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December 21, 2018

Affordability, funding, workforce development top of mind in higher-ed

Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney.
Susan Herbst
Jeffrey Wihbey

At a time when higher-education institutions are increasingly seen as politically motivated, and demand for career-focused curricula in K-12 schools is increasing, educators have a challenging 2019 lesson plan.

A federal tax law passed at the end of 2017 opened the door to taxing college endowments at a time when nearly half of the nation's public colleges, and the majority of private colleges, are failing to meet their enrollment goals.

In 2019, colleges will have to contend with expanding expectations of the kind of financial support they provide students and what the institutions should contribute to the communities in which they operate.

Those are some of the top issues confronting educational institutions heading into 2019, according to Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney; Jeffrey Wihbey, superintendent of the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System (CTECS); and UConn President Susan Herbst.

Here are their top issues to watch:

Changing student population, affordability challenges

Herbst: In the wake of the Great Recession, the number of 'nontraditional' students — those 23 or older, financially independent, living off-campus, and attending class part time — soared, to the point where they now account for almost half the entire population of students enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. Of that student population, roughly a quarter is older than 30.

Universities have, by and large, already addressed the changing student population in some ways — by offering more classes online, for instance. The reality is that, as students' needs change, the accepted idea of what a university does and how we do it will also have to change.

Berger-Sweeney: The number of students graduating from high schools in the U.S. has plateaued, and in a few years, we'll see that number drop precipitously. … Income disparities are expected to widen, and more families will require financial aid for their children to attend college. … In 2019, colleges will have to work harder than ever to be affordable and differentiate themselves amid intense competition for fewer students.

Education system must produce more job-ready students

Wihbey: As the demand for skilled workers continues to rise, we are seeing too many good-paying jobs going unfilled in Connecticut.

We need to meet that demand by continuing to take a greater, coordinated approach that brings together K-12 school districts, colleges and industry to create educational pathways that align with the needs of regional employers.

These efforts also require that we approach the problem using a long-term vision — something we are actively engaged in at CTECS.

Schools must continue to innovate

Herbst: Online courses for graduate school in particular are gaining new credibility, particularly in the STEM fields, as top universities experiment with the possibilities of the format.

At UConn, our eCampus initiative offers more than 100 courses from a wide variety of fields and disciplines. The question for universities now is how best to use this tool, to ensure that online classes retain the same high standards and value to our students as in-person classes.

Maintaining a tolerant campus culture

Berger-Sweeney: There's been a growing trend in higher education of a perception problem related to the distance that many people feel from what's happening on our campuses. Our students are not snowflakes unable to tolerate differences. We teach students how to think, not what to think.

I can tell you that we have a student body that's as politically diverse as our country and that our goal is to encourage civil, respectful, data-informed discourse across our differences.

Dwindling government resources

Herbst: Last year, state governments spent about $9 billion less on higher education than they did in 2008, before the global financial crisis. In Connecticut, spending per student has declined by nearly 13 percent since the start of the Great Recession.

This has led some analysts to call the years since 2008 a “lost decade” for higher education in the United States. … None of this is likely to change in the near future.

Berger-Sweeney: The financial model for colleges isn't well understood, and we're seeing rising expectations for higher education to spur economic growth in the communities we call home and to help make up for declining public investment in services, among other things — a trend we expect to continue in 2019.

Last year's federal tax reform set a dangerous precedent in taxing college endowments. ... Excise taxes on endowments and demands that our nonprofit institutions pay more to their communities will put pressure on colleges in 2019.

Return to HBJ's 2019 economic forecast landing page

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