As fall 2022 picks up in earnest for most colleges, mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic doesn't dominate conversations the way it did in January or last year at this time. But the coronavirus is still here, and another pathogen has arrived on campuses, monkeypox.
Meanwhile, the politics and policy landscape looks very different than it used to, as President Joe Biden last month announced a long-awaited student debt forgiveness plan that's now reshaping conversations about the value of higher ed. Higher education’s financial picture is changing, too — pandemic relief dollars have all been awarded, while concerns about staffing turnover and high inflation linger.
All summer, we've been monitoring developments affecting the sector and asking higher ed leaders what's on their minds. We condensed their thoughts into eight big questions for the fall.
How many students will be enrolled when the census date arrives?
College leaders annually worry about summer melt — when students are accepted to a college, submit a deposit and then don't show up for classes come fall. They’re also watching to see whether late-deciding students will register at open-access institutions.
Beyond that standard concern, this year represents the confluence of several developments.
Concerns about melt have only grown in the years after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation prompted the National Association for College Admission Counseling to stop enforcing May 1 as the end of undergraduate recruiting season.
College leaders are particularly focused on the K-12 to higher ed pipeline because of recent enrollment losses.
Higher ed institutions enrolled about 1 million fewer undergraduates last fall than they did two years prior, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found. Enrollment slipped 3.1% from fall 2020 to fall 2021, and the news wasn't much better in the spring, when undergraduate enrollment fell 4.7% year over year.
"It's important to recognize there are hundreds of colleges out there struggling to make their classes, and it's not going to get any easier," said Angel Pérez, CEO of NACAC.
Community colleges have suffered much of the enrollment declines during the pandemic. Among four-year institutions, those with the most competitive admissions are expected to see relatively little disruption. But just down the ladder, students become much more price sensitive, putting downward pressure on enrollment and net tuition revenue at colleges.
"The top 350 to 500 are continuing to report to us banner applications, banner enrollments, waitlists, tripling in residence halls and a slightly lower discount rate," said Jim Hundrieser, vice president for consulting services with the National Association of College and University Business Officers. "On the other hand, the other 3,500 are reporting being not at enrollment goals, not at revenue goals, empty dorm rooms."
Another factor could further unsettle the picture: abortion access. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion this summer, several states promptly banned the procedure. Questions loom about whether abortion access will influence where mobile students enroll.
What happens to test-optional admissions' momentum?
The test-optional movement is coming off of a strong few years, boosted by pandemic-era access issues that prompted colleges to waive SAT and ACT application requirements. By the end of July, more than 1,700 colleges said they weren't requiring SAT and ACT scores as part of admissions for fall 2023, ahead of roughly 1,600 that were test optional at the same point the previous year.
But after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided this spring to reinstate a test-score requirement, many are watching to see if the trend will slow or reverse.
"Are there going to be others?" Pérez said. "Institutions and university systems are reaching out to us to help advocate to keep the system or the university test-optional. I would say the majority of our members are probably in favor of test-optional. Not all."
It's not just an undergraduate question. The American Bar Association, which accredits nearly 200 law schools, is evaluating whether it will still require its schools to use a "valid and reliable" admissions exam like the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT.
How much will a blurry financial picture clear?
The financial outlook for individual colleges is muddled. It's too soon to know whether President Joe Biden's plan to forgive portions of federal student loan debt will affect students' willingness to pay for college. But colleges are facing the end of special government support that helped many navigate the pandemic.
Pandemic relief funding for colleges and their students totaled $76 billion since early 2020, which is estimated to break down to a median $13.2 million per college. Institutions could sometimes use the money to forgive debts students owed them, a potential tool to recruit stopped-out students that also boosted institutions' short-term bottom lines.
On the expense side, inflation and labor shortages are driving up costs for some institutions, prompting predictions of lower capital spending and tuition increases. Pay has been among the biggest pressures, Hundrieser said. Institutions that cut pay at the start of the pandemic might need to restore cuts and then add 3% or 4% raises to retain employees.
College leaders have become more open about talking about these challenges, Hundrieser said. Over the summer, he heard small and midsized private nonprofit institutions worrying that they will drop into a budget deficit if they give necessary raises and pursue delayed capital projects.
"The COVID dollars covered their operating gaps," Hundrieser said.
Will the loss of that support prompt more talk of mergers or acquisitions? Some deals happened over the last few years, but the rate has been lower than predicted at the start of the pandemic.
"I would expect to see a wave of reorganizations, consolidations and mergers that have maybe been delayed or held off by the federal relief funding," said Martin Kurzweil, vice president for educational transformation at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit research group focused on higher ed.
How much will higher ed factor into politics?
Biden's debt forgiveness plan became the latest in a long string of higher ed-related issues that political parties try to turn to their advantage. Concerns about fairness, costs and debt join a host of culture war issues that cut to the core of higher ed's value proposition, from free speech on campus to state laws seeking to restrict teaching of race-related topics.
That impacts budgets and people.
"It's leading to a whole bunch of things like states cutting back support and states getting involved in curriculum and hiring," said Catharine Bond Hill, managing director at Ithaka S+R. "Support for higher ed is going down on both the right and the left."
Racial and other underrepresented and vulnerable groups like LGBTQ students, faculty and staff are affected by the politicization, said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
"Six months ago, seven months ago, yes, we were talking about critical race theory," Granberry Russell said. "The continued or persistent manner in which this question of what can be taught, not only in secondary education but higher education, is continuing to manifest itself."
Can colleges retain employees?
Politicians' focus on higher ed could create an environment that drives out faculty.
"I'm more concerned about the possibility of faculty of color and women saying, 'This is not worth it for me,'" Granberry Russell said. "Especially if I can find work in an industry that is less chaotic, perhaps less threatening to my emotional as well as my professional standing."
If institutions haven't addressed issues of climate — how they recruit, promote and retain talented people — they will lose employees, Granberry Russell said.
In other words, it's not just money driving talk of the Great Resignation. Higher ed has long sought to employ and serve a diverse group of people, and it's sometimes struggled to do so.
"We haven't done the work that we need to do to address systemic racism as well as impacts on other minoritized groups, including women," Granberry Russell said. "If we don't begin to address those systemic issues, the exodus will continue, especially during a time when we don't want it to."
Top college leaders are highly concerned about the Great Resignation, said Marjorie Hass, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. Institutions are struggling to determine the right balance between work from home and in person, for example.
"Every president I talk to is doing significant hiring in multiple key positions," Hass said. "Student life in particular seems to have been hard hit, and I think we can understand why. Those people are on the front lines. Those are very difficult jobs. Those jobs have to be done in person, for the most part."
The pandemic has changed the employer-employee relationship, Dr. Janis Orlowski, chief healthcare officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said during a June roundtable on how universities handled COVID-19. The pandemic gave everyone a chance to have existential conversations about themselves, their lives and their careers, Orlowski said. Therefore, colleges will need to think more about the softer aspects of employment.
"We really need to take a look at more substantial issues," Orlowski said. "For example, how is the individual valued at work? Do they feel that they're valued? What is the makeup of the team? What's the culture?"
What can be done to protect student health?
Many concerns about student health are circulating, ranging from stopping the spread of monkeypox to finding the right COVID-19 policies for a pandemic-weary public. They also include the mental health of a generation of traditional-aged undergraduates who spent significant portions of high school learning on screens.
"We have an emerging mental health crisis nationally, but certainly affecting higher education," said Nicholas Ladany, president of Oglethorpe University in Georgia, who is a psychologist.
Telehealth improves access to mental health services but is not the answer on its own, he said. Students don't always have easy access to quiet space for a counseling session if they're in residence halls with roommates. Those living at home may not have their own private spaces, either.
"Access to in-person care is critical," Ladany said. "We don't always do a good job assessing on college campuses not just what students are going to seek treatment for, but how effective is that treatment? There are very few universities that will actually say, 'Hey, are students getting better?'"
Expanding services can be expensive for colleges. But Ladany said healthy students will improve institutions' finances in the long run because they are more likely to stay enrolled.
Can colleges innovate?
Observers wonder whether the higher education sector is ready to make the changes necessary to meet the moment, like becoming more flexible, serving a wider range of students and containing costs. Higher ed leaders have been discussing certain priorities for years amid projections of diversifying student bodies, financial crunches and public policy changes.
Some may finally be ready to take substantial actions, said Kurzweil, of Ithaka S+R.
"Think transfer-friendliness, being able to recruit and serve adult learners, having and expanding effective dual-enrollment or dual-admission programs, offering career-oriented programs," Kurzweil said.
The speed of change will be different in the future than it has been, said Mac Powell, who became president of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges in July.
"The pandemic really accelerated that pace of change beyond what anyone thought was possible," Powell said. "In one sense, it helped institutions understand that rapid change is possible. On the other hand, the fatigue, the burnout it's caused across stakeholders, cannot be underestimated."
The accreditation system itself has been criticized as a possible barrier to change. Hass, of CIC, said small private colleges flagged concerns about whether their accreditors will allow them to act on short timelines.
"There are concerns that accrediting bodies haven't moved as fast as campuses want to move," Hass said. "A lot of institutions are worried about partnerships and taking what they've learned and trying to do some new things."
Is a new generation of college presidents ready to rise to the moment?
The length of a college presidency has grown shorter in recent decades, so turnover isn't unusual. But it's been hard not to notice presidents and chancellors deciding to leave after a few years of the pandemic.
University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann became U.S. ambassador to Germany this year after leading the institution since 2004. Reginald DesRoches took over at Rice University this summer after David Leebron was president for 18 years. Chicago's Northwestern University named Michael Schill, the president of University of Oregon, to take over for Morton Schapiro. The decision came after trustees' first choice, former University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, had to bow out because of a cancer diagnosis.
And that's just a sampling of changes at some of the wealthiest institutions in the country. Each president may be leaving for their own reasons, but the net result is new presidents leading institutions across the sector.
"You're seeing presidents being forced out further down the food chain, so these jobs are looking tough," said Hill, of Ithaka S+R.
That creates new opportunities for a new generation of leaders. But it's not clear from where they'll rise, Kurzweil said. Current presidents and provosts may be suffering from burnout after pulling through the pandemic, he said.
"The flow of leadership turnover that has started to pick up is really going to increase," Kurzweil said. "It's going to turn into a deluge of sorts of leaders who have stayed through the COVID period."
New leadership can also bring a fresh perspective, though.
"There are a lot of people starting a presidency this summer or who just started," said Hass, of CIC. "It's going to be interesting to see how that group finds its feet. It's a hard job. It's not a remote job — it's a lifestyle."