Five developments in higher education to watch in 2022

January 7, 2022

Dr. Michael Nietzel

With 2021 now in the books, historians are taking stock of how events of the past year are remembered and how they’ll influence the future. No question it was a momentous year, with higher education experiencing more than its fair share of turmoil and triumphs, disputes and disruptions.

It is time to turn to 2022. What will the new year bring to the nation’s colleges and universities? What will be the big story lines? Here are 5 trends to keep your eyes on as colleges brace for what will almost certainly prove to be another challenging year.

1. The pandemic persists

Now 2 years into the COVID19 pandemic with little hope for it abating soon, college officials are once again implementing various strategies to try to mitigate the severity of the outbreaks that are threatening campuses across the country.

Already, we’re seeing scores of institutions institute new public health measures – including requiring vaccine booster shots, converting in-person classes to remote instruction, delaying the start of their spring semesters, imposing new testing and masking requirements, or turning to some combination of these and other strategies.

With the severity of the omicron variant uncertain and the incidence of new cases still surging, 2022 promises to be another year where administrators, faculty, staff, and students will need to be vigilant, flexible, and creative as they struggle to cope with the virus.

Others are moving forward with a resolve to maintain campus schedules and course delivery as normal as possible, hoping that the latest surge is relatively short-lived and that campus communities will be sufficiently protected against it through a combination of precautions.

With the severity of the omicron variant uncertain and the incidence of new cases still surging, 2022 promises to be another year where administrators, faculty, staff, and students will need to be vigilant, flexible, and creative as they struggle to cope with the virus. In many cases, they will be forced to do so against a background of defiance and obstruction encouraged by elected officials, adding to the harrowing experiences institutions will face.

The pandemic will continue to be a major disrupter of higher education throughout much of 2022. Will another booster be necessary? Will a new vaccine under development by U.S. Army scientists be broadly effective against current and future variants? And if it becomes available this year, how many colleges will mandate it?

2. Enrollments remain a concern

The dual problems of a lingering pandemic and changing demographics point to another year where colleges face the likelihood of declining enrollments. The decreases have been the most severe at the undergraduate level, with 2-year colleges suffering the steepest losses.

Undergraduate enrollment has dropped 3.5% so far this academic year, resulting in a total 2-year decline of 7.8% since 2019. However, graduate enrollment continues to be relatively strong, growing 2.1% this fall, maintaining the upward trend of a 2.7% increase reported the prior year.

There is little to suggest that overall enrollment will turn around for 2022 admissions. The bigger questions are whether the rate of decline can be slowed, the recent upticks in graduate enrollments can be sustained, and the rebound in international students seen in 2021 can hold steady or increase.

Apart from a few dozen highly selective and top-brand institutions that continue to have an abundance of applicants, the competition for a dwindling number of students will be fierce, forcing institutions to step up their marketing, hold tuition prices flat or keep increases to a minimum, increase their tuition discounts, and put more institutional money into financial aid for lower-income and first-generation-to-college students.

3. State appropriations rebound

With many state coffers enjoying record surpluses and tax receipts exceeding budget estimates, higher education officials will bid for big increases in state funding for public institutions and state financial aid programs.

State revenues have recovered from the pandemic more quickly than most experts predicted, and that recovery coupled with the support provided through several pulses of Higher Education Emergency Relief Rescue Funds will enable state policy makers to be optimistic about the financial picture for next fiscal year.

University presidents are licking their chops. Eyeing a $7.7 billion state budget surplus, the University of Minnesota is asking for almost $1 billion in new funding. Its request includes $473 million for infrastructure upgrades across 5 campuses, $185 million to enhance campus security and sustainability, and $65 million to expand scholarship funding.

In Alabama, the state’s Commission on Higher Education has made a $2 billion request for the state’s public colleges and universities in fiscal year 2022-23, representing a 17.5% increase over the current fiscal year’s budget.

Higher education officials in GeorgiaKentucky and Mississippi  have also submitted preliminary requests for large appropriation increases for the upcoming fiscal year.  They are sure to be joined by many more public institutions, as they try to make up for the slack budgets of recent years.

4. More schools abandon standardized testing

Standardized admissions testing experienced steep declines in 2021. Expect that same trend to continue in 2022 as more colleges either extend their temporary suspension of testing requirements or drop them altogether.

That is equivalent to more than 1,815 colleges and universities that will be practicing test-optional or test-blind admissions for the next year’s admissions cycle.

According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), nearly 80% of bachelor’s degree-granting colleges and universities will not require ACT or SAT scores from students seeking to enroll in fall 2022.

That is equivalent to more than 1,815 colleges and universities that will be practicing test-optional or test-blind admissions for the next year’s admissions cycle. Included on the list are nearly all the nation’s most selective colleges as well as public university systems in California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon, and Washington.

5. Legislatures entertain bad higher education bills

New legislative sessions will begin this month in many states. Look for a host of bills pertaining to higher education to be filed. If recent years and the bills that have already been pre-filed are any indication, higher ed leaders will be busy trying to defeat, deflect, or deflate a range of bad legislation ranging from the merely misguided to the mainly malicious.

In South Carolina, a group of 23 Republicans have pre-filed H. bill 4522, which if enacted, would stop public colleges and universities in that state from awarding tenure to faculty members hired after December 31, 2022. Under the provisions of the bill, titled the “Cancelling Professor Tenure Act,” faculty who currently have tenure would not be affected, but new hires would have their employment contracts limited to a term of no longer than 5 years.

In Missouri, a state representative has pre-filed a bill that authorizes those with permits for concealed firearms to carry them on public campuses. Although these institutions may implement policies regarding permits to carry firearms, their policies shall not extend to any general prohibition on carrying, chambering, active operation, or storage of concealed firearms.

The majority of states have either already passed or will be considering various bills that would prevent the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) and other race-related concepts at state institutions. Never mind that CRT is seldom taught outside of law schools or the occasional graduate seminar, Republican governors and legislatures are determined to burn that bridge before it is ever crossed.

All signs point to growing efforts in many states to ban other topics from college curricula. What is next on the prohibited list? Here are some likely candidates: LGBTQ-related content, the 2020 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and any topics deemed to be “divisive” or “discriminatory.”

And, of course, more states will consider bills that would prohibit a variety of COVID19 precautions from being mandated by state institutions. Under the guise of protecting individual freedoms, such legislation will make it even more difficult for colleges to operate safely and in a manner resembling the old normal.

Don’t be surprised if the University of Florida flap over faculty testifying as experts in litigation leads to several bills that would restrict faculty from engaging in outside consulting or put new rules in place for their teaching workloads.

Also look for more “anti-trans” bills that would restrict transgender students’ access to intercollegiate or intramural sports, as well as additional so-called “intellectual diversity” proposals modeled after Florida’s SB 264, which requires public colleges and universities to survey members of their community about their political beliefs.

Here are 3 other storylines to watch in 2022:

  • Pressure will continue for President Biden to provide additional student debt relief through executive action. At the end of the year, the president extended the pause on student loan payments (the third time he has done so) until May 1, 2022. As welcome as that decision was, it won’t satisfy progressives like Senator Elizabeth Warren who want the president to order broad-based student loan cancellation. While Biden is unlikely to take that action, he has other options he could use to relieve student borrowers. He could extend student loan forbearance for a fourth time, or he could grant a more limited form of student loan cancellation on top of the $12.7 billion cancelled in 2021. Look for Biden to find some middle ground in exercising his executive authority to help those with student loan debt.
  • Employer-provided education benefits will continue to grow as companies try to recruit and retain workers in a still very tight labor market. Look for companies that begin allowing employees to make company-paid tuition benefits transferrable to their dependents.

The ed tech market will be as competitive as ever, as new and existing platforms try to overcome several limitations in virtual learning that became obvious during the pandemic. Whether as the primary mode of delivery or as a supplemental method, remote leaning will see innovations based on developments in artificial intelligence that will improve interactivity and increase customization

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