10 Takeaways From the Fall 2021 Semester | Inside Higher Ed

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Are you old enough to remember TW3: That Was the Week that Was, the satirical television show that premiered on BBC in late 1962, appeared in the United States during the 1964-1965 TV season, and opened the door to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live?

The show’s theme song will always remain fixed in my mind, including its tag line: “It’s over, let it go.”  But, of course, the show’s premise was that the news shouldn’t be forgotten.  

Rather, parody, ridicule, caricature, burlesque, spoofing, lampooning, and mockery offered the only sane response to a “sane” world of war, homophobia, and gross inequality.

We’ve lived through quite a year, colored by the pandemic, the partisan divide, and heightened concern over equity.

Let’s ask what lessons we might take-away from the past semester.  Here’s my Top 10 list.

1. The pandemic will likely become endemic, with periodic, localized surges continuing to recur.
The 2021 semester ended as it began: with infections surging, with many campuses shifting online and many sport events and commencement ceremonies canceled, rescheduled, or delivered virtually.

The fantasy that we had put the pandemic behind us has been dashed.

My guesses are that: 

  • Disputes over masking, social distancing, vaccine mandates, quarantines, and when to allow faculty to teach online will likely continue.
  • The United States will begin to act more like Sweden, where most young people lead lives that resemble the pre-pandemic normal, while those of us who are seniors or are especially vulnerable to COVID will need to lead more restricted lives.
  • Colleges and universities will embrace greater flexibility in course design, assessment strategies, and delivery modalities, making it easier to adjust to shifting circumstances and to serve a student body with differing needs.

2. The shift toward test-optional admissions accelerated.
More than a thousand four-year colleges – including Harvard, Chicago, and the UC campuses – embraced test-optional admissions.

What a telling irony:  Before most highly selective schools ended legacy admissions, these colleges and universities adopted test-optional admissions.  We’re all familiar with the justification:  

  • That high school grades, class rank, and other student achievements are at least as valid predictors of graduation as standardized tests.
  • That this shift away from mandatory testing will promote diversity by encouraging more applications from low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students who tend to score lower on standardized admissions test.
  • That the shift away from standardized testing will encourage campuses to evaluate applicants more holistically.
  • That the retreat from testing will reduce stigma and stress for talented but disadvantaged students and for those exceptional but test-phobic applicants who test poorly.

But we also need to recognize that this shift will magnifies admissions offices’ ability to shape entering classes as they wish; will likely reduce the proportion of Asian American students at the most selective institutions; and will make admissions into highly selective schools even more opaque and seemingly arbitrary.

3. The decade-long decline in undergraduate enrollment continued.
Predictions that undergraduate enrollment would bounce back when lockdowns were lifted proved premature.

In the fall of 2021, the number of undergraduate students dropped by 3.2 percent after falling 3.4 percent during the 2020-21 pandemic year.  This is the largest two-year decline on record, reflecting the diminishing number of high school students and of international undergraduate enrollment and the decision by a growing number of young men to pursue work instead of college.

The ongoing decline in undergraduate enrollment has encouraged institutions to pursue potential growth markets: transfer students, degree completers, adult learners, and graduate and professional students.  But whether these institutions will take the steps needed to serve these students effectively remains to be seen.

More aggressive recruitment and altered admissions standards are just the first step.  Adult learners, in particular, benefit from:

  • more frequent start dates.
  • shorter semesters.
  • intensive advising.
  • more flexible and convenient online, hybrid, and low-residence delivery models.
  • courses that are more tightly aligned with industry needs. 

Whether campuses will institute the kinds of programs that these students need to be successful is, of course, highly uncertain.

4. Rising costs that outpace traditional sources of revenue.
Reports of soaring endowments, record-breaking donations, and successful capital campaigns at the nation’s best resourced institutions, coupled with an influx of massive but temporary federal aid through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to their less well-funded counterparts, has obscured a disturbing reality:  That the colleges and universities that serve the bulk of undergraduates are victims of a financial squeeze.  

Institutional costs and financial aid budgets increase, but these schools are unable to increase tuition revenue to make up the difference. Tuition freezes have been instituted in Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Something has got to give.  The likely results:  Intensifying stratification in terms of program offerings, reliance on adjunct faculty, and staffing of student support services.  

5. Pressures for equity intensified.
The protests over gross disparities in policing, housing, healthcare and this country’s long overdue reckoning with race impelled campuses to take active steps to address campus inequities in admissions and campus life and to make their institutions more accessible, welcoming, and supportive.

Much remains to be done.  Campuses need to address courses with extremely high DFW rates.  Access to high demand majors needs to increase.  But pressures for accountability have swollen, and, hopefully, will ensure that words are matched by tangible actions.

At the same time:

  • Under pressure from the courts, legislatures led by Maryland’s took steps to address persistent inequalities in funding for historically Black colleges and universities.
  • Federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, increased funding for HBCUs and other minority serving institutions. 

Only the future will tell whether these initiatives will persist, but I feel relatively confident that the forces for equity are strong enough to ensure that these efforts will not only be sustained but will increase.

6. Political meddling in higher education
The controversy surrounding the University of North Carolina’s decision (later reversed) to deny tenure to the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones proved to be a prelude to other political interventions in curricular, tenure, and policy decisions in a number of the nation’s Republican-led states that threaten academic integrity and independence.

Convinced that many public institutions discriminated against conservative viewpoints and had become “indoctrination factories” that taught undergraduates to despise American society:

  • A number of red state governors issued executive orders barring mask and vaccination mandates.
  • The University of Florida blocked professors from testifying in a voting rights lawsuit against the state, before backing down.
  • The South Carolina legislature will consider a bill next year that would stop public colleges and universities in that state from awarding tenure to faculty members hired after December 31, 2022.
  • An Idaho law a bill would withhold state funding from schools if teachers compel students to believe certain viewpoints that lawmakers say are “often found in critical race theory.”

There is every reason to believe that higher education will continue to serve as a cultural battlefield and punching bag, and there’s a real danger that the impact on individual colleges and universities could be costly.

7. The shifting higher education landscape.
A growing number of corporations, including Chipotle, Disney, Lowe’s, Starbucks, Target, and Walmart now offer college education as an employment benefit.  Amazon, Google, and Microsoft and a host of non-profits have begun to offer job-aligned online certificate programs, often in conjunction with university partners.  Third-party vendors, including 2U through its edX acquisition, promise to help financially-pressed institutions reach new markets and generate much needed revenue. 

Sounds like a win-win for existing colleges and universities.  But a recent article in Bloomberg,com raises some red flags. The article, which focuses on Guild Education, a public benefit corporation which manages the benefits programs that pay for employees’ education and provides coaching services to students, criticizes Guild for:

  • Taking up to a third of the tuition dollars its program generates.
  • Channeling unqualified students into degree programs
  • Assigning as many as 1,000 students to its coaches and advisors. 
  • Bringing very few students to graduation.

Red flags are also evident in other growth areas: Short-term certificate and certification programs and in early college/dual degree programs that promise to accelerate time to a degree.  Quality assurance and graduation and employment outcomes remain uncertain, and adequately accountability mechanisms are not in place.

8. Controversies over academic freedom
The decision by Old Dominion University to place a professor on leave who studies pedophilia – and was accused on social media of defending childhood sexual abuse — touched off a firestorm over academic freedom.  It was one of many controversies during the fall 2021 semester over free inquiry and civil discourse on campus that has become a major flashpoint in today’s culture wars.  

The proposal to start a new University of Austin was prompted, its supporters claim, by an illiberalism that they claim has become a pervasive feature of campus life.

Henry Reichman, who chaired the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, argues, in his recently released study, Understanding Academic Freedom, that the current controversies rest on a series of deep disagreements that are not about to fade away:

  • Does the primary threat to academic freedom come from a rightwing assault on expertise, leftwing intolerance of conservative and contrarian opinion, student resistance to ideas that threaten their comfort or make them feel unsafe, social media bullies, corporate interests, politically biased administrators, or from something else?
  • Is academic freedom a claim to special privilege by a professorial elite that threatens to make them publicly unaccountable?
  • Do advocates for academic freedom genuinely want diversity of opinion on campus or simply to protect their own point of view in a highly polarized political environment?
  •  Do social media, expanding numbers of contingent faculty, and politically appointed governing boards beholden to special interests pose an existential threat to the concept of academic freedom and campus intellectual independence?

9. Campus activism spiked.
After intensifying during the pandemic year of 2020, campus activism took new forms and achieved novel successes in fall 2021.  A prolonged graduate student strike at Columbia, undergraduate unionization at Hamilton (and earlier, at Grinnell), and Harvard’s decision to divest from fossil fuels were only the most visible examples of student activism, which included protests involving:

  • Equity, including diversity and anti-racism training, increased hiring of diverse faculty and staff, and diversity-focused course requirements.
  • Campus safety and policing.
  • Removal of campus symbols of oppression.
  • Increased student representation in campus decisionmaking.
  • Worker rights
  • Tuition costs
  • Sexual assault
  • LGBTQ+ resources and transgender student rights
  • Environmental action

10. The secrets to student success have become much clearer.
Lest I close on a negative note, let me end this list more positively.  As 2021 came to a conclusion, we had acquired much more knowledge about how to bring many more students to success:

  • A holistic, comprehensive program of student support, modeled on CUNY’s ASAP and ACE programs, that provides intensive personalized advising and career development services, block scheduling, social and financial and transportation support,
  • Replacing remedial courses with co-requisite remediation.
  • Career-aligned curricular pathways and learning communities that provide a more synergistic, supportive route to a degree. 
  • A community of care approach to student advising and counseling that includes one-stop services, case management strategies in advising, and data-driven proactive intervention when students fall off-track, and provision of emergency financial aid.

I recently attended a 1970s-themed Christmas party, and it was a trip, with an abundance of sequined tops, clogs, over the knee boots, jump suits, Disco, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Farah Fawcett, John Travolta, and Blues Brothers look-alikes.

But, as one who attended graduate school across that decade, I can attest that the 1970s was much more than chest hair, bell bottoms, boogie shoes, metallic dresses, and loudly patterned shirts unbuttoned halfway down the chest.

Among the best histories of the Me Decade bears the caustic, ironic, and incongruous title, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened.  The book’s theme is that the 1970s were anything but inconsequential.  “far from our common impression of the calm following the turbulent ’60s. Instead, it was a” decade of far-reaching transformations. 

The crucial events of that decade – the Watergate Affair, the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, Roe v. Wade, the energy crisis, stagflation, deindustrialization, the politization of Evangelicals, the breakdown of the nuclear family, the Drug War, and the Iranian hostage crisis – altered American politics, foreign relations, and society fundamentally, resulting in developments with long-term, historic consequences: Deregulation, the opening to China, and the emergence of Neoconservatism and Neoliberalism.

Those who think of the past semester as the first steps toward a return to normality will, I suspect, discover that it, too, was a time of decisive, fateful transformations.  My advice: Keep your seatbelt fastened.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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