Higher education’s perfect storm is becoming a tsunami

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The war between Israel and Hamas has divided college campuses like no other issue in recent memory. Student walk-outs, vigils and protests, along with sharp increases in antisemitism and Islamophobia, have left many students feeling unsafe, have outraged parents and have prompted harsh public criticism of what many see as tepid responses from university leaders.

Student arrests at Dartmouth, violence at Tulane, threats to destroy the kosher dining hall at Cornell, dueling faculty letters at Columbia, donor revolts at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and elsewhere, doxing campaigns against student activists, employer warnings, and rescissions of job offers are fueling the fire.

The latest in a series of crises, the Israel-Hamas war is turning a perfect storm for colleges and universities into a tsunami. In polls taken before October, only 36 percent of Americans said they have confidence in higher education, down from 57 percent in 2015. A majority think higher education isn’t worth the time and money; two years ago, almost 60 percent thought it was. Student debt totals $1.75 trillion, up 75 percent in the last 10 years. Most Americans think higher education is unaffordable and is going in the wrong direction.

The challenges facing academic institutions are daunting. All the more reason, in our judgment, for leaders in higher education to make a more concerted effort to inform legislators and a skeptical public how they are addressing them. To set the context, they should explain the core values of American colleges and universities, and why higher education in the United States has been and remains a remarkable success story, one that other countries seek to emulate.

For many Americans, campus responses to the war represent only the latest evidence of an out of control “woke agenda.” They have urged crackdowns on campus criticism of Israel, cuts to public funding of schools deemed insufficiently vigorous in opposing antisemitism, revocation of some international students’ visas, and bans on campus chapters of the pro-Palestinian group Students for Justice in Palestine.

These initiatives follow a host of other measures aimed at combating “woke indoctrination” on college campuses. They include educational gag orders restricting “discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history” in public schools and campaigns to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, undermine tenure, and ban or sanitize books.

Although claims of woke indoctrination are grotesquely exaggerated, progressive politics do dominate campus culture at most colleges and universities, and many students report a reluctance to discuss controversial subjects for fear of criticism by their peers. Therefore, schools should reaffirm robust protections for freedom of expression and inquiry, offer programs that model respectful dialogue across political boundaries and encourage faculty to elicit a broad range of views in their classrooms, among their colleagues and their choice of guest speakers.

Public trust in higher education is further complicated by issues of access and affordability. Almost three-quarters of young adults think the admission process involves “a lot” of bias and privileges the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court recently upended 45 years of precedent by banning affirmative action in college admissions, undermining efforts to increase diversity and opening new debates over legacy and athletic preferences. With most colleges and universities now SAT and ACT test optional and grade inflation in high schools widespread, schools have less information on which to base admission decisions. To rebuild public confidence, admission offices will need to refine and clarify the criteria they are using and better explain how they align with higher education’s mission as an engine of equal opportunity for all Americans.

Students now bring to college historic levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. In an expansion of their traditional mission, colleges and universities are pouring resources into student support services, but can’t keep up with the demand. Given financial limits to the assistance they can provide, schools need to manage expectations and help students and their parents distinguish between issues that require access to a therapist and those that can be managed in other ways.

For many schools, the existential challenge is financial. While highly selective institutions are seeing record applications, many colleges and universities are struggling to fill their classes, and some are going out of business. Undergraduate enrollment fell 15 percent from 2010-2021, and that trend may accelerate as we approach the “demographic cliff,” the moment in 2025 when the number of high school graduates will fall sharply. And, of course, the cost of attendance is a major driver of public skepticism about the value of higher education.

Schools must find additional ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality. This may mean resisting demands for ever-expanding student services and expensive amenities like gyms and fancy dining halls, outsourcing non-academic services to lower cost providers, and sharing costs through higher education consortia.

All that said, on average, college graduates are happier than peers who did not attend college. They earn more, live longer, pay more in taxes, contribute more to their communities, and “make better decisions about health, marriage, and parenting” — to say nothing of the intellectual, social and aesthetic interests college inspires.

90 percent of graduating seniors say college was worthwhile, and 82 percent of college graduates agree. Colleges and universities need to do a better job of enlisting them to tell their stories so that more people understand what actually happens in college, in marked contrast to the caricatures often circulated by critics.

As campus leaders respond to crises, grapple with technological change (including AI), and manage shifts in student needs and expectations, they should be candid about the challenges they confront and the reasons behind their policies. They will not satisfy everyone, but higher education’s essential mission makes the effort worthwhile.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.” David Wippman is President of Hamilton College.

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