College leaders shouldn’t waste this crisis, for students’ sake (opinion)

With college and university presidents navigating an unprecedented crisis, the temptation among many is to hunker down until the pandemic and inevitable recession are behind us. But if we come out on the other side with institutions that do the same things, in the same way, as before, we will have missed a significant opportunity to do better for students.

Each year, our nation — and 16 million undergraduate students — rely on American colleges and universities to develop the talent our country and world need to drive the economy and democracy forward, to launch the next generation into fulfilling lives and careers that might otherwise be out of reach, and to solve critical problems, from abating global warming to inventing new vaccines.

Today’s crisis presents an opportunity for college presidents to do more than secure institutional survival; they can address some of the most persistent obstacles to achieving higher education’s essential mission, including those that pose the greatest immediate threats to student success. Here are three they should consider.

Fix transfer. Nationally, over a third of undergraduate students transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions, and their new colleges accept an average of only 57 percent of their credits. This coming fall, health and financial concerns will likely cause far more students to transfer. As they attempt to do so, they could be harmed not just by the normal credit-transfer inefficiencies, but also by the unintended consequences of the widespread move to pass/fail grading policies. While such policies are appropriate now, four-year colleges often don’t accept pass/fail credits for transfer, especially not toward a student’s major.

The dire consequences of failing to solve this problem: millions of tuition dollars lost, large additions to an already staggering $1.6 trillion in student debt, further erosion of public trust in higher education and an anchor dragging down national efforts to graduate enough talent to lift our country out of the recession.

Here’s an alternative: at least for now, every college should commit to immediately adopting policies that maximize the credits students can transfer into degree programs. Anything less will fail to honor students’ prior learning at a time when they most need support. That doesn’t mean watering down expectations for what skills students should bring when they transfer; rather, it means working with departments and faculty to ensure that prior learning gets counted fairly.

Shift to need-based aid. Unprecedented student and family financial challenges will threaten college access. As it is, too many selective American colleges award substantial scholarships to attract capable students from high-income families. Meanwhile, millions of exceptional lower-income students can’t afford to attend those schools. As the economic crisis grows, so will the opportunity gap — unless colleges commit to expanding need-based aid, and thus socioeconomic diversity.

College presidents will be facing tough choices about spending priorities. Leaders at colleges where students have the greatest chance of graduating should commit to expanding the enrollment of lower-income students by shifting from merit- to need-based aid.

The latest American Talent Initiative report shows that over the last three years, the 327 U.S. colleges with the highest graduation rates have added 20,000 students who receive Pell Grants (for lower-income students). But during the 2008-09 recession, they expanded Pell enrollment only modestly, far less than other four-year schools and community colleges.

Here’s an idea: the president of every college with less than the national average in students receiving Pell Grants — about 35 percent — should commit to shifting at least 90 percent of financial aid dollars to need-based aid and to increasing the number of Pell recipients every year for the duration of the recession. The more these colleges center their values — and aid policies — on expanding access during difficult fiscal times, the more likely they will be to sustain that focus after the recession.

Advance teaching quality. Few professors were well prepared for the rapid shift to online classes this spring, and they’re seeing now how challenging it is to engage students and ensure learning. But this issue is not new. Online instruction has been shown to yield worse student outcomes than face-to-face courses.

The effectiveness of classroom teaching varies widely even in person, with instruction rooted in hands-on problem solving yielding huge increases in student learning as compared to traditional lecture-based instruction.

With the prospect of more online learning in the fall, now is the time to engage entire campuses on essential questions about how to define instructional excellence, how to fully engage students so they learn more and how to reimagine faculty professional development.

Here’s a step every president and provost should consider: challenge all instructors to examine the learning goals of their courses for the coming year and to identify and adopt research-based practices they believe will help them meet those goals in a virtual environment. Then, work with academic and faculty leaders to direct as many professional development resources as possible to supporting innovative student-centered approaches, and work with researchers to support faculty in rigorously assessing the effects of those approaches. The innovation inspired and knowledge gained could help colleges make enormous progress in quality teaching and learning over a relatively short period of time.

College presidents are navigating uncharted terrain, and making myriad tactical and strategic decisions about their institutions’ future. As they do so, they must not miss the opportunity to imagine an even better college, one where even more students from every background access high-quality learning that propels them into bright futures.

Inside Higher Ed