In an interview that originally aired in April 2022, Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik highlights the news stories he believes will have an outsized impact on higher education in the months and years to come. Jaschik is joined on the podcast by Carla Hickman, whose take on these issues is informed by her role as head of EAB’s Research division.
The two explore issues ranging from the massive challenges facing community colleges to the game-changing legal fight over affirmative action in admissions.
0:00:07.7 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. The entire podcast team is at the big NACAC enrollment conference in Houston this week, so we're re-running one of my favorite episodes. This one aired back in April and features Inside Higher Ed Editor, Scott Jaschik, talking about the news stories he believes will have an outsized impact on higher education in the months and years to come. Give him a listen and enjoy.
0:00:44.3 Carla Hickman: Welcome everyone, this is Office Hours With EAB. I'm Carla Hickman, Vice President of Research here, and I am delighted to have all of you on the line today for our 100th episode. I can hardly believe it. If you've been listening since the beginning, you might recall my voice for episode number one, so I guess this is the new way we're dating ourselves, by how many episodes of the podcast we've recorded.
0:01:07.1 CH: Today I am joined by a man who likely needs no introduction when it comes to our higher education listeners, but it only seems polite to introduce him anyway, so I will do so. I am doing today by Scott Jaschik, the editor of Inside Higher Ed. Scott, thanks so much for being here with us today.
0:01:21.8 Scott Jaschik: Thank you, it's great to be here. I'm honored that it's the 100th show.
0:01:26.6 CH: Absolutely. Couldn't think of a better topic for our 100th episode than running down a list of the stories that all higher education needs to be paying attention to and learning about. And Scott, you've become known a bit in the industry for this notion of a top 10 list, tell us a little bit about where this started?
0:01:43.8 SJ: So the list started at a meeting of the Education Writers Association, which is basically journalists covering education, and they asked me, "What are the top 10 issues?" And it's more than 10 years old, but I keep updating it, and then a few years ago, many other groups started to ask me to give the list, so now I give it all the time, but it's always updated and always current, I hope. And that's the story of list.
0:02:13.1 CH: Well, I'm looking forward to hearing what's made the top 10. I imagine it's difficult to narrow it down given how much is going on these days.
0:02:19.9 SJ: Yes, it certainly is. And don't be offended if your pet issue isn't on the list, but these are just 10 issues that I think are, do deserve attention.
0:02:30.7 CH: So should we think of them as in any kind of prioritized order, or do you wanna just kick us off with what's at the top?
0:02:36.4 SJ: They're not really in order, because some of the lists, some of the items on the list affect certain types of colleges more than others. So you're, depending on where you're at a community college or a research university, you may find one of the items or another not relevant, but I'm gonna close with one that is for everyone.
0:02:57.6 CH: Perfect. Well, let's get started. Where should we begin?
0:03:00.5 SJ: Sure. So the first item I think is that community colleges are in big trouble here. I'm not saying they're not doing a good job, they have great programs and truly help their communities, but community college enrollment has dropped 15% over two years. That is an amazing figure. And community colleges depend on enrollment, not just because they like to educate students, but enrollment dictates their state appropriations and their local appropriations, if they get local appropriations. So this is gonna have a major impact on them.
0:03:38.6 SJ: We are already hearing that some community colleges are having to do layoffs, and there'll probably be more. There are signs that it's not necessarily gonna turn around this year, and additional cuts would be devastating to community colleges. Now, I get asked a lot why this is happening. Obviously, people point to the pandemic, but it's funny, at the beginning of the pandemic, many people thought it was gonna be good for community colleges because people were saying, "Well, I wanna be educated near home." So it made sense.
0:04:12.7 SJ: But the reality is that community colleges have been hurt by two things during the pandemic. One is the need for jobs. A lot of community college students, given a choice between their job or their academics, are gonna go for their job, and I can't blame them if they are the source of food, putting food on the table. 'Cause this is their job. This is what they are about.
0:04:36.8 SJ: The other reason is that much of the online education provided during the start of the pandemic was terrible for these students, not because community college students aren't smart enough to work online, but they are less likely than four-year college students to have a quiet room where they can go and truly focus on their studies. That's why many community colleges took to adding their WiFi to their parking lots, so students would drive there and work in their cars at night.
0:05:15.4 SJ: Now, that's a great story about the resilience and determination of those students, but that is not the way to study. So all of this added up to the pandemic just really being terrible for community colleges.
0:05:29.8 CH: It also, I think Scott, speaks to the fact that before the community colleges as well, you have to think about the total cost of attendance even more so than we do in four-year, so even if we were providing some grant aid that might have supported those financial needs of students, there were a lot of other pressures, including mental health issues that were impacting their ability to stay enrolled.
0:05:49.1 SJ: Absolutely. So now I'll go on to my next issue, which is calculus. Should calculus count for admissions decisions? And this may seem an odd issue, because calculus, many people, and I know when I was in high school ages ago, I took calculus in high school, and I viewed it as helping me get into college, and many students just believe that taking calculus will help them.
0:06:21.7 SJ: But here's the dirty secret. Calculus isn't actually required to get it into college. Very few colleges actually require it or expect it. If you're going to go to MIT, if you're gonna be an engineer, if you're gonna be a physics major, by all means, take calculus as soon as you can, get a good teacher, that's a great thing. But that is an extreme minority of students. Most students will never use it again. And I again, count myself. Calculus was the end of my math career.
0:07:00.0 CH: You're not taking derivatives on the daily, Scott? [chuckle]
0:07:03.4 SJ: No, I'm not. And the thing is, this is not anti-math, because I wish I had taken AP Statistics, would have helped me much more, and what some educators are pointing out is that calculus as a requirement favors White and Asian students over Black and Latino students, not because they're not bright enough for calculus, but they go to high schools where it may not be offered or it may not be offered well. So it also... This is also an equity issue.
0:07:38.8 SJ: And recently a group produced a report on this, and NACAC, the Admissions Association endorsed the report. I think it's not going to be overnight change, but people are starting to talk about it and to think about it, is calculus really something people should take?
0:07:58.1 CH: My understanding, Scott, is actually math and science educators have also come out and said, to your point earlier, depending on your major of study, your career aspirations, it could be more or less beneficial, but actually most Americans could use a heavier dose of statistics to prepare them for the college level coursework they'll pursue.
0:08:18.3 SJ: Yes. I mean, that was the amazing thing when I was writing about this, was I called... Calling math educators and expected them to be upset, they like the idea of de-emphasizing calculus for most students. They still want some to take calculus, but they wanna move it into an optional area, not something that's required for everyone.
0:08:39.7 CH: Well, it's interesting to make the connection to the equity issues, because we know that many students across the country, their curriculum is set and they don't have the option for dual enrollment or AP or for other advanced coursework, so even though no university, as you said, was necessarily requiring it, it was sending a signal. It was one of those signals people were interpreting and might not have applied to a school simply based on that fact.
0:09:00.3 SJ: Absolutely. Those signals are so important in college admissions, so important in preparing students to be good candidates. I can't say enough about that issue. So issue three, testing. Standardized testing in admissions is really under attack, and they're winning. Most colleges, most four-year colleges, I'm not talking about community colleges here because they haven't typically required the ACT or the SAT, most four-year colleges this year and last year and the year before, are not requiring the SAT or ACT for admissions.
0:09:43.9 SJ: This is huge, this is a dramatic change in college admissions in a very short time frame, and it's really changing a lot of colleges the way they act. Now, there are two ways to do this. You can become test optional, which means students choose whether or not to submit their test scores. Or you can go test blind, and I wanna say, I'm sorry to use that term because some people don't like the "blind" part, but I'm talking about where you won't even look at an SAT or ACT score if it comes your way.
0:10:20.4 SJ: Now, what's really significant here is that Cal State just last month changed their system to go test blind following the University of California the year before. This means that for students in California, our largest state, if they are applying only to public colleges, there's no reason to take the SAT or ACT. Now, certainly some students are applying both to California colleges and other colleges, and they may want to, but this could be, and I say "could" because it hasn't happened yet, the kind of event that really shakes up college admissions.
0:11:03.4 SJ: Now, on the other side, MIT announced that they are going back to the SAT and ACT and they're gonna require require it, but MIT truly is unique... Or not unique but is rare in American higher education, everyone has to take calculus. And so it makes... What makes sense for MIT may not make sense for most other colleges. So that's the world of testing, has really turned upside down in two years.
0:11:35.7 CH: I remember, it's been five, six, seven years ago we'd have enrollment leaders can ask us about the handful of colleges that were progressive here and went test optional long ago, will this become a trend. No one could have predicted how the pandemic was gonna reshape that. It does...
0:11:49.7 CH: Scott, it feels like the calculus issue and the testing issue are closely connected though in how we're sending signals to students about what is valuable and what types of institutions they can and should be looking at. So I hope the industry thinks about the equity dimensions of the difference this year.
0:12:04.7 SJ: Yeah. And there, in addition to the California institutions, among private institutions you've got the entire Ivy League being test optional at least for the next year, some longer. You have very good colleges being test optional. Now, test optional college shouldn't really look that carefully at an SAT or ACT score. It's debatable whether every college is truly being good in that respect, but there is that they are inviting students and say they want students to enroll.
0:12:43.0 CH: But I suppose one positive to this is you start to see a shift of power back to students to craft a holistic application that they think best reflects who they are, their experiences and what they want to pursue. So I'll take an optimistic route today and say do you think that test is going to help round out your application, more institutions are giving you choice?
0:13:04.0 SJ: Certainly. During the pandemic, many students couldn't take the SAT or ACT, because they tried to and they were turned away as various testing centers were closed. That's now over, and many students are taking the test anyway, and then seeing what their scores are like and deciding whether to submit them.
0:13:24.2 CH: Scott, I know we have so many more to cover, but I'm curious, do you think the testing conversation will extend into graduate and professional admissions any time soon?
0:13:31.7 SJ: Absolutely, it already is. Many colleges are dropping the GRE as a requirement. Other colleges are taking the GRE instead of the LSAT or the MCAT, so it goes both ways. But absolutely this extends to graduate and professional education. Issue four, letters of recommendation. You might think, "Well, letters of recommendation, that is great for students because you've gotta have something to draw on whether you should admit a student." And you're dropping the test scores, you may drop calculus, whatever.
0:14:13.1 SJ: But think about how letters of recommendation work. You rely on counselors. There are only four states in the country, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming that have a student-to-counselor ratio of less than 250 to 1. Then you have 13 states with a student to councilor ratio of more than 500 to one, and that includes larger states like California, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois. In any one of those states, there are more students than all of the low, the smaller states.
0:14:55.6 SJ: This is a real problem because you cannot expect a counselor to spend the same amount of time in a larger state than a smaller state. It just doesn't happen. So people are asking, can we do without letters of recommendation? Now, that movement among competitive colleges and universities just getting started, but one competitive college, UCLA, does not accept letters of recommendation. There could be more. We'll see how this plays out.
0:15:31.4 CH: Yeah. Again, all of these admissions issues to me speak to equity, and you've cited large ratios, they're even larger than the advisor ratios we see sometimes in higher ed, and yet there are plenty of colleges that EAB works with through our K-12 practice where there are no counselors, or there is one counselor for an entire school.
0:15:52.8 SJ: And it's important to say I am not complaining about counselors.
0:15:55.4 CH: No. [chuckle]
0:15:57.7 SJ: Those who exist are working very hard, but they just can't keep up with the number of applicants they have.
0:16:04.2 CH: Well, and I'd imagine the more affluent students who have better resources and connections, they're getting letters of recommendation from people well outside of school. There are lots of other issues here that have an equity dimension that I imagine higher ed is thinking through.
0:16:17.7 SJ: Absolutely. So issue number five is international students, will they come back? And this is hugely important to American colleges and universities for two reasons. On one reason, the reason that you like to talk about, is that they make for great students and they educate. In addition to being educated, they also educate Americans about what it's like to be a student from China or India or Korea. They are great students.
0:16:50.7 SJ: The other reason colleges care very much about this issue is money. They may not like to talk about it, but most of the international undergraduates, not graduate students, undergraduates are full-pay students, and a full-pay student is very highly sought after in higher education today.
0:17:12.9 SJ: Now, what's gonna happen? I don't know, to be honest. Because there's no doubt there are many international students with talent and brains to come here. They want to come. There's no doubt about that. But will they come? Will their visas come through? Plus you have issues like the war between Ukraine and Russia. When Russia invaded Ukraine, they didn't just upset that region, they upset the whole world really.
0:17:52.1 SJ: There aren't very many students from Ukraine and Russia studying as undergrads, so that you can say that's good, but there are truly fears about what will happen. Say China. China has for years been the top exporter of students in the United States. There's some people who think that China may lose that to India this year.
0:18:15.8 SJ: I don't know exactly what's gonna play out, but our relations with China are not good, and that could have a huge impact if it happens. So what I'd say about international students on whole is admit them, sure, but don't count on their enrolling until you see them.
0:18:37.9 CH: It'll be more volatility. I know that all admissions officers tell me, "April 1st is just the date on the calendar, I am managing that class until census day," but it feels like with international students, there's a softer pool here generally, where you're trying to confirm even if they've accepted our offer, will conditions be such that they can arrive.
0:18:57.5 SJ: Yeah. One group of international students to benefit from this is international students who got their high school education in the United States. They are very highly sought after, and more international students have been getting their high school education in the United States.
0:19:14.5 SJ: That's great because they're already here, but I would say, not trying to insult them, but they are wealthy, and the brilliant student from Bangladesh who's just barely going to get enough money to come here, probably isn't getting his high school education or her high school education in the United States.
0:19:37.2 CH: So a lot of the admissions front that we need to be putting attention to, and enrollment leaders who are listening today would say, "Yes, of course." Are there any other big admissions issues, Scott, that we're missing?
0:19:46.9 SJ: Well, there are others but I think I've given enough admissions right now, so I wanna move on to mental health. Is an admissions issue, but it's also an issue affecting students who are already at college. Mental health of college students and faculty and employees generally is bad, and it got worse during the pandemic. By any measure they are not doing well. This means all kinds of things.
0:20:19.3 SJ: During the height of the pandemic, many students didn't have access to their counselors, many schools tried to offer counseling via a phone or a computer, and that's great, but not every student could take advantage. For again, you need a private room to be able to do this, so the low-income students were least likely. This is terrible. And it's extreme, we have suicides every year, but even if students aren't killing themselves, and thank God they're not, many, many students are in serious depression or have other conditions.
0:21:02.1 SJ: Now, I wanna say a few other points that are important, I think. One is that one result of the pandemic is an increase in Telehealth, with colleges having deals set up so that students can get their counseling online. That's great in theory, but do the colleges have a good system in place to tell which students that's not going to work for you? Based on how serious the mental health challenges that they are feeling.
0:21:38.6 SJ: And then two things that are... Another thing that's really important to remember is that this issue predates the pandemic. Mental health has been bad for years, and it's just not going to magically get fixed because the pandemic is over. The other thing that is important to remember is that many students who do commit suicide are not in the counseling system. They are out of it entirely. So you've gotta remember them as well.
0:22:16.6 CH: We've been working with a group of over 35 institutions on their comprehensive plan for mental health and wellness, and how we move beyond just our student affairs and counseling office professionals to support students. I've appreciated seeing the rise of the chief wellness officer.
0:22:34.1 CH: I'm not one to usually say we need another box on the higher ed org chart, but I think the chief wellness officer position speaks to the fact that this is something students are looking for when they choose where they want to enroll, and we are a community for our students, and so these are parts of the holistic support services that ensure success.
0:22:54.0 SJ: Definitely. So issue seven I'm going to give you is Congress is probably not gonna do very much to help higher education this year. The colleges benefited hugely from the COVID relief bills. Billions of dollars went out to colleges and they had to use a lot of it with direct aid to students. It's great that it happened. I would say that it's not gonna happen again, or I very much doubt it's gonna happen again.
0:23:24.4 SJ: So you have that, but then you also have all kinds of things in Congress. President Biden just proposed a large increase for Pell Grants, which everyone loves. Increases for the NSF, the NIH, the NEH, everyone's very happy. But I wanna warn you that Congress may not do anything with these bills. Congress is deeply divided on many issues. In the Senate, there's only a 50-50. There's a 50-50 split.
0:23:56.4 SJ: Now, Democrats can pass legislation on appropriations bills without any Republican support, but the Democrats have struggled to get every Democratic vote too. So you really... I would not expect much from Congress this year, but who knows? Maybe I'll be very happy to be wrong.
0:24:18.7 CH: It'll be interesting. I know within the party there has been a push for executive action here because they do think Congress may be at a gridlock and that their own members may not be reliable, but that is not to date how President Biden has decided to govern.
0:24:35.0 SJ: Yes. So we'll see. Issue eight. Colleges closing. A college in Illinois, Lincoln College, just announced it is gonna close down on May 13th. Lincoln College is a small college and it had about 1000 students. They were a victim of a cyber-attack, and so they lost a lot of their admissions strategy for the year, but also COVID really hurt them. And they're the kind of college that is very vulnerable. They are a small college, under 10000 enrollments. They are in a rural area.
0:25:14.6 SJ: These colleges are doing great work, they not... Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they're bad colleges, but these are ecologists that are not doing well financially. Now, why did they close now, and why do I expect to see more colleges closing? Is that this is the end of the academic year and the end of a semester, that's when most colleges will close.
0:25:41.7 SJ: Because it is too late, frankly, for students to up and leave and go to another college, this semester at least, and the college needs to keep them to keep paying the bills until May 13th in this case. I suspect there will be other small colleges that will close. This is very sad for colleges that are closing.
0:26:05.4 SJ: It won't have a huge impact on overall enrollment figures, but it denies an opportunity to be educated in those communities that have done it, in this case for 157 years. Think about what a college has gone through in 157 years, and they can't keep it together now.
0:26:28.7 CH: It is connected. It almost makes me think of our community college conversation about how critical some of these institutions are to their local community, and how we think about their funding sources in order to continue to provide that option, so we don't wind up in a situation where there isn't a two-year or four-year option within driving distance for students once you go.
0:26:47.9 SJ: And that could happen, not in the Illinois where Lincoln College is, but in other states, it is a rea thing that can happen.
0:26:58.5 CH: I actually think too, it's a good point that you make there about it being in Illinois, because often people look at that demographic map of the United States that we've all been studying for some time and say, "Well, not here, we'll be all right." And actually, it is about more than just demographics.
0:27:13.4 SJ: Yes. And to take Illinois, this is not a college in Chicago, and in Illinois, you've got big differences between Chicago and the downstate population, which is more like the states around it than they are like Chicago. Illinois cares about downstate, and they need to.
0:27:41.3 SJ: Issue nine is race and affirmative action. I think race relations on college campuses are terrible, to be honest. They are better and worse on a given day, a given week, but periodically there are surveys of Black and Latinx students and Asian students, they do not think that there is a good experience for them at those colleges, at most colleges.
0:28:06.4 SJ: That's not to say they don't wanna go there, it's not to say they're upset to get in or they wouldn't advise a friend or family member to attend, but they are not happy. They have to interact with students and faculty members who do not in general, care about them. And this is just a really unhealthy situation.
0:28:30.2 SJ: Add to it the affirmative action case. The Supreme Court in October will be considering the affirmative action plans of Harvard and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Those are crucial to preserve affirmative action in the United States. And many people would say, "Well, my college is nothing like Harvard." And you might be right, but if Harvard loses this case, it will affect financial aid too.
0:29:00.0 SJ: And lots of colleges, including many colleges that are not really competitive in admissions, will be affected. So I think this is really huge for American higher education, and most presidents, I think right now are sort of taking, "Well, it'll end up okay." I'm not sure it's gonna end up okay, in particular because the new Supreme Court justice, if she is confirmed, is not gonna hear the case.
0:29:28.8 CH: That's right. She's already said she'd recuse herself.
0:29:31.1 SJ: Yeah. And so that leaves two votes for affirmative action. Now, could other votes be swayed? Perhaps. But there are only two votes. That's not a good situation.
0:29:43.8 CH: And the questions before the court is really one, deference to a university, a college, an institution, to be able to shape their own class and to have that judgment that they can apply, and also that diversity has educational benefit and that educational benefit outweighs other factors, and that has been really at the heart of 40 years of case law precedent. I heard someone say it'd be fairly radical actually for the court to throw out 40 years of precedent, but indeed they might choose to do so.
0:30:13.5 SJ: I mean, they've thrown out 40 years on other issues. I think this court is quite likely to. For colleges, it's very hard to talk about the options. How would you preserve some diversity? But if they don't talk about it now, look what happened to Berkeley and Michigan when those states banned them from using affirmative action, they went way down in Black and Latinx enrollment, and while their Latino enrollments have gone up, particularly at Berkeley, they are still not equal to their share of the high school population.
0:30:54.2 CH: And it's also the signal, again, we're talking about signals often here, but does a Black student, a Latinx student who's considering higher education feel wanted, welcomed, appreciated and valued? And what is the larger signal that it sends to them that a core part of their identity and lived experience has to be erased from that review?
0:31:14.9 CH: It goes to the broader issue you just said about what kind of environment they find themselves in once they do choose to enroll. So all connected there, and I worry that some of the state houses and state legislatures are making it difficult for our public institutions to even have a conversation about these topics.
0:31:32.3 SJ: Absolutely. And so my last issue, and I haven't given you a lot of fun issues, so I'm sorry about that, but my last issue is geography. And I don't mean studying geography, I mean the geography of where your college is located. It has never been more important since desegregation at least, where you live dictates what your colleges policies are.
0:32:01.1 SJ: Now in some cases, this was dictated by their state legislatures and governors, in other states, it wasn't, but a private college can't dictate COVID policies in their local community. And many states, particularly in the South, have adopted policies that many people elsewhere find offensive. On COVID, on gay people, on poor people.
0:32:30.2 SJ: I believe we may be entering an era, and it's still early, where more people are going to consider the geography of where they are located, and maybe turning down good job offers from colleges in that region.
0:32:47.8 CH: It is interesting to think about how that connects with colleges trying to determine what their hybrid policies will be, so this isn't just about student recruitment, it's about their ability to recruit faculty and staff. Staff often being from the local area, faculty a bit more mobile. But actually in this new hybrid environment, if you do not have out there listeners, a good policy on which positions you'll consider for remote status, this might be another reason to get to work.
0:33:14.7 SJ: Absolutely. So those are my 10 issues, and this has been a lot of fun. Do you have any other questions, Carla?
0:33:23.5 CH: No. I will just say, I was looking through the list as well, and I think our big summary is one. It is all about equity. I actually think there's an equity thread that is running through your entire top 10 list. But to me also, Scott, there's a call to action here.
0:33:37.4 CH: If we can't count on Congress necessarily to move ourselves forward, there is an opportunity here for universities and colleges to use their advocacy voice, to be able to speak up and speak out on these issues to shape their admissions procedures, maybe regardless of where the court decides next term, to think about how they want to be seen as an employer of choice and an institution of choice.
0:34:01.6 CH: And so I just encourage all of our listeners, take heart that while it is still a difficult season, there will be an opportunity for you all to shape what your response is to these issues.
0:34:14.4 SJ: That makes a lot of sense. Thank you very much for the invitation and thank you to all who are listening.
0:34:20.1 CH: Thank you, Scott, and thank you all out there. We'll see you for Episode 101 next time.
0:34:31.0 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our experts discuss ways that the staffing shortage is affecting admissions teams. They also offer tips on how to keep your recruiting efforts on track, even when you're not fully staffed. Until next week, thank you for your time.
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