Higher Ed in the News: 8/17/2020

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

This week on Higher Ed in the News: college reopening plans may still be too dependent on student compliance, and anecdotes from Black students’ experiences at the University of Texas. We discussed the issue of college plans for the fall being too dependent on students in a previous edition of this series as well.


Are colleges and universities asking too much of students?

Institutions of higher education are starting to release and update their plans for the fall, but they may be counting too much on compliance from their college-aged constituents. 

Universities are employing the help of students in a number of different ways, including making them sign social contracts, enlisting health ambassadors, and asking students to police the behavior of their peers. But according to Karen Levy and Lauren Kilgour of The New York Times, “[T]here’s a risk that these peer reporting systems may not be effective in controlling the spread of Covid-19 on campus because they put students in very tough positions.”

The authors also noted the potential for nefarious motivations compelling students to report one another. “People report on one another (truthfully or falsely) for a number of personal reasons, including competition, revenge, leverage and everyday aggravations. There’s every reason to assume that these motivations will bubble up in the college context, too. Students have their own loyalties, broken hearts, rocky roommate relationships and fraternity codes of silence.”

Contact tracing apps are also part of the solution for many colleges and universities, but those apps, some of which are powered by tech titans like Google and Apple, come with their own concerns. “The problem is these technologies simply aren’t capable of that sort of tracking,” Albert Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told Natalie Schwartz of Education Dive. “And if they were, they would raise a whole host of civil rights and privacy concerns.”


A Day in the Life of Black Students at the University of Texas

In an illuminating piece for the New York Times, Patrick Peck details the thought-provoking conversations he had with black students at the University of Texas at Austin who participated in an exploration of race and the college experience called The Black Yearbook. The discussions shed light on what it’s like to be a black student at a prestigious U.S. university during the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The student interviewees all grew up in predominantly-white parts of Texas so, even though only 4.9% of UT’s student population is black, being around other Black students has been a catalyst for their personal growth. This led one student to join a community service group, another to become the first black president of a historically white sorority, and empowered many to express themselves more freely.

Despite this heightened sense of community, students are still fighting stereotypes every day. One soon-to-be-graduate lamented experiencing job interviews where companies saw him as a way to meet their diversity quota. Another is constantly entrenched in a battle to bring awareness to the damage that racially-charged words can inflict. Two of the three participants voiced concerns over their physical safety while in Austin, including one student who was shot with a non-lethal bullet during a recent protest. In response to this horrific incident, his resolve has only grown stronger, leading him to dedicate his life to confronting racial injustice.


Hechinger Reports Study Finds Many U.S. Colleges Worse-Off Today Than Before 2008 Recession

It’s no secret many colleges and universities are hurting amid the coronavirus pandemic. A Financial Fitness Tracker designed by The Hechinger Report and applied to 2,662 public universities and non-profit institutes across the country is starting to quantify it. The results of this exercise were reviewed in-house and shared in hopes that schools can use these findings to turn the page on their financial woes.

Through the Financial Fitness Tracker and info from interviews with 39 members of the higher-ed community, The Hechinger Report arrived at some troubling conclusions regarding student enrollment, revenue derived from tuition, and the funding these schools are receiving from both the state and private donors. 

Colleges and universities were still struggling to recover from the 2008 recession, bringing some schools to the verge of collapse while forcing some to close their doors. In terms of enrollment, over half of the schools included in the study “have seen declines in first-year fall enrollment since 2009,” with 800 of them being four-year colleges and universities. Four-year institutes were hit especially hard by lower tuition per student numbers as well, with 30% of participants pulling in less in 2017-18 than they did all the way back in 2009-10. As far as funding goes, many state-run institutions experienced stagnant to negative growth over the same period as a result of “less in-state and local appropriations,” while a considerable number of private four-year schools were unable to keep their endowment levels above costs. 

“With too many colleges competing for a shrinking pool of students and the consequences of the coronavirus bearing down,” an interviewee said, “higher education may face tumultuous years ahead.”