5 Higher-Ed Trends for 2014

The underlying forces that drove change in 2013 aren’t likely to change in the new year: declining public funding, changing demographics, advancing technology, and a tough job market.

National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Dec. 30, 2013, midnight

A num­ber of edu­ca­tion trends made their mark in 2013, from massive open on­line courses to eval­u­at­ing col­leges based on their gradu­ation rates. The un­der­ly­ing forces that drove change this year aren’t likely to change any­time soon: de­clin­ing pub­lic fund­ing, chan­ging demo­graph­ics, ad­van­cing tech­no­logy, and a tough job mar­ket.

Here are five trends we’ll be watch­ing next year, with spe­cial at­ten­tion to how they af­fect minor­ity and at-risk stu­dents.


The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, state gov­ern­ments, and found­a­tion fun­ders are all pres­sur­ing col­leges to shrink the time it takes for stu­dents to gradu­ate. Two strategies for do­ing so gained at­ten­tion this year: ad­van­cing stu­dents based on mas­tery, and giv­ing stu­dents cred­it for work ex­per­i­ence.

The fancy term for the first strategy is “com­pet­ency-based learn­ing,” and it works best on­line. Stu­dents move through course ma­ter­i­al at their own pace, their test scores — not time in class — de­term­in­ing how quickly they move through the ma­ter­i­al. At West­ern Gov­ernors’ Uni­versity, an on­line in­sti­tu­tion that pi­on­eered this struc­ture al­most 20 years ago, stu­dents earn bach­el­or’s de­grees two years faster than the na­tion­al av­er­age. This year, the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin sys­tem star­ted of­fer­ing a com­pet­ency-based op­tion.

An­oth­er strategy is “pri­or learn­ing as­sess­ment,” whereby stu­dents get col­lege cred­it for on-the job and mil­it­ary train­ing, vo­lun­teer ex­per­i­ence, and hob­bies. Cred­it is usu­ally gran­ted through place­ment tests, as­sess­ments of stu­dent port­fo­li­os, or ac­cord­ing to the Amer­ic­an Coun­cil on Edu­ca­tion’s re­com­mend­a­tions. Some em­ploy­ers and col­leges — like Star­bucks and City Uni­versity of Seattle — have struck up part­ner­ships that al­low em­ploy­ees to earn col­lege cred­it for work­place train­ing.


After years of be­ing pushed aside to free time for aca­dem­ics, ca­reer-fo­cused learn­ing is back. High schools, com­munity col­leges, and com­pan­ies are band­ing to­geth­er to help in­crease the op­por­tun­it­ies stu­dents have to gain tech­nic­al skills — of­ten spurred by new state laws, like those in Texas and Geor­gia, that put a big­ger em­phas­is on ca­reer and tech­nic­al edu­ca­tion.

Poli­cy­makers stress the eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits of CTE: Stu­dents with spe­cial­ized train­ing or skills find it easi­er to get hired in this tough labor mar­ket. Edu­cat­ors like that CTE can help get more stu­dents ex­cited about math and sci­ence. Giv­en that CTE and col­lege pre­par­a­tion no longer have to be di­ver­gent paths, col­lege costs are rising, and it re­mains hard for young people to find work, there’s much less polit­ic­al op­pos­i­tion to ca­reer train­ing than there used to be. The Next Amer­ica re­cently pro­filed a ma­jor­ity-minor­ity school in Geor­gia that il­lus­trates this new vis­ion for ca­reer and techin­ic­al edu­ca­tion.


Sev­enty-one per­cent of stu­dents who gradu­ated from col­lege in 2012 carry stu­dent-loan debt, some as much as $49,000 for a four-year de­gree. A re­cent Har­vard In­sti­tute of Polit­ics poll found that 42 per­cent of stu­dents blame col­leges and uni­versit­ies for rising col­lege prices.

As out­rage grows over Amer­ica’s stu­dent-debt bur­den that now ex­ceeds $1 tril­lion, poli­cy­makers will likely con­tin­ue to fo­cus on mak­ing col­lege more ef­fi­cient and cost-ef­fect­ive, not on drum­ming up sup­port for a ma­jor pub­lic re­in­vest­ment. While there’s much col­leges and uni­versit­ies can do to provide a bet­ter ser­vice — such as en­sur­ing stu­dents who en­roll don’t drop out — the fo­cus on per­form­ance ig­nores the main causes of the stu­dent-debt crisis. State and fed­er­al fund­ing for high­er edu­ca­tion and fin­an­cial aid has dropped rad­ic­ally since the 1980s, and today’s col­lege stu­dents are less well off than they used to be.


This year saw the be­gin­nings of a back­lash over the col­lec­tion and stor­age of stu­dent data, in­clud­ing grades, con­tact in­form­a­tion, and dis­cip­lin­ary re­cords. Look no fur­ther than the fur­or over data-stor­age com­pany in­Bloom. A re­cent Ford­ham Uni­versity study found that most con­tracts between school dis­tricts and Web-based ser­vices lack pri­vacy pro­tec­tions.

Schools and col­leges have em­braced data-driv­en soft­ware to help them track stu­dent pro­gress. Pro­ponents of data col­lec­tion and ana­lys­is point out that fed­er­al and some state laws lim­it how chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion­al re­cords can be shared. But a whole lot of par­ents don’t trust the gov­ern­ment to keep data se­cure, or don’t trust cor­por­a­tions not to ab­use ac­cess to in­form­a­tion about how in­di­vidu­al minds work.

Con­ser­vat­ive le­gis­lat­ive-ad­vocacy group the Amer­ic­an Le­gis­lat­ive Ex­change Coun­cil has put to­geth­er a bill that would re­quire state boards of edu­ca­tion to make pub­lic their data-col­lec­tion activ­it­ies and re­strict ac­cess to in­form­a­tion about chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion­al pro­gress. State le­gis­latures may con­sider the mod­el bill, and oth­ers like it, when they re­con­vene next year.


As poli­cy­makers move to­ward re­ward­ing teach­ers for the qual­ity of their teach­ing, not for factors like wheth­er an edu­cat­or holds an ad­vanced de­gree, dis­tricts have to get bet­ter at as­sess­ing teach­er per­form­ance. The big de­bate now is how closely teach­er eval­u­ations should be tied to stu­dent test per­form­ance and how closely they’re tied to teach­ers’ job se­cur­ity.

A re­cent uni­on con­tract in New Haven, Conn., could show a path for­ward, the Amer­ic­an Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers be­lieves. Teach­ers, not al­gorithms, set learn­ing tar­gets. Teach­ers are as­sessed based on classroom ob­ser­va­tion, prin­cip­al re­views, and stu­dent test scores, and are giv­en a full year’s worth of sup­port to im­prove their prac­tice if they aren’t per­form­ing well.

Teach­er re­cruit­ment also mat­ters. In 2014, ex­pect to hear more calls for teach­ers who re­flect the eth­nic and ra­cial di­versity of stu­dents and de­bate over al­tern­at­ive teach­er-train­ing pro­grams, par­tic­u­larly those aligned with charter net­works.

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