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Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

March 24, 2021

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: 4 Challenges That Threaten College Completion Now and Post-Pandemic

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.

Four reports worth a deeper dive.

Some weeks, we all just need to take a breath and catch up on stuff that almost got by us. That’s what I’m doing this week, as I highlight four recent reports that struck me as important — and challenging — for higher ed. Here are what I take as the key findings.

Nearly a third of all adults in the country now hold at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Between 2005-09 and 2015-19, the proportion of the population with a B.A. or higher increased to 32.1 percent from 27.5 percent. Yet disparities in attainment still exist by race and ethnicity — and by geography, Michael Nietzel noted in a Forbes column. In fact, gaps have grown geographically, “with the South falling more behind other regions” over the 15-year period, notes Nietzel, a former president of Missouri State University.

Overall college enrollment declined during each of the last five years covered by the report, so the degree gains are a noteworthy sign of progress. Drops in enrollment this academic year, however, have been a lot steeper. Whether that downturn becomes a blip or destiny in terms of attainment will depend on how colleges and policy makers respond, especially in the next several months.

The economic impact of the pandemic and the pivot to remote learning inhibited some students’ access to textbooks and other course materials. It’s no longer even news that many students skip buying required textbooks or digital access codes, and it isn’t surprising that those numbers ticked up last fall, as a new survey shows. Far more alarming are the stark divides the survey reveals: Students who identified as being food-insecure, for example, were far more likely not to buy required course materials than were students as a whole. Ditto for those with unreliable internet connections. Those findings, based on a national survey of about 5,000 students, were reported in the third edition of the “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market” report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

In the early days of Covid-19, many commercial publishers made their materials free, but those offers waned, the report says, as the pandemic dragged into this academic year. Yet I keep hearing that the pandemic was a boost for the movement toward digital course materials. So I hope someone is out there right now studying the market’s shifting dynamics, and whether the pandemic will end up accelerating the push for open educational resources or cementing the role of commercial publishers.

A child-care crisis that forced millions of Americans to drop out of the work force this year has ramifications for higher ed. With new attention and ideas, however, this could be an incredible opportunity. After layoffs and furloughs, a lack of child care was the most common reason people gave for leaving the work force during the height of the pandemic, according to this recent analysis of Census data by Third Way. We already know that more than one in five undergraduates is a parent, and while not all of them have young children, certainly many do. Until more people’s child-care challenges are resolved, it’s hard to see how many parents will be able to consider enrolling in college. After all, if they give up income because they can’t balance child care and work, what are the chances they’d be able to juggle college, too?

Even before the pandemic, a lack of child care was an obstacle for many potential students. But uh, aren’t colleges the institutions that train our teachers and early-childhood educators? Maybe it’s time to double down on that mission. The pandemic has been a wake-up call for national leaders about the vital role of child care in keeping the economy going. Barring post-pandemic amnesia, that should lead to new public and corporate investments in child-care capacity. Colleges could lean into that awareness and highlight the role they can play in preparing a new generation of child-care providers for careers that ideally would demand greater respect and compensation. And in the process, colleges would create more child-care options for their own employees and students.

Rural regions are struggling, and so are the community colleges and tribal colleges that serve them. Rural institutions suffer from three major problems — a lack of broadband, a weakened funding model exacerbated by a declining tax base, and rising rates of depression, stress, and other mental-health issues in the populations they serve — according to the new report “Strengthening Rural Colleges” by the Association of Community College Trustees.

That last problem hit me like a gut punch. I was aware that rural communities had higher rates of suicide than does the rest of the country, plus a smaller presence of mental-health professionals (65 percent of non-metropolitan counties don’t have a single psychiatrist, and 47 percent do not have a single psychologist, the report notes). But I never really considered how that plays out for their colleges. Simply put, many are struggling to meet these very human needs.

The report highlights some promising strategies to ease a variety of real-life challenges that students face. I especially loved the “tiny homes” residential project that Imperial Valley College developed in California for some of its homeless students, and the Tuesday Night Live program at Hazard Community and Technical College, in Kentucky, that encourages students to bring their children there for meals, tutoring, and child care while the parents are attending classes. The report also suggests some policy changes that seem long overdue, including to expand the Federal Communications Commission E-Rate program to extend broadband subsidies to community colleges, and to call for recognition by state lawmakers that students, faculty, and staff members at tribal colleges are state residents, too — and that those institutions deserve state financial support.

Do any of the findings from these four reports stir your thinking? What opportunities do you see for colleges here (or in the newsletter last week about grants to promote more college partnerships and mergers)? Please let me know, via the email address below. I’d love to hear from you.

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.