My 2016 Higher Ed Top Ten List

Sometimes you learn from your students. More often than not, I find that this is true when interacting with Robert Kelchen, my former doctoral student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is now a successful assistant professor at Seton Hall University. In many ways, Robert and I are very different people —in particular, he’s extraordinarily chill, balanced, and leans conservative. I’m…not.

But we are both engaged scholars who enjoy writing for the public, and we both blog. Today, Robert posted a new blog about his Higher Education Top Ten List for 2016 (something he’s been doing annually), and when I read it I was reminded again of how different we are, even as we get along so well. Check his out and you’ll see it’s very focused on the private sector. The most “influential or important” events in 2016, according to Robert, had to do with private money, private schools, and private interests. How very prescient… But my view of what transpired in 2016, the things that marked the future of higher education in some key ways, were of a different ilk. To be clear, I’m not saying these things will get traction in the coming years, etc. but I view them as the key milestones — particularly because they affect the lives of our most vulnerable students.

  1. Recognizing a growing crisis, basic needs security in higher education became an institutional priority at some very large and influential colleges and universities. Some of the most exciting actions occurred in California, where in July the University of California System’s Global Food Initiative released its “Student Food Access and Security Study” which found that almost 1 in 5 students in the UC universities has very low levels of food insecurity. While in 2015 System President Janet Napolitano allocated an initial $75,000 per campus to immediately support student food access and created Food Security Working Groups on every campus, this year she approved additional funding of more than $3.3 million over two years, including $151,000 per campus per year, to tackle food insecurity across the system. The Cal State system is engaged in similar work, and I’m optimistic that the Cal Community Colleges will follow. Both the Association of Community College Trustees and the Association of Public and Land-grant universities held sessions on food insecurity at their annual conferences, and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab hosted the first-ever national convening on food and housing insecurity at #RealCollege in Milwaukee. It’s a good thing, too, since the College and University Food Bank Alliance has nearly 400 members at this point!
  2. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development formally recognized the importance of affordable housing for undergraduates. Together with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, HUD issued a guidebook for colleges and universities filled with practical strategies that can be implemented now to address the crisis of housing insecurity and homelessness among people pursuing college degrees.
  3. The U.S. Department of Education and five other federal agencies took steps to ensure that colleges go beyond financial aid when helping students access financial supports for college. Building on the Benefits Access for College Completion initiative, the hard work of the Center for Law and Social Policy, Single Stop, ACCT, and many others, the interagency “dear colleagues” letter on “Aligning Federal Supports and Program Delivery for College Access & Completion” was the first of its kind.
  4. Congressional leaders in both the Senate and House also acted to make life a bit easier for homeless and hungry students. Senator Patty Murray helped lead the charge to help schools and states better serve homeless students, and Representative Bobby Scott made history when he introduced legislation to expand the National School Lunch Program into higher education.
  5. Promise programs — efforts to make college tuition-free for entire communities or even states — continued to proliferate around the nation. This is exactly what should be happening — and will continue to happen during the next administration. Incrementalism is, after all, how real change comes about.
  6. Recognition that FAFSA simplification won’t make college affordable grew, as living costs entered the policy discussions and the truly tricky challenges about financial aid administration gained attention. I was especially impressed with this new report on verification from TICAS.
  7. The Community College Research Center turned 20 years old. What a magnificent accomplishment for Tom Bailey and his team, and how critical for that most-important sector. The White House also continued to support and honor the hard work community colleges do to revive the American Dream.
  8. While politicians on the Left and the Right continued to deride and denigrate the U.S. Department of Education for student loans (a soon-to-be devastating mistake), the hard-working people inside the Department took difficult actions to ensure that the most vulnerable people received debt forgiveness.
  9. Many colleges began standing up for undocumented students. It’s sad that they have to, but with pervasive ignorance and hate seeking to squash talented young people across the nation, it’s great that they are finally waking up.
  10. College affordability made it to The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, raising awareness about a widespread issue that was barely mentioned during the final presidential debates. Personally, that was the highlight of my year :)

It’s hard work creating a higher education financing system worthy of the incredible students attending college today, and believe it or not 2016 was a year of progress. We should acknowledge that, and resist efforts to regress in 2017.

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