Special Reports

An Executive Summary

February 29, 2016

Welcome to our second annual Trends Report. The past year has seen plenty of upheaval in higher education — student protests over racial inequality, controversies over free speech and so-called trigger warnings, rising complaints over the handling of campus sexual-assault cases, scandals involving academic research, questions about the value of a degree, and more. Look at some of the words that describe this year’s trends: "beware," "productivity," "reactive," "scrutiny," and "survive." If there’s a pattern here (or a meta-trend?), it’s that higher education continues to be on the defensive, under growing pressure to respond to critics on and off campus. To stay ahead of their critics, college leaders need to stay ahead of the curve. We hope The Trends Report can help.

Our coverage spells out 10 key shifts in higher education. We examine what’s working (and what’s not), and offer case studies, expert commentary, and resources you can use to start a conversation or a program on your own campuses. Think of it as a briefing on what informed college leaders need to know in 2016.

Meanwhile, the trends we identified last year haven’t exactly faded into oblivion. You’ll notice that several of them — most notably, challenges to free speech, an emphasis on helping students build careers, and the influence of social media — have evolved and taken on new forms for this year’s list.

Here are the 10 higher-education trends identified by our reporters and editors, with help from people whose jobs put them on the front lines of academe every day:

A fresh wave of attacks on free speech, often coming from students. Instructors (and even student debaters) are under pressure to provide students with trigger warnings, meant to warn them of potentially upsetting topics. Also contributing to the trend are student protests denouncing a hostile campus climate, and the emergence of watchdog groups that scrutinize campus speech for bias. Some colleges are fighting back.

Efforts by colleges to combat sexual assault by creating new cultural norms on the campus. Under pressure to make sure their handling of sexual-assault cases will stand up under Title IX, some institutions are proactively educating students about the meaning of consent and the importance of intervening to prevent sexual violence.

The growing use of metrics to measure faculty productivity. Colleges have new tools to see how their professors stack up, and they’re not afraid to use them. Faculty critics say the tools provide an incomplete and inaccurate picture of their jobs.

The need for college leaders to react quickly to events that could quickly spin out of control. "Reactive" used to be seen as a negative label, but in the age of social media, when leaders can no longer control the campus agenda, the ability to react has become a survival skill.

Widespread attacks on shared governance. The traditional model of shared governance is eroding as more governing boards make unilateral changes that ignore faculty opinion, such as appointing someone from outside academe as president. Boards are reacting to fiscal pressure, political heat, and complaints about the cost and value of a degree.

The outsourcing of services that are a core part of a college’s mission. It’s not unusual for colleges to turn the operation of campus bookstores and cafeterias over to private companies, but now they’re also outsourcing some key academic services, like advising and even teaching.

Increased scrutiny of academic research. Corporate influence and outright fraud have undermined the credibility of scientific research. Meanwhile, some fields have been tainted by research scandals involving fabrication and the inability to replicate results.

A movement to overhaul the college transcript. Some colleges are adding new types of information to transcripts to better reflect what students have learned and accomplished. An expanded and digitized transcript may lead to "the quantified student," but it could also provide a powerful accountability metric that allows colleges to track graduates.

The rise of the instructional designer. As online learning and new classroom technologies spread, the demand for instructional designers — who develop courses that others may teach — is growing.

A reliance on better marketing to survive enrollment challenges and create a stronger institutional identity. The golden rule: Know who your students are, and figure out how best to serve them.

We hope you find The Trends Report helpful. Let us know what you think at chronicle.com/trends.