on their students and do not do enough to prepare them for success in the “real world.” Higher education in the United States is at risk of marginalisation due to increased scrutiny on the value of higher education, rising costs to families (largely due to decreased state support, but also driven by increased federal compliance mandates and increased expectations of the university by students and families), and the perception that a college education is not necessary to achieve success.