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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

December 16, 2020

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Your Favorite Topics From a (Very Unusual) Year Covering Innovation

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

The newsletter topics that most clicked with you in 2020.

It’s been a weird year to be covering innovation in higher education.

Yet looking back on the topics that seemed to have most engaged you over these eventful and distressing past 12 months, I’m struck that some themes that resonated most in 2020 — enrollment trends and new approaches to students' employability — were similar to ones that were most clicked in 2019, when I started this annual “tradition.”

But of course with these, and the rest of your top 10, the effects of Covid-19 loomed large. As we’ve all been adapting to this continuing crisis, I feel privileged to have had the chance to share some of the real creativity — and sadly, some of the failures — that I’ve seen from colleges and the ecosystem around them.

Two of the most popular newsletters this year were The Equity Argument — and a New Tool — for Skills-Based Hiring (No. 2) and Students’ Internships Are Disappearing. Can Virtual Models Replace Them? (No. 3). Each reflected the pandemic reality. The virtual-internships piece highlighted one of the early ways colleges and employers could adapt to their new environment. Now, I’d love to see some analyses of how these experiments played out, especially since in many ways this mode offers many promising improvements over the face-to-face experience and could bring benefits to many more students (those who are place bound for family or financial reasons) even after concerns about the coronavirus subside.

The skills-based hiring newsletter came out in June, as the first shock waves of unemployment were beginning to hit, so I imagine that a piece describing how employers might look at criteria besides a degree was a timely reminder that colleges’ hold as the “signal senders” in hiring might be vulnerable to a challenge.

(Quick disclaimer: The “science” behind this top-10 list isn’t exact, but my colleague, Josh Hatch, who assembled it for me, assures me that it fairly represents the newsletters that were most popular, based on The Edge emails that subscribers and readers on the web opened the most.)

I’m a tad surprised that What if Colleges Designed Gap Years? This Year, Especially, They Should came in at No. 1. In it I wrote: “If a deadly global pandemic, sweeping protests over racial injustice, and growing recognition of the schisms of income inequality don’t add up to a teachable moment deserving of a new kind of higher-ed experiment, what would?” Frankly, I was even more surprised to watch in the months that followed how few colleges actually used this moment to shake things up. My colleagues who write the Teaching newsletter described one effort at Barnard College, and Paul Quinn College, in Dallas, teamed up with the Minerva Project to create a new Urban Scholars Program, but I haven’t heard about too many others.

Still, the pandemic does seem to have gotten many of you interested in ways that the pandemic could spark some long-overdue changes. This newsletter, Let’s Give a Kiss Goodbye to These 10 Pandemic-Endangered Practices (among them: faculty office hours that take place only in faculty offices and the rite of the campus tour), ranked No. 4 in popularity. It was informed by dozens of suggestions I received from readers over the summer. Thanks. Now let’s see if colleges actually get busy making some of these changes real.

Enrollment concerns were the dominant themes of three newsletters in the top 10 list: Unemployment Hardships Could Derail Latino Students Who Were Poised to Drive Colleges’ Enrollment examined how Covid-19 has struck especially hard at Hispanic students who have been “more and more ready to go” to college. Counting on Employer-Paid Tuition Is Hardly a Safe Strategy Anymore. What Now? highlighted how layoffs at big companies could have ripple effects for colleges that have been banking on their employer relationships to bolster their student pipelines. And The Pandemic Is Already Hitting Sectors Unevenly, Never Mind the Hitches in Federal Relief explored how some of the most tuition-dependent institutions — private colleges and regional publics — were hoping to manage with few lifelines on the horizon from the federal government.

Eight months later, colleges are still waiting — and hoping — for a second rescue package. There’s a new bipartisan proposal gaining steam in Congress this week, but it falls far short of what higher-ed leaders are seeking. (Many community colleges have been hit by huge enrollment declines, too, and I did also write about the challenges they face now, but that newsletter didn’t make the top-10 cut.)

I was pretty pleased with myself for having flagged Covid-19 as a game changer back in early March, when I wrote Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed. Sadly that one was right on the money. I know lots of colleges are congratulating themselves right now for having gotten through the summer and the fall, but at what cost? Colleges have cut a tenth of their work force since March, and the pandemic isn’t over yet. On top of that, trust between faculty members and college leaders at many institutions has frayed, and a new wave of cuts to academic programs is all but certain in the months to come.

One of the painful lessons of the pandemic is how much it has deepened existing disparities in higher education. That was the theme of the last two newsletters in the top-10 list. One, 3 Ideas to Reduce Educational Disparities Post-Pandemic, highlighted proposals (like recruiting recent college grads to a new "tutor corps") to soften the educational and employment losses now taking place. The other, Remember When We Thought Higher Ed Was ‘In Crisis’?, was my look back on the issues I first wrote about in my Oxford University Press book, to see how many of the concerns raging in 2013-14 still seemed salient in the face of the truly existential threats of 2020. As it turns out, quite a few. That was a good stroke for my ego, but not so good for higher ed, considering so many of these dealt with divides in higher-ed opportunity among the haves and the have-nots.

In many ways, I think these 10 newsletters do convey many of the biggest themes I saw this year. Three others I love to add? At the very least, this one, because I still think some colleges will pay a political and public-relations price for the way they operated face to face; this one, because it begins to define what it means to be an “open access” institution today; and this one, because it frames some of the parameters and priorities for innovation in the wake of the new national political landscape. But hey, this isn’t a demand for a recount. As with the presidential election, I respect the process.

Quote of the Week

“Dear @DrBiden: My father was a non-medical doctor. And his work benefited humanity greatly. Yours does, too.”

— Bernice King

King, the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, responding via tweet to a Wall Street Journal op-ed that haughtily criticized the soon-to-be first lady Jill Biden, a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, for using the Dr. honorific. (Of the many other responses defending Biden, my favorite was Chasten Buttigieg’s T-shirt campaign, which has so far raised thousands of dollars in scholarships for NoVa students.)

Happy holidays.

Well, we made it. Invoking another year-end “tradition” for The Edge, I thank all of you for your ideas, critiques, insights, and support over the past year. I’m truly humbled by it, and grateful for it. This newsletter is designed to capture the conversations and ideas that are reshaping higher ed, and especially this year, your willingness to share your thinking with me has made all the difference. I wish you all a healthy and relaxing holiday season. The Edge will be getting a break too. I’ll be back in your inboxes on January 6, 2021.

And oh yeah, one last time for 2020: Vaccines are here, and people are dancing in the streets in joy (really, they are, watch here). But the Covid-19 risks are as real as ever. Now’s not the time to let our guards down. So please, #MaskUp.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.