The 2021 Chronicle of Higher Education Trends Report was released in February in both print and digital form. Consisting of five feature-length articles, this year’s report links the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to existing conversations in higher education. To that end, articles address the pandemic response, but also its impact on existing enrollment trends, shrinking graduate programs, student privacy, equity and diversity initiatives in response to the national events such as the murder of George Floyd, and the relationships between institutions and local communities.
Lee Gardner’s article “The Great Contraction” headlines the report. This piece highlights trends rooted in the past decade of enrollment decline while making the case that cuts must be strategic to have true long-term impact. Gardner links the budgetary shortfalls of the past year—during which colleges have experienced a 14% budget loss—to the existing conversation. While program cuts and enrollment decline necessitate job cuts, since 75% of institutional costs come from salary and benefits, COVID has disproportionally impacted hourly staff. These cuts carry “a racial dimension” due to the income level and demographics of classified workers. Also, this enrollment decline disproportionally impacts community colleges. While about two-thirds of institutions experienced a decline in the fall of 2020, 90% of community colleges suffered losses with half of community colleges seeing a decline of 10% or more. For those of us in IR, as well as other departments, this creates a threatening cycle, albeit one familiar to two-year institutions. Pressure to show value in data use, assessment, and student support is coupled with declining resources as well as strain on our collaborators amongst the faculty.
Graduate programs are the subject of Meghan Zahneis’s “The Shrinking of the Scholarly Ranks.” She examines the reasons and deeper issues behind the decisions of 131 doctoral programs to suspend new admissions. As with enrollment decline, this is a combination of existing pressures and the unique conditions of the pandemic. Doctoral programs underwent delays in research, limited access to facilities, and especially concerns about the job market. Like enrollment decline, the academic job market has been a major topic the past decade as institutions internalize losses and increase reliance on part-time faculty. The pandemic is amplifying concerns about both and, once again, cuts can present an equity issue. If the pandemic enrollment decline disproportionally impacts underserved populations, then cuts based on declining enrollment, or the creation of new initiatives in stronger programs, reflect the same inequities.
In both cases, faculty and students fear the budget and program cuts of the pandemic reflect existing administrative agendas these groups have opposed over the past decade. Institutional Research offices become part of this when data collection or assessement efforts are perceived as justifiying these priorities. Conflicts between institutional stakeholders are another theme of the Report. Katherine Mangan’s “The Surveilled Student” addresses the increased use of exam proctoring software and data collection tools during the pandemic. Health monitoring and contact tracing are the drivers of this growth, from “bio badges” to track health data and proximity to other students for tracing purposes, to cloud networked thermometers and audio monitors that screen speech patterns for signs of depression. Such developments have inspired pushback rooted in privacy concerns. Mangan ties this in with the existing conversation regarding exam proctoring software. Of colleges surveyed, 75% indicated they are using or considering using anti-cheating software. The preferred options are software that restricts student device use during exams and passive video monitoring. In addition to other privacy concerns, students and researchers contend that such software does a poor job of recognizing individuals with non-white skin. Student concerns, along with cost, are the main factors limiting adoption.
Racial and economic equity issues are factors in each article, and Tom Bartlett’s “The Antiracist College” approaches the subject directly. Centering the murder of George Floyd as a focal point, the piece notes the wave of public statements, building renaming, and diversity initiatives that have followed over the past year. Bartlett notes the history of diversity and inclusion programs on campuses, along with activist concerns that reactive efforts lead to little sustainable change. Colleges face political fallout as well as the perception that diversity and inclusion officers tend to act as apologists rather than reformers. As an IR director at a two-year instititon, expanding any program while experiencing major cuts in resources seems particularly daunting, especially given the disproportionate impact of The Great Contraction on minority staff and students. However, optimists note that in the past year institutions are taking more concrete steps than in the past. Statements are coming from presidents and chancellors directly, specific inequities such as need-based programs that stop out after two years, and comprehensive antiracism programs such as that created by the University of Louisville serve as examples that this time is different.
Finally, Jack Stripling’s “For Town and Gown, A Pandemic Pressure Test” directly examines colleges’ responses to the pandemic and their role in their communities. Focusing on SUNY-Oneonta, which send students home due to positive case numbers, Stripling uses email records the Chronicle obtained through a public information request to detail the relationship between the university the surrounding town of Oneonta. The college’s failure to communicate and enforce gathering restrictions strained relations with the community. A lack of communication between the institution and students, for example, no formal document that committed students to observe the CDC, accompanied the tension between school and town. A limited COVID testing effort, combined with challenges from student groups led to large gatherings and significant community spread as the institution became the only CUNY college to send students home that semester. This was a learning process. The college has undergone major staff changes and addressed many of the communication and messaging issues. As with all the issues addressed in this year’s Chronicle Trends Report, this is a story of learning through experience in a unique historical moment. Each article emphasizes the need for sustainable effort to address longstanding challenges that are closely connected to, but not created by, the COVID-19 pandemic. In institutions where administrators are taking on additional roles in response to challenging conditions, IR officers can leverage our links across campus and authority as producers of information to take greater initiative and promote lasting change.