The Top Issues Facing Higher Education in 2014 and Beyond

Writing for Forbes, John Ebersole, the president of Excelsior College, has identifeid the following ten issues as the most significant issues facing higher education this year:

1. Cost.

2. Renewal of the Higher Education Act.

3. Workforce development.

4. Competency-based education.

5. Accreditation.

6. Assessment.

7. Quality assurance in non-institutional learning.

8. Recognition of the new majority in student bodies.

9. Crisis in leadership.

10. The economy.

Ebersole notes that many readers may wonder about his exclusion of MOOCs as an issue, but he feels that the questions about their efficacy for most students and their over-exposure in the media have greatly decreased the consideration of MOOCs as an major innovation in higher education.

I agree largely with that assessment, but I would take issue with a fairly large number of his choices for the list.

Certainly cost continues to be the major issue, but there are all sorts of other issues that must be addressed if the issue of cost is to be addressed in any meaningful way.

I will come back to several items on Ebersole’s list, but here is my alternative list of the top issues facing us this year and very likely for the next decade:

1. Reduction of the portion of the cost of higher education being borne by students.

2. Restored state support for public higher education..

3. Increased federal grants to students and a reduced emphasis on student loans as the primary form of student financial aid.

4. Reduced exploitation of contingent faculty—in particular, of part-time contingent faculty.

5. Reduction in administrative bloat, with administrative salaries more reasonably proportionate to faculty salaries.

6. Increased emphasis on shared governance, especially on fiscal matters.

7. Increased protections of academic freedom.

8. Increased skepticism toward technological “cheap fixes” to the issues related to the cost of higher education; recognition that the cost of instruction really is not a problem, that it is not consuming anything close to a majority of the revenue at most institutions.

9. Increased scrutiny of—and assessment of the credentials of and the results achieved by–the corporate “educational providers” who are attempting to unbundle faculty functions, to privatize profitable elements of instruction and institutional services, to impose standardized assessment on post-secondary education (as they have succeeded in doing for K-12 education), and to promote the acceptance of “competencies,” “badges,” and other non-standard measures as substitutes for traditional measures of learning, such as earned credit hours and grade scales, that require faculty expertise.

10. Meaningful discussion of the purposes of higher education, not tied to the specific conditions created by the most recent recession.

Unlike Ebersole, I don’t believe that there is any looming shortage of qualified people willing to go into higher education administration. Upper administrative positions have become too comparable to upper-management positions within corporations for there to be any shortage of ostensibly qualified applicants. The next generatiion of college and university presidents can certainly be found among the ever-expanding ranks of upper administrators within our institutions. Although I agree that many of the candidates may prove to be less than ideal choices, I don’t think that the main issue will be insufficient leadership experience or leadership skills. Rather, I think that the main issue will be skewed perspectives and misplaced priorities and institutionally reinforced wrong-headed approaches to resolving core issues.

Indeed, there is a crisis in leadership on and in higher education—from the executive and legislative leadership on the federal and state levels politically, and especially within the Department of Education, to the leadership of our individual institutions—precisely because there are too many incentives for those in leadership positions to avoid discussion of the real and now increasingly difficult-to-resolve issues.

For instance, it is more difficult but all the more necessary to ask how we have reached a point at which student debt has reached $1.3 trillion and is rising by several hundred billion dollars a year. And it is more difficult but all the more necessary to create the political will to say that this issue must be as much of a national priority as a new round of tax cuts for corporations or for the most affluent individuals, as much of a national priority as yet another new weapons system, or as much of a national priority as continued subsidies for energy corporations or agricultural conglomerates that have among the highest net corporate profits in the world.

There is an increasingly pressing  need for us to reappraise what we have been doing to a system of higher education that has long been considered a model for the rest of the world. Every system needs continuing adjustments, but for the last three decades we have been acting as if one of the things that we have done best as a nation is one of the things most desperately in need of “reform.”

There is a need to put the emphasis, at every level, back on instruction and student access, affordability, and achievement. It is time to stop reinforcing hackneyed talking points and flippantly derisive steroetypes about the faculty who are the main reason why American higher education is so highly regarded internationally.

It is time to ask how much of the current “crisis” in higher education has been the avoidable product of ideologically driven assumptions that have led to skewed priorities and ill-conceived policies.

It is time to ask what those so determined to “reform” American higher education have produced that has been of equally broad benefit to the American population, to the American economy, and to American culture and values.

It is time to stop being apologetic and, instead, to start demanding some apologies.


John Ebersole’s complete article is available at:


4 thoughts on “The Top Issues Facing Higher Education in 2014 and Beyond

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.