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COLUMN: New problems, recycled solutions and lots of hand wringing — how can we restore faith in higher education?

COLUMN: New problems, recycled solutions and lots of hand wringing — how can we restore faith in higher education?
Liz Willen
February 13, 2023
LOS ANGELES — It’s no secret that Americans are doubting the value of higher education these days.
Perhaps that’s why years of dramatic enrollment declines, mounting student debt and threat of a recession led American Council on Education (ACE) president Ted Mitchell to issue sharp warnings last week to a group of college administrators.
“What do families need most? It comes down to three words: jobs, jobs and jobs,” Mitchell said at a conference convened by the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC). He called for stronger messages from college leaders about the value of a degree, along with more transparent financial aid letters, improved college and career counseling and clearer transfer pathways – all topics we’ve been reporting on for years at The Hechinger Report.
“The voting public thinks we care not a whit about whether our students have gainful employment, they think [colleges] just want our money,” Mitchell added, emphasizing a major theme that emerged from focus groups he convened at ACE.
Combating public skepticism over college’s worth, and confusion over how admissions and financial aid works, came up repeatedly during the conference. USC, where estimated annual costs now top $85,000, also happens to be ground zero for bad admissions behavior, thanks to the Varsity Blues scandal that exposed a web of lies and corruption around elite college admissions.
“Higher ed is getting a major black eye every time we turn around,” Sharon Alston, the former vice provost for undergraduate enrollment at American University, said during the annual exchange of new research and ideas.
Student rejection of costly bachelor’s degrees (sometimes in favor of high-paying trade jobs), along with political attacks and interference about what can and cannot be taught, also emerged as hot topics, as did confusion over “test optional” policies and other factors contributing to post-pandemic enrollment declines.
There was deep concern about how to admit diverse freshmen classes at selective four-year colleges if the Supreme Court overturns the use of race-based college admissions. The upcoming ruling is one reason in-person gatherings like this one with so-called “enrollment managers” have become critical.
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