Colleges across the nation are in a period of immense change.
For one, who is going to college is shifting. Student populations are more diverse than ever, and a growing number of working adults are enrolling in postsecondary education. As the market pushes back on rising tuition, colleges are feeling the pressure to respond to a wider range of student needs while still striving to improve their outcomes.
The format of education is also undergoing a transformation. Automation of the workplace is requiring workers to upskill or reskill more quickly, ushering in a need for more efficient and accessible ways to earn credentials.
Higher education leaders and experts addressed those trends last week at a meeting with journalists in Baltimore, hosted by the Education Writers Association. Here's what they said colleges should do better to educate and welcome students.
Address a racist past
Last month, Georgetown University students made headlines when they approved a fund to make reparations with the descendants of slaves who the college sold in the 19th century to pay off its debts. Georgetown's board of directors must sign off on the measure before it takes effect, but it has already been lauded as a first-of-its-kind effort by a university to atone for past wrongs.
Georgetown isn't alone its mission to expose its past relationship to slavery, panelists noted at the EWA conference. A growing number of campuses are tearing down their Confederate monuments or adding information to the sites to put them into context.
Meanwhile, more universities are working together to examine their legacies of slavery and to better highlight the contributions of minority students and academics. And although administrators can be nervous about bringing troubled histories to light, transparency can often be good for the college's brand, said Kirt Von Daacke, a history professor at the University of Virginia.
"We're here to create knowledge," he added. "That knowledge should be honest and meet every academic standard. If we're not doing that, we're not doing our jobs right."
As the college-going population grows more diverse, it will become critical for institutions to reckon with their past and foster a more inclusive environment on campus. Yet some colleges still have "a long way to go" to accommodate black students, said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, during a panel on the subject.
"They are often on the periphery," he said. "We are not teaching students of all races how to interact." To do so, Hrabowski recommended embedding discussions about race into more of the curriculum, as well as training faculty on how to talk about such issues.
"When families of color see an institution as welcoming, when students at the institution — black, Latino, Asian, whatever — say, 'I'm treated well here; people care about me,' that message gets out," Hrabowski said. "If the opposite happens, bad news travels very fast."
Reform remedial education
Remedial education has come under fire in recent years as a growing body of evidence suggests it doesn't help students progress and can often burn through their financial aid. As such, more colleges are rethinking their approach to remedial courses or are abandoning them altogether.
California has emerged as a leader in reforming remedial education, EWA panelists noted. In 2017, the state passed a bill that requires colleges to increase the possibility that community college students will enroll and complete transfer-level courses.
To do so, the state's colleges are using multiple measures to determine which courses students should take instead of basing their decision solely on the results of standardized tests, which may funnel students into remedial courses even if they don't need them.
"We have to use high school grades for placement into English and math courses," said Katie Hern, co-founder of the California Acceleration Project. "We can't just ignore everything they did for four years and make them sit down, take the wrong test … (and) take two years of remedial courses."
In addition, more colleges are adding supports for students taking credit-bearing courses in lieu of remedial classes. Those include tutoring, workshops and study sessions. This format, often called corequisite education, can lead to higher pass rates than traditional remediation and is gaining traction at community colleges.
Improve the credential marketplace
The number of credentials is continuing to grow, but there is little information to help students navigate the vast marketplace. "There are some big dark spaces in the landscape that we just don’t know very much about," said Martin Kurzweil, a director at Ithaka S+R, adding that quality assurance for credentials can be "patchy."
Some colleges, however, are stepping in to bring more transparency to the market. The California Community Colleges system, for instance, recently rolled out an initiative called Strong Workforce Stars, which ranks career education programs based on their ability to help graduates earn more money, make a living wage and work within their fields of study.
"We need to think beyond local borders because we're not going address this issue and really unlock mobility for folks if we remain so fragmented in the way we think about credentials."
Senior manager, Walmart Foundation
Colleges are also forging ties with industry to bolster their credential offerings. For instance, the Capital CoLab — which brings together universities and employers in the Washington, D.C., metro area — recently launched a shared tech credential. Students who complete the credential get priority for job interviews with CoLab member companies, including Northrop Grumman, Amazon Web Services and Exelon.
Likewise, 19 Los Angeles community colleges teamed up with Amazon Web Services to offer students a "regionally recognized" certificate in cloud computing. However, panelists at EWA said there needs to be a better way to recognize local credentials on a national scale.
"We need to think beyond local borders because we're not going address this issue and really unlock mobility for folks if we remain so fragmented in the way we think about credentials," said Danielle Goonan, senior manager at the Walmart Foundation.