The 2018 Higher Education Top Ten List

2018 has been another busy year in American higher education at both the federal and state levels, and it has been hard to keep up with all of the goings-on that affect students and colleges alike. In my sixth annual top ten list (see past lists here), I present the ten events of the year that I consider to be the most important or influential. (My slightly irreverent list of “not top ten” events comes out tomorrow.) As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

(10) America continues to become more politically polarized by educational attainment. Over the last several years, public opinion surveys have shown bipartisan concerns about the higher education enterprise. (The reasons differ—Democrats focus more on tuition prices, while Republicans zoom in on the liberal leanings of higher education as a whole.) But the midterm elections clearly showed a growing divide in political preference based on education, continuing a trend going back decades. White adults with a bachelor’s degree were about 15 percentage points more likely to vote for Democrats than those without a degree. This contributed to a near-wipeout of Republican House members in well-educated suburban districts (like my Congressional district in New Jersey), while likely also yielding Republican gains in rural Senate seats.

(9) New international student enrollments fell again, placing stresses on the budgets of less-selective colleges. A growing number of public and private nonprofit colleges now rely on international students (who often pay the full sticker price) to help balance budgets amid fierce competition for domestic students. International student enrollment increased again in the 2017-18 academic year, but new enrollment fell by 6.6%–marking a second consecutive decline. This decline, which is likely driven by a combination of how Trump-era immigration policies are perceived internationally and rising prices faced by international students, appears to be hitting less-selective colleges and graduate programs the hardest. Expect colleges to double down on the international market over the next few years—and for some to be spectacularly unsuccessful to the point where some closures may be blamed on cratering international enrollments.

(8) Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion donation to Johns Hopkins University sparks conversations about access to higher education and divides in institutional resources. The media mogul and potential 2020 presidential candidate’s donation would represent one of the sixty largest endowments in the country as its own gift, so his announcement of a massive gift to meet students’ financial need got a fair amount of media attention. The roughly $80 million-$90 million in earnings from the gift will help improve access to Hopkins for at least some students with financial need, but Bloomberg was also criticized for giving to a wealthy university instead of a community college. Elite colleges have faced a fair amount of pushback in recent years (see the endowment tax of 2017, which Hopkins will likely have to pay), and expect criticism to come from both the liberal Left and populist Right.

(7) Public research universities launch an ambitious collaboration to improve college completion rates. One of the neatest innovations in recent years is the University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 public research universities that got together in 2014 to share best practices regarding student success. It seems like the effort has been successful in improving completion rates (although I haven’t seen a rigorous evaluation confirming this), and universities such as Georgia State and Arizona State have been overwhelmed by other university leaders wanting to look under their hoods. This new Transformation Cluster Initiative by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities includes 130 universities in 16 regional clusters that will take a data-driven approach to improving student outcomes. I’m pulling for this initiative to succeed and get adopted by other sectors of higher education that have fewer resources (such as community colleges or struggling small private colleges).

(6) The K-12 school funding protests in statehouses around the country got the attention of lawmakers—and are likely to affect higher education. One of the biggest political developments in 2018 was the push by K-12 teachers in a number of traditionally conservative states (Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) for higher salaries. These efforts were fairly successful in upping salaries and some teachers took matters into their own hands by running for office and ousting incumbents. Yet since the money to pay for teacher salaries generally comes from other parts of the state budget given states’ hesitance to increase taxes (with Oklahoma being an exception), higher education becomes an appealing place to raid for revenue. Keep an eye out for whether future initiatives to increase K-12 teacher salaries affect state support for higher education.

(5) The PROSPER Act did not live long. In late 2017, House Republicans introduced the PROSPER Act as their long-overdue bill to reauthorize the federal Higher Education Act (here was my hot take at the time). But this ambitious bill to reshape federal policy in a conservative image soon hit roadblocks among fellow Republicans. Some of the concerns were evident in a 14-hour markup hearing in the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and the series of hearings that the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held in early 2018 barely even referenced PROSPER. Nothing moved beyond committee in the House or Senate in 2018, and the prospects for 2019 and 2020 are dim given discord among Republicans and the new Democratic leadership in the House Education and Labor Committee (change the stationery, folks!).

(4) Corporate-university partnerships continue to proliferate, creating both risks and opportunities. These partnerships have taken several forms in recent years, including some prominent 2018 examples. The first is online program management (OPM) companies, which basically run all of the non-academic parts of an academic program. (Purdue’s purchase of Kaplan and Grand Canyon’s nonprofit conversion both involved OPMs.) However, fewer details are available about OPMs than when institutions run their own programs—and ED’s Office of Inspector General will be investigating OPMs in 2019. The high-tech manufacturing company Foxconn will give up to $100 million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to support the university’s engineering program amid criticisms of secrecy and lack of faculty oversight. Finally, Virginia Tech’s announcement of a new $1 billion campus in northern Virginia was a key factor behind Amazon’s decision to locate half of its new second headquarters in Crystal City.

(3) The University of Texas System introduces an important database of student outcomes. Efforts to track the outcomes of former students have generally taken one of two forms. A number of states (such as Colorado and Virginia) have great databases of students who stay within the state after leaving college, while the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard captures students who received federal financial aid but can track them around the country. Both of these databases lose about 30% of all students, and the College Scorecard does not report data by major yet (perhaps in 2019?). This is what makes the University of Texas System’s new SEEK database so exciting. By partnering with the Census Bureau, the system can now provide major-level data for all campuses and students. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education will catch up with this important consumer information tool in the coming years, but for now look to states for the most fascinating developments.

(2) Why would anyone want to be the president of a public university? Given how presidents have to deal with often-hostile governing boards and politicians while living in the spotlight during the 24-hour media cycle, it takes a special type of person to fill this job for more than a few years. (The cynical answer would be for the nice paycheck, but I would contend that pay has increased in part to compensate for the higher risk of getting fired.) The saga with Margaret Spellings, who announced her upcoming resignation after three years as president of the University of North Carolina, is a great example. She faced withering criticism from faculty members upon being appointed (likely in part because she is fairly conservative relative to most of higher education, but she was not conservative enough for the state’s legislature. Also, it was clear that she did not want anything to do with the Silent Sam statue situation in Chapel Hill, which may or may not be resolved by constructing a new building to house the relic. UNC will struggle to get candidates anywhere close to the caliber of the highly-qualified Spellings, and expect more public universities to have a hard time getting good candidates going forward.

(1) Two Obama-era policies survive for another year (at least on paper) after the Department of Education misses key deadlines. Much of the Trump administration’s higher education policy efforts to this point have focused on undoing Obama-era regulatory actions. Two of the most prominent policies are borrower defense to repayment (affecting whether students can get loans forgiven if their college misrepresented facts to them) and gainful employment (which would have eventually tied federal financial aid eligibility for certain vocational programs to debt/earnings ratios).The Department of Education went through negotiated rulemaking sessions and then proposed new regulations to effectively repeal the current regulations (see my comments to ED here and here). However, ED missed a key November 1 deadline that would have allowed them to repeal the regulations on July 1, 2019.  This means that the Obama-era regulations will be on the books until July 1, 2020, even though ED would prefer not to enforce them. ED announced last week that they would implement the closed school discharge portion of borrower defense to repayment, but still expect plenty of lawsuits from left-leaning advocacy groups in the coming year.

Honorable mentions: University of Maryland-Baltimore County basks in the glory of a March Madness victory and highlights its STEM programs, investigation reveals Russian trolls helped foster the Mizzou protests, local professor unveils a delightful paperweight on accountability in higher education, the Supreme Court’s Janus decision weakens unions at public universities, enrollments and public funding for higher education generally remain stable.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

2 thoughts on “The 2018 Higher Education Top Ten List”

  1. Number one are two rules targeting for-profit colleges. In 2018, for profit colleges make up 6% of the total population of students enrolled. This is number one?

    1. Both of these rules have implications beyond the for-profit sector. For example, HBCUs have lobbied heavily against borrower defense to repayment ( and gainful employment affects certificate programs across higher education.

      So while these policies do affect a subset of students, these students are disproportionately low-income, first-generation, and minority…the groups most at risk of dropping out of college with high student debt burdens. That’s why I think any changes to these two rules are important.

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