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2017’s Top Stories for Higher Ed Reform…So Far

June 7, 2017

Who sets the agenda for coverage of higher education issues in the news? Last week, ACTA had the opportunity to find out while attending the Education Writers Association 70th National Seminar at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. This year’s conference theme, “A New Era for Education and the Press,” explored the challenges facing K–12 and postsecondary education and the journalists who cover it—as well as innovations in the sector.

It was also an opportunity to preview what’s on tap for higher education journalism this year. Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, delivered his annual talk “Top 10 Stories for Higher Ed,” which gives fellow reporters ideas for stories to cover. Here are selections of his top stories—with a few more insights into what comes next.

No Free Lunch?

Free” college proposals are back. The 2016 campaign is so last year, but the message of “free college” has gotten traction—for better or for worse. States like Rhode Island and New York are planning new entitlement programs to expand tuition reimbursement to in-state students. But the devil is in the details. Road blocks are looming as parents navigate the endlessly convoluted financial aid maze—for example, questions about how these benefits can be used for private college tuition in New York—and taxpayers wonder who inevitably will have to pay the tab.

The Future of the Liberal Arts

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, liberal arts colleges are in trouble again. Enrollments are dipping. Financial headwinds are whipping up again. Confidence in the value of liberal arts education is eroding. In 2017, presidents and boards—particularly at small, rural colleges like Mills College—will be making tough decisions to keep the ship afloat and weather the financial headwinds facing the liberal education enterprise.

Cratering customer satisfaction seems to be part of the problem. Liberal arts college students are rejecting liberal arts coursework and majors because of growing doubt among students themselves about their value in the workforce. Even in New England’s bastions of liberal education, students are running away from the humanities, instead opting for accounting, finance, and other courses tied to vocational skills. With the explosion of faculty-led inquiry into the world of zombies, vampires, and Game of Thrones, who can blame them for being skeptical? To get ahead of this trend, colleges should call an end to the zombie apocalypse and begin restoring core curricula and classical liberal arts. The demand is there for rigor, substance, and results.

Start the Revolution with Me

Meanwhile . . . spoiler alert: “Mega-change” is coming to higher ed, predicts Jaschik. The recent acquisition of for-profit, online provider Kaplan Education by Purdue University was a landmark and label-defying move for the public, land-grant university. As college presidents and governing boards seek new and sometimes unconventional ways to grow enrollment, expand access to non-traditional students, and stabilize finances, 2017 may spawn other novel approaches that challenge the status quo. The question is whether policymakers can finally revamp and deregulate the broken system of accreditation to accommodate the growing popularity of—and demand for—new models.

Speaking of which, educational boot-camps may be here for good. Unlike MOOCs and overhyped alternative models that failed to reach financial profitability, so-called coding “boot camps” in the vein of General Assembly and Galvanize are finding staying power as a valuable part of mainstream higher learning. In 2017, look for a growing number of traditional four-year universities to launch their own in-house boot camps to develop hard skills geared toward professions in the technology sector. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Debating Dissent and Free Speech

Finally—no surprise here—in 2017, higher education will be a place of dissent.Jaschik predicts this will be a major issue for national and local reporters to follow as colleges grapple with protests and political unrest. But many institutions are dropping the ball on their obligation to model civil political discourse and free speech for their students. Higher education will need to do some soul-searching this year to square its growing tendency to pick ideological winners and losers with its foremost obligation to protect freedom of expression and academic freedom.

These are some of the powerful trends that will drive the discourse over higher education policy and practice this year. Higher education reformers have their work cut out for them. A lot to keep us busy.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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