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Shifting the Higher Education Paradigm

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Reading longitudinal projections for educational enrollments from the National Center for Education Statistics may sound like a good substitute for Ambien. I'm really not a wonk, but I did eagerly scroll through the postsecondary education section of the latest NCES report released last week because it heralds some astonishing change ahead for those corners of higher education that have been in the bunker of denial about the demographic tsunami that will uproot many cherished pillars of the old academy.

In a nutshell, while predicting a generally slower rate of growth overall than in the previous decade, the NCES report forecasts these critical changes ahead for colleges and universities:

• While enrollment of white students will increase just 4 percent, enrollment of Hispanic students will increase by a whopping 42 percent, and for black students the rate of increase will be a rapid 25 percent growth rate;

• While enrollment of traditional-aged collegians (18-24) will go up about 10 percent, enrollment of older students will grow at twice that rate, with the population of students over age 35 growing the fastest at 25 percent;

• Part-time enrollment will grow at an 18 percent rate, faster than the 14 percent rate for full-time enrollment;

• Enrollment of women will continue to grow at a faster pace for women (18 percent) than men (10 percent) advancing a decades-long trend that has made women the majority population in colleges and universities.

These trends will continue to challenge and change academic tradition, leading ultimately to a paradigm shift in our students, teaching methods and organizational structures. Among the most notable changes we should anticipate, these may well be the most critical:

• Abandonment, at long last, of the vocabulary of the "four year degree" that does not apply to the majority of students today who finish on a different timetable; we should talk about baccalaureate degrees, not four year degrees, and in the same way, associates or masters degrees, or other credentials;

• Replacing that outmoded time-in-place language with new emphasis on learning outcomes and degree attainment, so the focus is on what the student actually learns, and what the degree actually means; what should a student know and be able to do who claims an associate degree, baccalaureate degree, master's degree?

• Replacement of the utterly deficient notion of "graduation rates" (another traditional time-at-one-place yardstick) with more appropriate measures of academic quality for institutions and students: mastery of general and specific learning outcomes leading to degree or credential attainment.

• Transformation of the student financial aid system from its outmoded assumptions about time-in-place to a more reality-based program that can support students of all ages, taking courses throughout the 12 month calendar in different course packets and different formats; right now, the behemoth size and arabesque rules of the federal aid system pose some of the biggest barriers to real transformation of the cost and delivery of higher education;

The demographic trends will force the major change from time-in-place to genuine outcomes as the benchmarks of quality because the growing proportions of women and students of color do not attend college in the same way that the traditional white men of the 19th and 20th centuries attended college, but their attendance patterns established virtually all of the current benchmarks that informed federal and state policy that has shaped the current collegiate system.

We have known for quite some time that the second decade of the 21st century will see a rapid rise in the participation rates of students of color in higher education as a result of general changes in the national population as well as the effects of the college access movement that began in earnest a decade or more ago. Because of the discriminatory effects of racism and poverty that still afflict too many of America's urban schools and families, the substantial numbers of students of color entering college are also low-income students who face many barriers enrolling in, attending and completing college. See my January 7, 2013 article "Ensuring Success for Low-income College Students" in The Huffington Post.

Low-income students, who are frequently black and Hispanic from under-performing urban schools, often attend multiple colleges and universities ("swirling," thus affecting the current notion of the "graduation rate") and often complete their degrees on longer timetables than the conventional "four year" degree. Changing the emphasis from time-in-place to actual outcomes makes more sense in terms of national goals for degree attainment and also recognizes the reality of the collegiate timetable for a substantial percentage of all college students today.

Women of color, as well as white women, also tend to be the driving force behind the rise in older students and part-time students in higher education. Women often start college with the best intentions but find they must stop out to have children, care for siblings or elders, support their spouse's career. Women returning to college in their late 20s, 30s and 40s have been a major part of the rise in female enrollment throughout higher education. Such students might be completing degrees that they began 10, 20 or even 30 years earlier. Our current time-in-place language calls them "drop-outs." I dare anyone to use that word to the face of my older women completing degrees at Trinity! They are heroes to their families, pillars of their workplaces, and proudly on their way to being college graduates, albeit on timetables that are quite different from the traditional collegians of the past.

The Lumina Foundation provides one of the clearest and most comprehensive approaches to the changes that must come to higher education to meet the challenges of changing demographics in a time when improving educational outcomes is a national imperative. The Lumina strategic plan also released last week has the right targets for conversations about change: emphasizing collaborative partnerships with employers, challenging universities and colleges to change curricula and pedagogy to support better outcomes, urging change in the student aid system, focusing on outcomes rather than time-in-place.

The changes forecast in the NCES data, changes that are the focus of the Lumina report, have, in fact, swept across many institutions of higher education already. My own university, Trinity, experienced the paradigm shift in our student population starting in the 1990s, and today we are among a growing group of institutions wrestling with the challenges and opportunities inherent in securing better educational and economic opportunities for new populations of students and our nation.

Most headlines about higher education today focus on trends at prestigious institutions serving elite populations -- skyrocketing tuition at the ivies and elite public universities, Big Ten conference bids, BCS bets, manipulating data to get ranked higher in U.S. News. But thousands of colleges and universities do most of their work outside of the limelight, and many of these relatively obscure institutions are already deeply into changing curricula, pedagogies and delivery systems to serve the new populations of students that are shifting the paradigm for much of higher education in this country. To see the future of higher education, look to the less well-known schools that are educating large numbers of previously-marginalized students who are rapidly becoming the mainstream. These schools and their students are essential to the fulfillment of our national goals for greater collegiate achievement.