The New College Try: Higher Education Facing Steep Challenges, Beyond Lingering COVID Issues
When COVID reared its ugly head in the spring of 2020, all of education — from kindergarten through grad school — was thrust into disarray. For colleges and universities especially, COVID was simply the latest challenge to come along and, two years later, not even the most pressing one. Trailing at a distance are still the issues of changing consumer demands, spiking costs and sliding enrollment figures.
“When higher education is in growth mode, it’s pretty fun to be in a leadership position,” said Dr. Houston Davis, president of the University of Central Arkansas. “It’s a lot of fun to build and make choices on what to do with that new dollar. It’s not as fun to be in a leadership role — whether that’s as president, the chair of a department or the director of the physical plant — when the decisions are reality checks about what we value most.”
For generations, achieving the American Dream and earning a college degree were inextricably linked. But as per the latest enrollment statistics, that picture is changing. It’s changing fast, and not likely to improve in the short term due to the impending enrollment cliff, a steep drop in enrollment numbers that have been creeping downward for years.
The reason for the cliff is less an indictment of higher education overall than a function of headcount — smaller family sizes are producing fewer high school graduates. The latest studies put the start of the most precipitous part of the cliff at 2025. Davis said UCA had already begun reading the enrollment tea leaves before COVID, so when the pandemic struck, the impact was lessened for the university.
“I think that the questions, as we sit here in 2022, were heavily informed by things we were doing in 2017 and 2018,” he said. “Much of the conversation about the financial impacts of COVID on higher education institutions in Arkansas and around the country are the exact same financial implications that the enrollment decline and cliff in 2025, 2026 and 2027 will bring to all of us in higher ed.
“So, I make the argument that all COVID did was just bring to our steps five years earlier all of the very real challenges that post-secondary education is going to face. I’m not going to say that we had any sort of crystal ball, but I will say there’s no argument in the census data about what was going to happen between 2015 through 2029 in terms of the trendline in 18-year-olds.”
Other statistics show there is more contributing to the problem than just the number of students.
Last spring, there were 727,000 fewer undergraduate students nationwide, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). That drop, representing nearly 5% of total enrollment, was the largest in a decade.
These figures underscore the absolute necessity for institutions of higher learning to take a hard look at their offerings to help ensure they are meeting the demands of today’s college students, both in the educational programs they offer and the way in which that education is delivered.
“Before the pandemic, UA Little Rock certainly spoke toward a more traditional student,” said Erin Finzer, associate vice president of academic affairs for UA Little Rock. “I think it’s so important for us to realize that three-quarters of our students today are not traditional; they’re working, they’re lower-income, they come from underserved communities, and they’re largely adults on our campus. The average age is 24.
“Taking care of a more economically vulnerable, underserved adult who’s working, who’s got time crunches, I think we’ve seen a very serious need for wraparound services for students for mental health care, being able to connect them to emergency assistance funds, technology, social services. And UA Little Rock has been really successful in that respect. Our retention rates have dramatically improved over the past three years.”
Cost, and the student debt that comes with it, continues to hound colleges and universities with no sign of relief in sight.
In June, multiple institutions in Arkansas announced tuition increases, led by Arkansas State University, which jumped almost 5%. In fact, most campuses in the ASU System went up, by an average of 3.2%. These include ASU-Mountain Home (4.1%), ASU-Newport (3.4%), ASU-Beebe (3.3%), ASU-Three Rivers in Malvern (2.9%) and ASU Mid-South in West Memphis (2.2%). Only the struggling Henderson State University in Arkadelphia stayed the same as last year.
Other schools implementing tuition increases include Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia (2.9%), University of Central Arkansas in Conway (2.25%), Arkansas Tech University in Russellville (1.5%), and the University of Arkansas (0.87%).
Not surprisingly, this factor weighs very heavily on the minds of prospective students and their families, forcing institutions to deliver maximum value per tuition dollar.
“Concern about total cost of education has really risen to top of mind for students,” said Kindle Holderby, UA Little Rock assistant vice chancellor of enrollment management. “There’s been a lot of surveys done by a lot of these different enrollment companies, where cost of attendance was anywhere between the third or fifth concern on the students’ and parents’ minds, to where the last couple years, it’s gone up to number one or two. That’s really been eye-opening.
“What they’re wanting out of their experience, coupled with that cost, is how long is it going to take me to graduate, and what type of job am I going to get whenever I get out with my degree?”
Arkansas’ two-year schools have traditionally held the advantage on both of these points over their four-year counterparts. Career- and skills-focused, the most successful community colleges have shown a clear path from high school to workplace, receiving high-quality, industry-informed instruction in the shortest amount of time.
ASU-Mountain Home, for example, has worked extensively to formulate programs with industry input, making students immediately employable. The school has also formed extensive partnerships with the local high school to craft concurrent credit programs — college credit coursework students take while still in high school for little to no cost — substantially shortening time and money spent after graduation.
“I think the service side of things is really evolving in all of higher ed,” said Dr. Robin Myers, ASU-MH chancellor. “Students are looking for speedy degrees, but they want degrees that provide them with job market opportunities. They’re more demanding and more selective of what they are enrolling in.
“As a result, all schools are looking at our programs, and they’re attracted to the job opportunities at the end of that study cycle that will improve their life. That’s the other part: They want things that will provide them with better earning opportunities, which, in turn, improve the overall life opportunities that they have.”
Myers said merely having such programs isn’t a cure-all; how such curriculum is delivered is a key weapon in the fight for students. Distance learning options are also helping smaller two-year schools compete with the larger four-year institutions.
“From the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2021, there were 12% fewer students enrolled in all of higher education in Arkansas. That’s a direct impact of COVID,” he said. “We haven’t seen what the 2022 fall number will be, but we can be confident it will still be less than it was in 2019. Hopefully it won’t still be off by 12%. Maybe we’ll gain some of that back, but the point is, students are not coming back in large numbers.
“I think looking at the overall need for more short-term programs, more programs focused on providing specific skill sets that lead to jobs, that’s where the evolution of higher education is going to continue to flow, providing more learning options, more hybrid courses where students can attend some on campus and some virtually. For us, in the fall of 2019, 24% of our attendance was online. In the spring of 2022, 41% of our enrollment is online, and that does not include hybrid courses, which can be a combination of both, which we have many more of than we had in the fall of 2019.”
Nowhere among Arkansas’ two-year institutions has this philosophy been implemented with greater success than Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville. The school has steadily leveraged its proximity to the state’s burgeoning steel industry through its steel tech degree and competitive internships. It is home to TECademy, the only training facility for steel equipment giant SMS outside of Germany.
“Studies have shown that younger students are not interested in earning degrees. They want the quickest route,” said Rachel Gifford, ANC associate vice president of development and college relations. “With our short-term programs, in a semester or a year they could come out and be making in the $40,000-$50,000 range, or what a bachelor’s degree is making.
“Our annual earnings after one year for a two-year degree is $55,081. The next highest university is U of A Fayetteville at $47,799. Five years after graduation, our graduates are earning $61,343. The next highest is UA Fayetteville at $60,712.”
Such potential earning power has gone a long way toward changing student attitudes about two-year schools and is starting to turn the tide on decades of a four-year degree being pitched as the be-all and end-all, Gifford said.
“There used to be somewhat of a stereotype [about two-year schools] and I think that’s diminishing,” she said. “I think we’re seeing students, in this area at least, who understand the economic facts. They’re very interested in these internships that our local industries, the steel mills, have with us and some of the other manufacturing companies. They’re taking advantage of that.”
Meanwhile, the state’s only all-online public university underwent some radical changes that have expanded its offerings and made it even more of a player in the new collegiate marketplace. University of Arkansas Grantham, formerly eVersity, was a merger finalized last November, when the University of Arkansas System, which oversees the state’s all-online university, bought the formerly for-profit Grantham University for $1.
“The environment for for-profit universities really started to change in the last few years, and there’s a lot of regulations that were put on their backs that people in the public space don’t have to live by,” said Dr. Michael Moore, chief academic and operating officer. “Not only did the regulatory environment get strenuous and difficult for them, but schools that were at one time at the forefront of online education when it was really edgy have seen a lot of players step into the online space. It’s become more challenging for the for-profits to compete.
“Back in the day, the University of Phoenix had 425,000 students at one point. Today they’re down to 90,000. And it’s not because they have done anything wrong. It’s just that back then, they were the only game in town when you wanted to do online education. Now everybody’s doing online education, so people have choices.”
With the merger, UA Grantham expands from eVersity’s original focus of helping people go back and finish college to offering something for every type of learner: undergraduate, graduate, traditional and nontraditional. And as the ripples of COVID continue to reshape the way education and the workplace operate, Moore said the full value of UA Grantham’s programs have yet to be fully realized.
“There are a couple of positives that are going to continue to come out of the COVID years,” Moore said. “The first is there has been evidence that there has been an increase in the acceptance of online learning at brick-and-mortar schools among professors and students who previously were not very interested in online learning.
“The other thing that’s really going to come out of the pandemic is the nature of certain jobs has been changed, probably forever. Some of us are never going to go back to the workplace. Some of us are going to find our jobs having been replaced entirely by technology, and that’s going to create a demand for individuals to get retooled or reskilled. So certificates, sometimes called badges or micro-credentials, will continue to grow in importance. And as the market for these micro-credentials grows, this is where the future of online learning is very bright.”