From the NEJHE Beat … Semi-Locked Down But Not Out

By John O. Harney

The NEJHE beat is semi-locked down, but not out. A little of what we’ve been following …

Counting heads. New enrollment figures show higher education reeling under the weight of COVID-19 and a faltering economy on top of preexisting challenges such as worries that college may not be worth the price. A month into the fall 2020 semester, undergraduate enrollment nationally was down 4% from last year, thanks in large part to a 16% drop in first-year students attending college this pandemic fall, according to “First Look” data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In New England, the early data suggest New Hampshire and Vermont were among the handful of U.S. states enrolling more undergraduates than last fall, while Rhode Island reported a nearly 16% drop.

At community colleges, freshman enrollment sunk by nearly 23% nationally, the clearinghouse reports.

Interestingly, before COVID hit and when so-called “Promise” programs were in full stride, 33 public community college Promise programs across the U.S. showed big enrollment success with their free-college models, according to a study released recently in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. Such programs were “associated with large enrollment increases of first-time, full-time students—with the biggest boost in enrollment among Black, Hispanic, and female students,” the study found, adding, “The results come as the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is leading states to tighten higher education budgets, as low-income students are forgoing their postsecondary plans at higher rates this fall than their wealthier peers, and as community colleges are experiencing larger enrollment declines than four-year universities.”

On the other hand, a report from our friends at the Hildreth Institute examines 22 statewide, free-tuition programs established in the past decade, and finds that most do not address the real barriers that prevent many students from getting a higher education credential. The report notes that tuition and fees represent just 24% of the cost of attending a community college and 40% of the cost of attending a public four-year university. Beyond tuition, students struggle with necessities like textbooks, computers, software, internet access, housing, food and transportation. Moreover, “the lower the income of a student, the less likely they are to benefit from existing tuition-free programs, known as ‘last-dollar’ scholarships, which cover only the portion of tuition and fees that are not covered by existing financial aid,” the Hildreth report notes.

Digital futures. The ECMC Foundation awarded the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF) $341,000 to fund the Connecticut Digital Credential Ecosystem Initiative, in partnership with NEBHE. A network of companies, community colleges, government agencies and other stakeholders, led by BHEF, will develop new pathways to digital careers, particularly for individuals unemployed due to COVID-19. BHEF will help community colleges issue industry-validated credentials to support transparent career pathways across Connecticut and the surrounding region. Participating employers will approve the knowledge, skills and abilities for these credentials, thus building recruitment and hiring links for students who complete the credential. The idea owes much to the work and recommendations of NEBHE’s Commission on Higher Education & Employability.

Organizing. I was happy to attend the virtual annual conference of the Hunter College National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, its 47th annual conference, this time held virtually due to COVID. The topic was “Inequality, Collective Bargaining and Higher Education.” It was a goldmine of perspectives on equity, antiracism and labor rights.

Among bright spots, talk of a possible student loan debt jubilee and increasing moves by campus CEOs to resist pay raises. Bill Fletcher Jr., former president of the advocacy group TransAfrica and senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, recounted the formation of labor organizing in the U.S. from America’s original sins of annihilating Native Americans and enslaving Africans through the birth of trade unionism and social justice efforts like Occupy and the National Education Association’s Red for Ed. We don’t need white allies, he added, but rather white comrades like John Brown on the frontlines.

Touting Joe Biden’s higher education platform, Tom Harnish, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and a faculty member at George Washington University, offered basic advice: If you want better higher education policy, get out and vote and put better people in office.

In a session on the evolution of labor studies, speakers noted that many labor education programs ironically have been folded into management schools or sometimes taught under the guise of the history of capitalism so as to attract students. We have to warn students that this is not the place if you’re aspiring to an HR position, one said.

No more boilermaking in Lewiston? No higher education models seem immune to COVID-19. Recently, Purdue University Global announced it is dropping its physical presence in Lewiston, Maine, when its lease expires in March. In spring 2017, Purdue University acquired most of the credential-granting side of the then-for-profit Kaplan University, as part of the Indiana-based public research university’s effort to engage the fast-growing adult student market. Kaplan had about 32,000 students taking courses online or at one of more than a dozen physical campus locations, including Lewiston and Augusta, Maine. The Lewiston building had been empty due to COVID. The Augusta building reportedly will continue to house the nursing program. Kaplan University, by the way, converted to nonprofit status as part of the deal.

See you in better times …

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.



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