December 22, 2017
ECONOMIC FORECAST: EDUCATION

Funding, affordability continue to plague higher-ed

Gregory Woodward is the president of the University of Hartford.
Susan Herbst, President, UConn
Mark Ojakian, President, Connecticut State Colleges & Universities

Shrinking funding — from state aid to federal tuition and research support — will continue to challenge Connecticut colleges and universities in 2018, requiring them to find new ways to save money and implement new strategies to attract students in an atmosphere of rising tuition and declining enrollment.

While government financial support is falling, student diversity is increasing in color and other ways, requiring colleges and universities to ensure they adjust to best support the changing student body makeup, regional college leaders say.

As college becomes increasingly expensive and competition for scholarships and aid intensifies, schools also need to ensure they're providing the highest return on students' and families' investment as possible, making them workforce ready and adjusting curriculum to meet evolving 21st-century workplace needs.

Those are among a few of the issues confronting institutions of higher learning now and in the near future, according to Susan Herbst, president of the University of Connecticut; Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system; and Gregory Woodward, president of the University of Hartford.

Here are their top issues to watch in 2018 and beyond:

1. Declining state support, college affordability forces schools to re-think business models

Among the institutions feeling the effects of budget constraints is the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system, overseer of the state's 17 state and community colleges, which will try to push forward a community college consolidation plan in 2018 aimed at saving $28 million annually by eliminating college presidents and other administrators and creating a centralized staff to run the public schools.

Herbst: The bruising battle over Connecticut's budget turned out to be one of the most important omens for the future of higher education. For decades, state governments have been reducing aid they provide to public colleges and universities, leading to a kind of quasi-privatization.

What this means, among other things, is costs for students and families continue to grow. Last year tuition became our single largest revenue source for the first time in our 136-year history.

Public universities are going to have to work hard to make sure they can provide a top-quality education without pricing themselves beyond the grasp of all but the wealthiest. That means finding new ways to save money, and it also means many state institutions will be accepting more students from other states and countries as tuition revenue becomes more important.

Woodward: Federal support for higher education through loan and tuition assistance programing is diminishing. Loan repayment programs are in flux, and the ability of many students to find quality funding for college is becoming more difficult. Colleges and universities are facing rising costs, while budgets for scholarships and aid grants to students also increase significantly.

In combination with a shrinking number of high school students in the Northeast, competition for students is intense. Many institutions will face difficult budget scenarios due to the increased expenses and declining enrollments.

At the University of Hartford, we are redesigning our financial aid strategies and awards, moving toward a more internal and self-sustaining set of business practices, and creating new financial aid strategies and policies for returning students.

2. Student demographics are changing

Ojakian: Minority student enrollment is increasing in our system. Since 2014, Hispanic student enrollment in the colleges has increased from 22.9 percent to 26.4 percent. The increase contrasts with enrollment as a whole, which continues to decline. Other non-white student groups also increased during the last three years.

Herbst: Diversity goes beyond familiar categories. Universities are opening their doors to larger numbers of students who, in years past, tended to be overlooked: students with disabilities, gay and trans students, combat veterans, middle-aged students, students from impoverished backgrounds and many others.

UConn now has the most diverse student body in our history, and we are constantly improving our efforts to make our campus welcoming and supportive for all.

Hand in hand with greater diversity is the question of immigration. The University of Connecticut has long accepted all academically qualified students, regardless of immigration status. This year, I found myself in the agonizing position of having to assure those students we would try to assist them in any way possible should efforts be made to forcibly remove them from the country.

The political tea leaves in Washington are harder than ever to read on this issue, but this is likely to be one of the most wrenching questions for institutions of higher education in 2018.

Woodward: The student identity is changing and diversifying, with more students of color. This positive change requires institutions to thoughtfully re-create student support systems.

3. Schools must focus on career development, adult learners

Woodward: Universities are being asked to provide more career training and preparation than ever before, with possible changes in curricula, experiential learning options and academic programs. We are also making experiential learning and other high-impact practices a cornerstone of the University of Hartford.

Skills and experiences will need to be delivered to students for careers that are currently somewhat undefined. Higher education will need to become more flexible in majors, courses and learning methodologies.

Moving forward, more adults will need to be retrained and educated for new careers. Traditional campuses will need to adapt to deliver new, professional advancement learning opportunities and credentials.

4. Threats to federal research funding

Herbst: The stagnation and decline of federal research funding threatens scientific progress and puts the United States at a competitive disadvantage. For the first time since the end of World War II, federal expenditures now account for less than half of all money spent on basic research.

The National Science Foundation consistently ranks UConn in the top 10 percent of universities when it comes to attracting federal research dollars, but it is increasingly difficult to maintain that status as more researchers are competing for a shrinking pool of funds.

5. Need to protect free speech and maintain campus safety

Herbst: Ever since the terrible events in Charlottesville, Va., public universities have been faced with an anguished dilemma: As public entities, we cannot prohibit people from exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech, and rightfully so. At the same time, we are faced with an unprecedented level of activity by purveyors of hateful speech who seek to turn our campuses into battlegrounds.

As these tensions show no signs of abating, public universities in particular are going to be faced with walking a tightrope between their mission as venues for vigorous public debate and their duty to protect students, faculty, staff and visitors.

Read more forecasts here.

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