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Top ten stories from Hechinger: Higher education headed for a shakeout

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If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, as the New York Times famously dubbed it, 2013 was the year of … well, not the MOOC.

Semester-Online-2U-classroomThe number of universities jumping on the MOOC bandwagon continued to rise, along with the number of people enrolling in these massive online open courses. But so did skepticism of their effectiveness, and warnings from the architects of MOOCs themselves that they were never meant to be the answer to the problems of higher education.

Signs that those problems are deepening were are among Hechinger’s 10 top higher-education stories of 2013.

Analysts and others warned that higher education was headed for a shakeout, unable to keep up with families’ demands for discounts on tuition, and even the presidents of small institutions in New England—a place identified with quintessential red-brick, ivy-covered college campuses—said they were worried about the futures of their schools. With enrollment starting to decline, private, for-profit universities quietly lowered their tuition and faced other unaccustomed setbacks. Some conventional nonprofits merged or consolidated to cut costs. And historically black colleges and universities faced an uphill battle to survive.

One worry for these schools was the continued shift to credentials other than traditional college credits—the “education buffet” of college-level courses offered to students while they’re still in high school, advanced-placement programs, military or corporate training, career and life experience, and those MOOCs, and to such things as “badges” and e-portfolios. The universities’ weapon so far has been to not accept the credits, even as increasing numbers of students transfer among schools, forcing them to spend more time and money getting their degrees.

Community College of Rhode IslandThat’s one cause of abysmal graduation rates. Another, it turns out, is that students are forgoing advisors who can help them finish college. That’s led to the advent of “success coaches,” and another new incentive being tried in some states to prod students to graduate: money, in the form of financial aid tied to performance.

There was new pressure on universities to prove their own performance by letting students know how much they could expect to earn with their degrees. One surprise from these figures: Community-college graduates, in some states and fields, are out-earning bachelor’s degree recipients. Emboldened by their newfound prominence in this and other areas—and continued cuts to their budgets— community colleges joined the higher-education fundraising game.

Postgraduate income was only one way universities began to be ranked. President Barack Obama proposed federal rankings based on, among other things, return on investment. And there was a flurry of activity to find new, more meaningful ways of ranking what students are getting from their educations, many of them developed by universities themselves.

Several of these initiatives were pushed by private philanthropic foundations, which have stepped into a void left by a dysfunctional political system to take an increasingly prominent role in higher-education policymaking. And there was no ebb in the debate over whether the humanities are being shortchanged in the rush to sync up graduates’ skills with workforce needs.

  1. Skepticism grows of the effectiveness of MOOCs.
  2. Alarm bells sound that higher education may be headed for a shakeout.
  3. Students begin to nibble at the “education buffet,” assembling their educations from many sources …
  4. … including by starting college early.
  5. Success coaches help get students in, and through, college.
  6. More states tie financial aid to performance …
  7. … and let students know how much degrees from which programs in particular schools will pay.
  8. Universities and others look for new ways to rank them.
  9. Foundations continue to push for higher-ed reform.
  10. The debate rages on between sciences and the humanities.

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