What’s the Biggest Challenge for Colleges and Universities? (Published 2018) (2023)



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By The New York Times

Jean M. Twenge

Professor of psychology, San Diego State University; author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood”


Not that long ago, the biggest distractions for college students were alcohol, sex, and parties. Now, there’s another reason they aren’t reading their textbooks and aren’t paying attention in class: the siren song of the smartphone. Traditional-age college students are now iGen, the post-1995 generation who were the first to spend their entire adolescence with smartphones.

They are spending an extraordinary amount of time on electronic devices — according to Common Sense Media, nine hours a day. Perhaps as a result, many students have a difficult time focusing, are distracted by devices during class and are sleep-deprived. As with many things, however, the solution is education.

To help them focus while studying, we can tell students about the truth of “multitasking” — it doesn’t exist, because the human brain can only consciously focus on one thing at a time. Advise students to try setting aside their devices and reading their course materials for 10 minutes straight before doing anything else. The next day, it can be 15 minutes, and then 30, and then an hour.

To improve classroom engagement, tell students about the research showing that students who take notes longhand, on paper, do better on exams than those who take notes on laptops. Consider having them put their laptops away during class time — laptops, with their temptations of social media sites and web surfing, are a distraction much more often than they are useful.

Tell students to shut down their phones an hour before bedtime. In addition to being psychologically stimulating, phones are also physiologically stimulating. The blue light they emit inhibits the sleep hormone melatonin, making sleep significantly more elusive. Not sleeping enough is linked to not just the inability to focus but to unhappiness, depression, and poor physical health. None of this means giving up our technology — it just means using it for what it’s good for, and then putting it away.

John Hechinger

A senior editor at Bloomberg News and the author of “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities”


America’s colleges must bring together students of all races and backgrounds “if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized,” the United States Supreme Court ruled in its 2003 defense of affirmative action. Yet, from the moment freshmen set foot on a college campus, this mission confronts a powerful barrier: fraternities and sororities.

Historically white Greek-letter organizations typically have few minority members, and some chapters have none at all. It’s a legacy of their civil rights-era resistance to integration. This is no small matter. At many universities, these organizations offer grand houses — in some cases, on public land — that dominate the social scene. The rich returns on this social capital include student-college presidencies, internships and success in business and politics.

African-American and other minority Greek organizations — separate and unequal — generally don’t have houses of their own.

Two episodes in April reveal how these divisions can create a toxic culture. At Syracuse University, members of the Theta Tau engineering fraternity posted videos of themselves pledging “to always have hatred in my heart” for African Americans, Hispanics and Jews, using a slur for each group. During a California Polytechnic State University multicultural weekend, white members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity dressed as gang members — one in blackface.

A 2014 study of F.B.I. hate-crime statistics from 349 colleges found that campuses with large populations of historically white fraternities are more likely to report verbal and physical assaults involving bias against blacks and other minorities. Another study found that Greek life inhibits friendship across racial lines and promotes opposition to policies promoting diversity.

Still, colleges often embrace fraternities and sororities for their philanthropy and leadership. There needs to be more oversight. Deans should require each chapter to demonstrate its openness by disclosing its demographics, including race and socioeconomic background. The resulting public pressure on segregated fraternities and sororities could help achieve the vision of inclusion enshrined in law and the Constitution.

Eric J. Barron

President, Pennsylvania State University


Society’s benefits from the innovations of higher education are priceless. The research, both fundamental and applied, holds great promise for everything — promoting economic vitality, protecting life and property and improving the quality of life.

Yet universities today are operating in a relentlessly difficult fiscal environment. Public universities have experienced a decade of weak state support, and more tuition increases are in direct conflict with our mission of access and affordability. Major research universities are facing a huge issue with aging research infrastructure because many of our buildings were built as part of our nation’s competitive posture more than 50 years ago.

Continual belt-tightening is creating a number of negative outcomes. Harry Houdini was never bound this tightly.

The challenge for colleges and universities, private and public, is to find funding for innovation in such a constrained fiscal environment.

First, innovation has to be a core priority, as important as paying for salaries, health insurance, deferred maintenance and unfunded mandates.

Second, we need to ensure that innovation deliberately drives job creation, economic development and student career success by bringing research discoveries to the marketplace. We must develop a culture that nurtures and rewards entrepreneurship — not just in STEM, but in the arts, health and human development, education and more.

Third, we need to foster the power of partnership — with local government leaders, legislative representatives, communities, business leaders, faculty and students.

Innovation is inspiring. It’s also a wise investment with an even better return. Economists at Deloitte found that technology has been a “great job-creating machine,” increasing spending, creating a new demand and boosting jobs in knowledge-intensive sectors.

Research and education have always opened doors that benefit the nation we serve. This is a challenge we are well equipped to conquer.

Michael R. Bloomberg

Founder, Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies; mayor of New York City, 2002-13


One of the biggest challenges in education today is an ideological disagreement over whether we should focus on getting every student accepted to a four-year college, or whether we should place far more emphasis on career preparation.

The truth is, we need to do both — and the problem is, we’re not doing either one very well.

Right now, too many students are not prepared to enter either college or the work force — and too often, those who are ready for college don’t go to competitive schools that match their abilities. Less than half of 1 percent of students from the poorest 20 percent of families attend a selective college, even though many have the grades to do so. At the same time, about four in 10 teenagers do not enter college immediately after high school, and many are left with few career choices and nowhere to turn for help.

We need to do better for our kids, and our foundation is working to deliver for them.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is supporting local leaders around the country who are adopting changes that have proven to raise student achievement and put more students on track for college. We have also launched the American Talent Initiative, a coalition of 100 of the most selective colleges and universities that are committed to increasing the number of lower-income, high-achieving students that they accept and graduate.

Our goal is to have an additional 50,000 students at these schools by 2025. And through a second initiative we created called CollegePoint, which guides students through the application and financial aid processes, we’re helping ensure they apply to and enroll in the kinds of schools they have earned the right to attend.

Career and technical education is an even more difficult challenge. Many vocational programs across the country are trapped in the 1960s and ’70s. We need states and districts to invest in new, higher-quality programs that train students for a wide variety of industries — from construction and advanced manufacturing to health care and information technology. Creating pathways to careers also requires forming partnerships with local employers, who can provide training and skill development in growing fields.

Hopefully, more political leaders will step up to support these kinds of changes that will prepare students for college and careers, and we will support those that do.

Kay Rothman

Director of college counseling, NYC Lab School


Fueled from the top and fed by social media, anti-intellectualism challenges the core of higher education.

And somehow, the fuel and fire have become indistinguishable. Social media honors the quick opinion, the lightning-fast response, the emotionally charged declaration. Every millisecond, anyone can weigh in on any conceivable matter. The writer, often anonymous, is inconsequential. Expertise is meaningless. Thoughtfulness, considered and informed opinion, hard-earned by those who have studied, debated, read and written, is suspect. Where is this feared hotbed of intellectualism? At today’s colleges and universities.

Of course, anti-intellectualism has been brewing before tweets; well before the days when my 12-year-old nephew and the president joined forces to weigh in on crucial world issues. Nor are we in a unique time and place where intellectuals have become the enemy of the people. So what can we do to honor the intellect … to tamp down the notion that intellectual rigor is detrimental to society?

While we accept excellence and, dare I say, elitism in our athletes, and artists, so must we learn to honor, and not be afraid of intellectual excellence. These are lessons we learn young: paying homage to an extraordinary soccer player or a talented singer, while the exceptional thinkers and learners toil in obscurity, often ridiculed as socially inept.

The hyped-up dichotomies of conservative vs. liberal and STEM vs. humanities in higher education obfuscates the commonality of those entrusted to educate the populace. They are all intellectuals — learned thinkers. Instead of running from the label, we need honor and embrace it. Celebrate the intellect and we will, once again, celebrate higher education.

Sara Goldrick-Rab

Professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University


As colleges and universities try to raise graduation rates, college presidents, policymakers and philanthropists often focus on what students know when they enter college, how they perform on tests and what courses and majors they choose. Rarely do they consider whether their students have enough to eat or a safe place to sleep.

Higher education neglects Abraham Maslow’s lessons at its peril. Without their basic needs secured, large numbers of today’s undergraduates are struggling to learn. Sleepless nights and empty stomachs distract them from going to class and passing their courses, prolonging or even preventing degree completion.

Food and housing insecurity are not the personal problems of a few low-income or first-generation students. They stem from systemic failures of both policy and practice and affect millions. Surveys conducted at community colleges and four-year colleges and universities around the country indicate that at least one-third of students at bachelor’s degree-granting institutions and between 40 and 50 percent of community college students are dealing with food and/or housing insecurity.

Sizable numbers of students are also coping with homelessness. Two recent national studies suggest that 12 to 14 percent of community college students experienced homelessness in the last year.

The good news is that we can solve these problems without turning colleges and universities into social service agencies. We are trying to change the work requirement of public benefits programs so that college counts as work, and full-time students can access benefits like subsidized housing and nutrition assistance programs. Creating productive partnerships with community partners, including private businesses, can provide new resources and even affordable housing opportunities.

Delivering emergency aid to students in small amounts just when they need it can help keep them in school and connected to their institutions. These efforts yield strong returns on investments for both colleges and their partners — a housing dollar spent helping a displaced worker complete a technical certificate and obtain a job improves his or her earning potential and reduces the likelihood of needing public benefits in the future.

College has always been a challenge for people without substantial resources, but now even students from middle-class families are struggling. Work opportunities are scarce, the value of the minimum wage is down, and college prices are higher than ever and continuing to rise.

Colleges that want students to not only enroll but also graduate need to acknowledge this hidden crisis and take the lead in addressing it.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.


Affordability is the most significant challenge facing higher education. Year after year, tuition increases outpace the cost of inflation and growth in most sectors of the economy. Higher tuition means fewer people can afford to go to college. This isn’t just a problem at the most elite, private universities: At every type of school, from community colleges to state universities, rising costs not only raise barriers to entry but decrease completion rates.

Getting into college is one thing, but experiencing college at the precipice of financial insolvency is another. For too many middle- and low-income students, coming up short a few hundred dollars can send them over the cliff.

In an economy of unprecedented wealth inequality, the affordability crisis further exacerbates social and racial stratification. Affluent white families leverage their resources, networks and legacy status on behalf of their children. Privilege begets privilege.

Poorer families have few of these advantages, especially among historically marginalized populations. These students are at the mercy of debt schemes, too few scholarships, and poor-performing for-profit schools. More and more, where you go to school is becoming as predictive of your future as your ZIP code is.

With globalization and automation, college is not just about a decent job. Despite widespread anti-intellectualism and state legislative divestment policies, higher education should be the foundation of a universal experience of civic participation that promotes cultural literacy, a fairer distribution of wealth and the common good. The very health of our democracy is at stake.

What to do?

Higher education leaders can fix affordability by building advocacy networks among alumni and mobilizing them to pressure state legislatures to reinvest in public higher education for all. This is an untapped reservoir of political muscle.

Likewise, the heads of private colleges and universities can redirect wealthy donors away from naming opportunities to fully endow scholarships that level the financial and racial playing field. In all, leaders who care about the cost of higher education must intentionally make the case, on campus and off, for a more just society in the 21st century.

Wes Moore

Chief executive, Robin Hood Foundation


I can’t overstate how important my college education was to changing my trajectory. Raised by a single mom in Baltimore and the Bronx in the ’80s and ’90s, I joined the Army at 17, and enrolled in junior college on a journey that would take me to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Today, families across the country know what my family knew: College can change lives.

The data bears this out. A study highlighted in The New York Times shows that college graduates earn 71 percent more than Americans who only graduate high school.

But while this path to prosperity may still exist in America, it is far more precarious than many realize. We’re promising too many young Americans a pathway to success, and instead setting them up for failure.

Today, most students don’t finish college in a traditional fashion. This is the untold college crisis in America — the college completion crisis. In today’s America, the majority of college students do not graduate on time, racking up debt, and undermining the investment and potential that college is designed to offer. At the majority of public universities, just 19 percent of students earn a four-year degree in four years.

This crisis constitutes a collective and systemic failure of our academic institutions. High schools, while graduating historic numbers of students, are not equipping them with the skills they’ll need in college. Every year, 1.7 million students need remedial courses as they enter college. Just one in 10 of these students will ever graduate. Tuition costs raise at a rate far higher than inflation and wages, and throw families seeking opportunity into debt. Too many colleges are unprepared for the nontraditional students filling their classrooms.

Addressing this collective breakdown will require a collective buildup with how we approach postsecondary education. We must do a better job preparing students for college in high school. We must also provide wraparound supports for students in their first years of college so they don’t fall through gaps that are deceptively wide. We must make it easy to receive financial aid, as every year, nearly $3 billion in federal financial aid is left unclaimed because people don’t fill out the paperwork correctly. And we must offer effective trade schools and training programs for those students for whom traditional college is not the right fit.

We’re promising too many young Americans a pathway to success, and instead setting them up for failure. We can and we must fix this.

Margaret Spellings

President, University of North Carolina; United States secretary of education, 2005 to 2009.


When it comes to accountability in education, we’re losing ground. After nearly three decades of bipartisan work, the effort to close achievement gaps and push for steady improvement in school performance has stalled.

This drift away from accountability is hurting our most vulnerable students — those most in need of a strong education. And it’s already eroding trust in our schools and universities.

There’s no question that measuring educational progress is complicated. But the only thing worse than imperfect accountability is none at all.

Past administrations helped build a broad coalition of business leaders, civil rights advocates and policymakers from across the ideological spectrum to support high standards for all students. There was a shared recognition that honest assessment is needed for real progress. No more hiding underserved populations within statistical averages; no more acceptance of inequity as inevitable.

My experience as a university president these past few years underscores the need to align policies and expectations. In a state, like all others, where minority college completion lags, where rural students are underrepresented and where low-income students graduate at far lower rates than their wealthier peers, our universities had excellent intentions but poor incentives.

Only through straightforward accountability measures can we focus on our greatest challenges. In North Carolina, that’s meant brokering performance agreements with each of the U.N.C. System’s chancellors to outline goals that are measured publicly and tied back to our state’s Strategic Plan.

Accountability must come from every level, and it’s the role of the federal government — of good policymakers everywhere — to make certain all students benefit from the enormous investment we all make in education. Without accountability, there is no equity.

Ralph Reed

Chairman, Faith and Freedom Coalition


Higher education faces many daunting challenges: relevance to millennials seeking opportunity in a global, high-tech economy; rising costs and exploding student debt; big-money athletics crowding out the core educational mission. But the greatest challenge may be the need to inculcate character.

The financial crisis of 2008-9 painfully reminded us that great wealth without integrity always goes up in smoke. The easy credit that fueled massive profits on Wall Street led to a loss of $8 trillion held by U.S. households. The same could be said for the privacy and advertising scandals that have lopped billions off the market cap of Facebook and other social media companies. When greed comes before character and the common good, we are all the losers.

If colleges and universities teach the young people that are their charge how to think well but not how to act ethically, how to grow a business but not how to do so with moral standards, if they shape the intellect but fail to inculcate integrity, they fail in their ultimate mission.

How best to do this? Universities should integrate instruction on ethics and morality into business and other curriculums. In most cases — though not all — these ethics derive from a faith tradition. The joint M.B.A. degree program between the Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Management provides a good model. Man does not live by bread alone.

That is as true today as it was when Jesus of Nazareth taught it 2,000 years ago.

Theodore Roosevelt, who graduated from Harvard, once observed, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.” The pioneers of American higher education understood this fact. Roughly two-thirds of American colleges founded in the 18th and 19th centuries were affiliated with a religious denomination and undergraduate curriculums for much of our nation’s history included instruction in the Bible as well as the ancient languages of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in which it was originally written.

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