The impact of the pandemic was the major higher ed story this year, but other developments made big … [+]
For the second year in a row, the news on the higher education scene was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and all of its many, seemingly never-ending ramifications for colleges and universities across the country.
But the far-reaching impact of the pandemic was hardly the only story of significance in 2021. Changes in federal education policy and leadership, a continuing enrollment slide, record capital campaigns and endowment returns, and intensifying criticism of the academy by political conservatives were other developments that received extensive attention throughout the year.
The Covid-19 Pandemic
All through 2021, colleges and universities tried to return to normal campus operations as much as possible, after a prior year that saw most of them forced to shift classes to remote delivery and shut down the majority of on-campus activities.
Almost every public health measure that could mitigate the spread or the severity of the virus became a matter of contention, if not confusion. Require masks or just recommend them? Mandate vaccinations and boosters or just encourage them? Quarantine or just social distance? Delay the start of the semester or proceed as scheduled?
Whether to follow state laws, obey governors’ executive orders, heed scientific advice, honor campus preferences or comply with federal mandates – every college in the nation had to tiptoe through a minefield of conflicting regulations and proscriptions. Commencements were virtual, live, drive-through or canceled. Classes were zoomed, in-person, hybrid or suspended. Residence halls were opened, then closed, then re-opened. Athletic events were often contested in near-empty arenas, and several universities even cut the number of sports they supported.
Campus leaders had to contend with lawsuits, no-confidence votes, layoffs, furloughs, frustrated students, burned-out faculty and budget shortfalls. They then had to decide how to spend billions in federal relief funds that flowed their way, as the Greek-letter variants of the virus continued to appear. Just as campuses thought they had put the worst of Delta behind them, Omicron burst on the scene as the fall semester drew to a close.
Partly as a result of the disruptions caused by the pandemic and partly due to a growing concern about the racial and socioeconomic biases associated with standardized tests like the ACT and SAT, hundreds of colleges abandoned the use of such tests for admissions decisions. Whether they shifted to a test-optional policy or stopped using the tests altogether, the number of institutions no longer requiring admission tests reached an all-time high this year.
The standardized testing industry lost ground on almost every front. The number of students taking the ACT and the SAT fell dramatically, as numerous high-profile institutions, led by the University of California, decided to end their use of admission tests.
By year’s end, over half of all colleges and universities in the nation had already committed to remaining test-optional or test-blind for fall 2023 applicants. More than 76% of all U.S. bachelor degree-granting institutions now practice test-optional or test-blind admissions.
The Enrollment Slide
The latest national figures show that postsecondary enrollment has fallen 2.6% below last year’s level. Undergraduate enrollment has dropped 3.5% so far this fall, resulting in a total two-year decline of 7.8%. Community colleges, the access ramp to higher education for so many students, were the hardest hit, with their overall enrollment now down a total of 14.8% since 2019.
Enrollment of international students dropped 15% during academic year 2020-21, resulting in the total number of international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities dipping below one million for the first time since the 2014 academic year.
The one area of enrollment growth was at the graduate level, where enrollment continues to be relatively strong, growing 2.1% this fall, maintaining the upward trend of a 2.7% increase reported last fall.
This year’s enrollment decrease marks the tenth year in a row of falling enrollment, now totaling more than 3 million fewer postsecondary students than a decade ago. Even though initial data suggest that applications for next year may be bouncing back, there can be no doubt that an increasing number of colleges and universities are facing an enrollment crisis.
The Biden Administration’s Department of Education
With the 2020 election of Joe Biden as president, the Department of Education (DOE), under the leadership of Secretary Miguel Cardona, began staking out a new relationship with the nation’s colleges and universities, which, during the Trump administration under DOE Secretary Betsy DeVos, had been frequently contentious, if not adversarial.
Although Biden’s proposal to make community college free appears to have been scrapped at least for now, higher education leaders welcomed what they saw as more favorable policies in a number of areas, including billions in pandemic-related recovery money through the Higher Education Emergency relief funds (HEERF), a more generous Pell Grant program, increased scrutiny of the for-profit sector, broadened forgiveness of student loans, greater receptivity to international and undocumented students, and a renewed interest in the success of institutions that focus on educating minority students.
Major Gifts, Soaring Endowments and Record Capital Campaigns
On the financial side, it was a banner year for many high-profile institutions, with the financial divide between wealthy colleges and their less prosperous peers growing ever wider.
Several institutions, including Notre Dame University, Northwestern University, Boston College, University of Massachusetts, Carnegie Mellon University, Rice University, Western Michigan University, University of Utah and Catawba College recorded the largest private gifts in their histories.
Across the nation, university endowments – particularly the already bigger ones at prestigious public and private institutions- realized their best returns in decades, due to a substantial increase in the stock market and huge gains from venture capital and private equity, investment areas that larger endowments are more likely to pursue. It was not unusual to see endowment gains of 30% or more at many institutions, including most of the Ivy League schools.
And successful multi-billion dollar capital campaigns are becoming more routine at major universities. In 2021, the University of Maryland, the California Institute of Technology, Northwestern University and the University of Oregon were among the institutions that concluded campaigns in excess of $1 billion. The trend is continuing, with several universities currently pursuing or nearing completion on capital campaigns with goals of $3 billion or more.
Republicans Target Higher Education
In several states, Republican legislators and governors stepped up the scrutiny and criticisms of their public colleges, consistent with the growing GOP orthodoxy that higher education is a bastion of liberal ideology where conservatives are treated unfairly. A number of red state governors signed executive orders that prevented institutions from taking various Covid-19 precautions that public health experts recommended and most campus constituents wanted.
South Carolina legislators introduced a bill that would end tenure at its pubic institutions. Iowa took its third run at ending tenure at its universities. In Florida, where faculty are uneasy about what they perceive as political interference with their academic freedom, consideration is being given to weakening tenure at its institutions.
Nebraska’s governor publicly condemned the University of Nebraska’s plan to increase racial and ethnic diversity on its campus. The Idaho legislature cut $2.5 million in higher ed funding because of its concerns over social justice programming at three of its public institutions. And in a number of states, GOP officials supercharged the lightening rod of critical race theory, despite having trouble finding many examples of it actually being taught.
Employer-Provided Free College
The list of companies offering to pay for their employees’s college education continued to grow with Macy’s, Target, Amazon and Walmart among the large employers that added generous educational benefits for their workers this year.
The offers to pay for employees’ college education often came in addition to boosting their wages and other benefits as companies try to lure and retain employees in a very tight labor market.
Boosts In Institutional Financial Aid and Tuition Freezes
Several universities announced commitments to enhance their financial aid in an effort to recruit and retain minority, low-income and first-generation students. The aid took several forms.
For example, Washington University in St. Louis will invest an additional $1 billion in financial aid, allowing it to adopt a need-blind undergraduate admissions policy and commit to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need for admitted students. Ohio State has pledged to raise $800 million as part of a ten-year plan to offer a debt-free education to undergraduates.
Another strategy for addressing affordability is the tuition freeze, and in 2021, dozens of universities decided they would not increase tuition for the upcoming academic year, at least for undergraduate students.
Major universities in Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia unveiled tuition freezes, usually premised on a recognition of the financial pressure the coronavirus had exerted on students and their families.
Many institutions used their HEERF money to cancel or reduce the institutional debt held by their students. Hundreds of others gave their students lump sum payments to help offset pandemic-related expenses.
Support For Minority-Serving Institutions
Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI) remained a focus of policy makers and funders. The Biden administration prioritized these schools for billions of dollars through HEERF and its Build Back Better Act.
Federal agencies such as NSF and NASA made a point of increasing their funded research at HBCUs and other MSIs in an attempt to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce.
Several HBCUs reported spikes in applications and enrollments, and private businesses such as IBM and individual donors like MacKenzie Scott made historic investments in minority-focused colleges and scholarship organizations.
While Adam Harris’s book The State Must Provide brought new attention to the funding inequities still facing HBCUs, advocates in several states sought to make up some of the chronic underfunding that’s plagued those schools for decades. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed legislation that resolved a federal lawsuit involving unfair funding of the state’s four HBCUs for $577 million over a decade.
Ed Tech Competition Heats Up
Online education providers were extremely active in 2021, trying to capitalize on the large-scale shift to web-based education that the pandemic necessitated. Coursera went public in the spring, opening with a share price of $33 and a worth at the time of nearly $7 billion.
As Coursera continued to expand its book of business beyond its initial foray with MOOCs (massive, open, online courses), other online providers stepped up to compete. Acquisitions and mergers became the order of the day. 2U purchased edX for a tidy $800 million, acquiring the company originally created as a nonprofit by Harvard and MIT in 2012 and positioning it for a greater share of the higher ed market.
These developments spelled more bad news for the for-profit sector, where many schools were already seeing enrollments drawn away by non-profit universities like Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University. But the impact of educational technology continues to be felt at all colleges and universities, affecting issues of access, cost, and quality and challenging traditional models of higher education like never before.
The impact of the pandemic was the major higher ed story this year, but other developments made big … [+]