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Future of Higher Education

Why We Need to Commit to Liberal Education During These Times

According to the Pell Institute’s report on 2020 Indicators of Higher Education in the US, paying for college is harder than ever and students are more likely to shoulder debt upon leaving. With federal financial aid covering a smaller percentage of college costs, low-income, first-generation students are encountering increasingly high barriers to college access and completion. 

For the past three decades, much of the focus on equity in higher education has been solely on getting low-income students — especially those who are the first in their families to attend college — through the gates. 

However, the narrowness of this approach is highlighted by the fact that even though the percentage of students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile has risen from 32 percent in 1990 to 51 percent today, for every 100 students from this group entering college, only 21 will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Highlighting divides

These statistics signal a growing economic and racial segregation in American higher education that is bound to be exacerbated by the long-term impact of COVID-19. While colleges and universities across the country demonstrated remarkable resilience in transitioning to online and remote learning in March, in the process, heightened awareness was brought to the food and shelter insecurities experienced by students at all types of institutions. 

At the same time, the true size of the digital divide was unveiled. Students without access to computers and high-speed internet, or who struggled with limited data plans, began lining up for college-supplied electronic devices and filling digital parking lots designed to facilitate course delivery. 

In the five months that followed, more than 51 million Americans filed for unemployment, and the circumstances for many poor and middle-class students worsened. 

Long before the pandemic, Cia Verschelden’s compelling book “Bandwidth Recovery” detailed how stress from economic insecurities, racism, and a lack of a sense of belonging contributed to the reduction of cognitive bandwidth available for student learning. 

The impacts of COVID-19 will add further stress for students in the coming semester, whether they are on campus or learning remotely. Moreover, for a growing proportion of undergraduates, the stress will be magnified by the disproportionate burdens they bear as students of color during this moment of racial reckoning in America. 

Back to basics

Redressing persistent inequities in higher education requires a renewed and reinvigorated commitment to the centrality of liberal education and to meeting the demands of equity and quality. 

Rather than emphasize standardized tests and grades as a means of ranking and sorting, students should be given opportunities to demonstrate achievement in a range of knowledge and skills areas that cut across their educational experiences. Assessment should be aimed at refining those experiences and pathways into cycles of continuous improvement, preparing students to address the real-world, unscripted problems of the future by engaging them in deep learning.   

Finally, if higher education is to emerge strengthened from the current crises, campuses will need to engage in truth-telling conversations about racialized practices that marginalize students of color, and must be prepared to address structural and systemic racism as a core concern. 

Inclusive excellence takes direct aim at educational disparities and patterns of systemic disadvantage — especially those resulting from historical and contemporary effects of racism. 

A product of an academy refocused on learning, excellence — reconceived as a process rather than an outcome — has the potential to function as an engine of inclusion, relieving socioeconomic stratification by empowering an increasingly diverse student body to appropriate the essential outcomes of a strong, relevant, and inclusive liberal education, fulfilling the American dream and our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy.

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