Higher education took top billing in this year’s State of the Union address, with President Barack Obama vowing to make community colleges as “free and universal as high school.”
Just days after that historic proposal, nearly 200 of the nation’s top higher education officials, federal policymakers and scholars came together at a conference hosted by the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, to forecast the future of college admissions.
The three-day conference also spanned the issues of increasing diversity among America’s future college-goers, and growing interest in American education from abroad.
It will take all sectors of education operating well together to ensure that education levels in the nation improve.
“College enrollment in the future will be reshaped by demographic shifts, the success of K-12 reform, global mobility, opportunity for transfer students and innovative methods to engage new student populations,” said Jerry Lucido, the center’s executive director and professor of research at the USC Rossier School of Education. “It will take all sectors of education operating well together to ensure that education levels in the nation improve.”
The ‘new normal’ student
Federal policy remained center stage with U.S. Department of Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell’s keynote address. Mitchell said that the United States should increasingly expect its college students of the future to be first-generation college-goers, older than a traditional freshman of years’ past, and from underrepresented minority groups.
“We have to make room, we have to make way, for this ‘new normal’ student,” said Mitchell, who praised Mission: Admission, a suite of online games created by the USC Rossier School of Education’s Pullias Center for Higher Education and USC’s Game Innovation Lab. The games teach underserved middle and high school students how to prepare for college, navigate college admissions and collect financial aid.
The project was recently awarded a $3.2 million federal grant. Steve Arnold, who co-founded the nonprofit organization Edutopia with movie mogul George Lucas, also kept the spotlight on K-12 education as a starting place for educational innovation.
Invoking the conference title — “College Admission 2025: Embracing the Future” — Arnold said college-goers in 2025 will have been born in 2007, the year the first iPhone was invented. Noting how much the world has changed since 2007, Arnold said it’s clear that creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and collaboration will be key skills to impart to students beginning in elementary school through higher education.
And America’s increasing diversity can be harnessed as yet another strategic advantage, Princeton University Professor Marta Tienda said in a keynote address. Tienda noted additional investment in higher education is “not just a social commitment but an economic commitment to the nation: An increasing percentage of college-goers will be vital to sustain the large baby boomer population in retirement.
“Today’s youth are tomorrow’s workers,” Tienda said. “We’re a nation that tolerates great inequality, and we’re going to pay for it in the future.” Yet debating the future also merited looking back at the past.
Education as a civil right
John Brooks Slaughter, a USC professor in education and engineering, recalled the transformation from his upbringing in a segregated Kansas to the day in 1982 he was invited to be a commencement speaker at the University of Mississippi.
But Slaughter cautioned that there was much work to be done to ensure education is treated as a civil right.
“We are still addressing situations that would have been recognizable to individuals 50 years ago,” Slaughter said. “Our experiences have shown that discrimination continues.”
The conference again turned to “America’s College Promise,” Obama’s free community college proposal, with a panel focused on the college transfer student.
Community colleges are “one of the few nonpartisan issues in Congress,” said Stephen Handel, associate vice president of undergraduate admissions for the University of California system.
“We serve the top 100 percent,” quipped Frank Chong, superintendent of Santa Rosa Junior College. “We are the most democratic of higher education institutions.”
Janet Marling, the director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia, said many questions remain about how such a sweeping initative would be implemented.
“If ‘the Promise’ goes through,” Marling asked, “are community colleges ready?”