Four (Big) Things We Hope To See From US Higher Education In 2023


The calendar has rolled over to 2023, colleges and universities seemingly have returned to normal operations, and attention has turned from pandemic response and seemingly futile efforts to tamp down outbreaks of new variants and spread of infection on campuses and in communities, to mounting concerns over the same issues that were facing higher ed prior to the pandemic. Was that really nearly three years ago? So much has happened since February 2020 and so much has changed. Right? The answer is not that simple.

The greatest challenges remain, amplified and made worse by the global pandemic. Enrollments are down for many institutions in several parts of the country. Costs of delivering a higher education continue to rise faster than inflation. State support, while increases in the past year have been reported for many, have failed to keep up with inflation and pushed more of the burden of ensuring access and affordability onto the institutions. With aging infrastructure, addressing the backlog of deferred maintenance has stalled at many schools due to lack of resources and uncertainty about future finances, creating a more vulnerable infrastructure stock, less appealing facilities at a time when competition for students is rising, and adding to institutions’ deferred maintenance obligations (something boards are increasingly attentive to as posing real financial risks).

And then there is the labor market and the workforce impacts throughout higher education – instructional faculty and staff, student affairs professionals and residential life staff, admissions staff, finance and human resources staff, research and facilities staff, financial aid and sponsored programs offices – all segments of the university workforce have been and continue to be impacted. Some have chosen to leave their jobs for personal reasons/changed priorities as a result of the pressures of operating through the pandemic. Others have decided to pursue employment options in different geographic regions, either to be closer to family or to pursue a different lifestyle. And still others have decided they want to work fewer hours or fewer days in their post-pandemic lives. With the number of people who have stopped out of employment, this has created a feeding frenzy for qualified employees in nearly every sector. Concessions in compensation, benefits, hours, and even physical location are not only being made by employers, they are fully expected by employees. Hybrid work (a mix of office-based and home-based work hours) and fully remote work (based entirely off-site, whether nearby or far away) likely are here to stay in many sectors and for many job types within higher ed. This will create conveniences for some employees but also create new challenges for institutions. What will be the impacts be not just on operational efficacy and efficiency but on student learning, student success, and the overall student experience? Time will tell.

With all of this happening, and the undeniable pressures that have been placed upon those employees that have remained as colleges and universities have muddled if not muscled through the pandemic, keeping operations and services functioning for their students, we are seeing more than just faculty or staff fatigue or burn-out. It feels like many institutions are at somewhat of a tipping point, scrambling to cling to the tip and avoid a rapid and unrecoverable slide downward. And if they lose their footing, their grasp of that tip, the consequences to students, to mission, and even to institutional viability could be devastating. This only adds to the uncertainty, the anxiety, and in some cases the fear of losing their jobs. There can be no doubt that this has led to increased mental health issues and the need for additional resources to be made available to employees, not just to students who also are seeing upticks in mental health issues resulting from pandemic impacts to themselves and their families. The need to provide these services comes at a time of constrained resources, competing and emerging priorities, and urgencies associated with the pandemic response and post-pandemic return.

If colleges and universities have “returned to normal” (i.e., pre-pandemic operations), this is surely (a) out of financial necessity, and (b) a shame. As I wrote last year, returning to pre-pandemic operations was the only option. Just as closing colleges and universities was not an option in 2020 and again in 2021, continued operations at anything less than full enrollments (or at least enrollment targets) was not an option. The $77B in federal government stimulus funds have been largely spent or will be soon. These federal funds came in three tranches, the three stimulus bills passed in 2020 and 2021 (ARPA, CRRSA, and CARES), and provided critically needed bridge funds in the first two years of the pandemic. These were emergency funds and they were used largely, if not entirely, to maintain continuity of college and university operations – to continue to be able to function, deliver programming, and cover operating costs.

There is little evidence that significant portions of these funds were used to really plan for higher ed’s post-pandemic reality or to make long-needed changes at the institutional level. That’s not a criticism, just a reality.

Last year, I asked “When we do return to a non-pandemic (albeit likely endemic) world, will we have made all of the needed changes in our institutions’ programming and operations? Or will we have bridged our way back to the way we were pre-pandemic, perhaps less vulnerable but certainly more fragile?” I’ve written about the need NOT to return to pre-pandemic operations, the missed opportunities to make needed change if we do, and the notion of building resilience into our higher education institutions in a way that recognizes increasing resilience does NOT mean building back to pre-crisis conditions. But the very real need to ensure operational continuity outweighed most thoughts of making needed changes, at least the most significant ones.

I recognized that there will be many that will seek to return to “the way it was” as soon as possible, for comfort and security. I also cautioned that university leaders must resist the temptation, or the pressures coming from those within their institutions, and must commit to learning (and acting upon) the greatest lesson from this pandemic, the need to make major reforms across the enterprise.

Two years ago, I published the article “Six Things We Hope To See From US Higher Education in 2021,” and last year I wrote the sequel, “Five Things We Hope To See From US Higher Education in 2022.” As we enter the fourth year of the pandemic or the second year of the post-pandemic era, depending on your perspective, here are four BIG things we should hope to see from colleges and universities in 2023 – a refreshed look at what continues to be a critical time with as yet unmet challenges and as yet unrealized opportunities for higher education.

#1. Previously, we had hoped that colleges and universities would abandon the strategy of chasing rankings. Now we hope that they abandon the rankings, taking the lead of law schools and others that have done the same. Consider the experiment tried, tested, and failed. Rankings have become ubiquitous. They have crept into mission statements, strategic plans, and board priorities. For decades now, colleges and universities have been investing significant amounts of time, energy, and money in chasing the rankings. Externally, it does little. Internally, the pursuit creates controversy and strife as faculty (and students) try to understand the reason for the investments, the competition, and the sometimes seemingly singular focus on rankings. There is scant evidence they have done anything to hold colleges and universities to account, drive real progress, improve applicant pools or student quality, or elevate institutional standings. And more recently, we have seen bad actors pursuing bad strategies to game the rankings, submit false information, and get caught. This both highlights the “gamification” of rankings, allowed or even encouraged (overtly or obliquely) by ranking organizations, and the extent to which administrators may be willing to go to secure a higher ranking. It also seriously damages the reputation of the offending and exposed university.

Colleges and universities can do more to advance their mission, their impact, and (yes) their standing by competing with themselves to get better, rather than by competing with others. Afterall, it’s a zero-sum game. For one school to move up in any given ranking, one school must move down. If all schools are competing against one another for rankings, the only way for all schools to be able to show they have moved up higher in a poll is to have an explosion of new rankings of different characteristics/outcomes. In that way, everyone can win, somewhere. Once that happens (and it can be argued that it has), these rankings have even less value.

We hope colleges and universities don’t just abandon the chase, they abandon the rankings altogether. They should know their peer and aspirant institutions and follow their efforts and progress. They should understand the national higher ed landscape and look for successful stories and best practices. Focusing on academic program quality and student success has never steered an institution or its leadership wrong. If also a research institution, focus also on research expenditures, throughput, and impacts. If there is a clinical mission, focus also on patient outcomes. Universities also should know themselves. They should know their audience and respect them. They should commit to serving them, meeting their needs, and providing measurable/proven value. They should set their goals, achieve against them, and tell their story about why that commitment and success matters. If they matter, people will pay attention.

Rankings are just one way people judge quality. The rankings and the systems that undergird them are biased and broken. It’s time to move past them.

#2. We hope colleges and universities will embrace authentic engagement with their constituents and their communities. The stresses of the pandemic, the loss of public confidence, both the enrollment and the workforce challenges, and even the forces that are challenging or diminishing our democracy all point to the need for colleges and universities to commit themselves to engage authentically and meaningfully with those around them. This includes creating time and spaces to hear from (and really listen to) students, faculty, and staff about their challenges, changing needs, and expectations of their academic community, but also the ways they want to contribute to finding mission-focused, outcomes-driven, and sustainable paths forward for the institution.

This also includes regular and intentional outreach, engagement, and partnership with community members, community organizations, public agencies, and local businesses. Such touch points and action points break down barriers, build trust, create new opportunities, and add value in both directions. They also bring people, ideas, and resources together to address mutual needs and shared priorities.

The public needs to understand the importance of higher education today, the opportunities colleges and universities are providing to their students, and the many ways they are contributing to their neighborhoods and communities. And colleges and universities need to do a much better job articulating their value proposition, not only to prospective students and families, but to legislators, business leaders, and the broader public. They should articulate and re-affirm commitments (publicly, loudly, and often) to access, affordability, career-readiness, post-graduation outcomes, social mobility, discovery and innovation, service, life-long learning, program/degree options for non-traditional students, and local/regional economic impact. And they should communicate specific outcomes to close the loop on their clearly articulated value proposition. Communicating mission, value, and impact to the public – whether it’s the local business community, prospective students and their families, or state legislators – and authentic engagement with constituents to build trust and create meaningful partnerships must be ongoing commitments, not periodic exercises.

#3. We hope colleges and universities will commit to facing hard choices and making hard decisions to cut content, not keep trimming around the edges. This will be controversial and create backlash. But, for most institutions, the time has long past for making these needed reforms. Years, even decades, of cutting around the edges (incremental cuts across the board, or VERY limited differential cuts) rather than eliminating programs has depleted morale, created internal competition that serves to further erode both morale and efficacy, and left many institutions at risk of being unable to deliver on mission.

We hope university leaders will have the vision and the courage to make these needed reforms (reductions, mergers, or eliminations) and that boards will have the wisdom and fortitude to back them up. Boards must stand visibly and without wavering behind their presidents, stand up to criticisms and resistance, and set clear timelines for needed change. Hire the right leader. Give that leader a mandate, a timeline, cover, support, and job security. Hiring and steadfastly supporting the right individual, while setting clear expectations and timelines for achieving milestones and affecting needed change, can end the revolving door of campus leadership that has become all too common on our campuses. Stability is a platform for success. These positions are difficult enough without making those that serve sacrificial.

#4. We hope colleges and universities will reaffirm, promote, celebrate, and leverage their foundational commitment to being a public good to becoming the ‘public square’ for civil discourse, dialogue, and debate. We hope college and universities will help our nation heal, redefine middle ground, embrace civility, and foster civil discourse and scientific inquiry. Civility should be added to the ideals of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Colleges and universities must remain institutions and communities of free inquiry, discovery, and thought. They must strive for inclusion of all thoughts, welcome all perspectives, and commit to maintaining a nurturing and safe space for students to learn facts, form opinions, shape values, and defend all of these. US higher education must, at all costs, resist becoming politicized (as so many other institutions in our society have become in recent years) and must eschew extreme ideologies that oppose, prohibit, or threaten others. Just as higher ed has been called upon to solve social problems or shape new policy in the past, they can step up today to help re-establish and re-affirm middle ground as a place free from extreme ideology, hatred, violence, and non-tolerance. (By definition, of course, our colleges and universities seek to end ignorance, replacing it with knowledge, understanding, perspective, and reasoned opinion.) In this way, they become an example for individuals, families, communities, political parties, and our society. By creating the inviting and welcoming physical and intellectual spaces, colleges and universities can become the literal and figurative ‘public squares’ in our communities and across our nation.

We have become so polarized, so marginalized, so pushed to the extreme edges that our very democracy is being threatened from within. Higher ed can lead our nation on a return to civility, to fact-based discourse, to freedom of opinion and thought, to tolerance, and to building an educated, engaged, and prosperous society. As they have been so many times in our history, our nation’s higher educational institutions are called upon once again. They can, and must, become the public square that is so desperately needed and will be so hopefully embraced.

The pandemic has left higher education battered but not broken, scarred but not shattered. Changes are needed and there is work to be done. The evidence is clear, the need is real, the opportunities exist. What’s needed now is the will, the courage, and the stamina to lead the charge and the change. Let’s see what we see in 2023. Cheers!