Freshman enrollment has grown for five years in a row, and the incoming class is made up of nearly 23 percent minority students.
That was great news, especially because more restrictive admissions standards went into place this fall. Those higher admissions standards show up in the 3.58 average GPA of the incoming class.
Two other enrollment trends are worth watching, though. If they continue, they could reshape the makeup of the student body in very different ways.
As the accompanying chart shows, women have outnumbered men in all but two of the last 15 freshman classes. The gap between women and men has grown since 2011, though, and the percentage of men in this year’s KU freshman class was the lowest since 2002.
KU’s numbers reflect a national – and even international – trend. In fall, 2014, for instance, the number of women enrolled in U.S. colleges exceeded that of men by more than two million, with women accounting for 56 percent of all college students that year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Relatedly, the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees has exceeded that of men in every year since the 1990s, NCES reports. Those differences show up in graduate education, as well, and are expected to grow slightly through 2025, NCES projects.
The differences can be traced to many factors that extend back decades, the National Bureau of Economic Research says, including more women putting off marriage and pursuing careers. It starts much earlier, though, with girls’ cognitive skills developing more quickly than those of boys, and giving them a lasting advantage through high school and into the college admissions process.
The other enrollment trend worth noting is a rising number of out-of-state students. Over the past six years, the number of KU freshmen coming from outside Kansas has grown 57.5 percent.
This, too, reflects a national trend. As I wrote in the spring, state colleges and universities have actively sought to bring in more students from out of state and from other countries. These students pay higher tuition rates, and colleges have used that money to make up for budget cuts from state legislatures.
Course redesign has become a crucial piece of helping college students succeed.
The statistics below about enrollment and graduation rates make it clear that success is too often elusive. Course redesign is hardly the only solution to that problem, but it is a proven, tangible step that colleges and universities can take.
Course redesign involves moving away from faculty-centered lectures and adopting student-centered techniques that improve learning. It usually includes online work that students do outside of class and in-class work that allows them to delve deeper into course material. (For more, see the report of the Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member.)
Redesigning courses across sections to provide consistency.
Focusing on active learning.
Increasing student interactions. This includes group work and other activities that take the place of lecture.
Building in prompt, automatic feedback. This involves use of digital tools to provide feedback on quizzes and other assignments.
Providing one-on-one assistance. Twigg writes, “Students cannot live by software alone: They need human contact as well as encouragement to assure them that they are on the right learning path.”
Requiring sufficient time on task. This means providing incentives for attendance, participation, and completion of assignments.
Monitoring student progress and intervening when necessary.
As Twigg explains, none of this can be done without strong departmental and university support. She provides several excellent suggestions on how schools can do this.
College enrollment and completion rates decline
Two reports from the National Student Clearinghouse point to struggles among colleges to attract and keep students.
In one report, the clearinghouse said that six-year graduation rates for students who entered college in 2009 fell to 52.9 percent. That is down from 55 percent among students who began in 2008. Declines were steepest among students who delayed entering college after high school, and among adults.
Students at public universities fared better than the overall average, with 61.2 percent graduating in six years. That is still a decline from 62.9 percent among those who began in 2008. Six-year graduation rates at private universities were 10 points higher, at 71.5 percent.
The clearinghouse attributed the declines in part to strains brought on by the Great Recession, saying that they could have been even greater had colleges and universities not created programs to improve student success.
In another report, the clearinghouse said that fall enrollment at post-secondary institutions has fallen for the third straight year. Four-year public universities bucked that trend, with enrollment rising by 0.4 percent. Enrollment at all other types of post-secondary institutions declined: four-year for-profit colleges by 13.7 percent, two-year public colleges by 2.4 percent, and four-year non-profit private universities by 0.3 percent.
The U.S. has a long way to go. About a third of Americans age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 40 percent hold at least a two-year degree. (That varies widely by race and ethnicity, though.) Income generally rises along with level of education, but as Brian Stoffel of the Motley Fool explains, that doesn’t mean there’s a direct correlation or that a higher income translates into greater job satisfaction. Not everyone needs or wants a four-year degree. Anyone who wants to adapt to a changing job landscape, though, must be willing to continually gain new skills.
High school graduation rates rise
Interestingly, as colleges and universities struggle to maintain enrollments, the high school graduation rate has reached a record high. As The Atlantic reports, 82 percent of high school seniors received diplomas in 2014.
It points out many reasons to be skeptical of those numbers, though. And The New York Times goes even further, suggesting that high graduation rates may really be a sign of diminishing expectations and lower standards at some schools.
College rankings that follow the money
I don’t give college rankings systems much credence. Far too much of academic success depends on students’ backgrounds and on the amount of effort they put into their academic work, regardless of what college they attend.
The latest fad in rankings focuses on graduates’ earnings, something that has emerged as college costs have risen.
By one measure of earnings, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports, most of Kansas’s public universities don’t hold up well. Graduates of all but one state public university (Pittsburg State) earn less than expected 10 years after they began college. The article is based on federal data compiled by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, which created a salary-weighted rankings system.
Under this measure, KU ranks 1,212 out of 1,400 institutions. At the top are the University of Colorado at Denver, and (yes) Georgetown.
Much of the Capital-Journal article is taken up by university officials speculating about why their graduates fare so poorly under these rankings. The upshot: No one really knows, as is the case with most rankings.
Maine is the only state in New England that spends more on education than on prisons, The Bangor Daily News reports, citing a study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. …
Expect more top administrators in higher education to come from business and industry rather than the academy, the Hechinger Report says. The reasons: financial struggles, public pressure, and a lack of high-quality candidates from within academia.
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.
Despite declining enrollments (see below) and changes in student demographics, most colleges and universities have continued to divert resources into traditional areas related to rankings rather than to innovations that would help them reach and serve new audiences.
Colleges and universities have pumped money into such things as technology, physical classrooms, faculty research, and dorms and dining facilities – what Weise calls “sustaining innovations.” That has increased the cost of education while ignoring the price sensitivity of what he calls “nonconsumers of higher education” and the increasing focus that most students have on careers. It also ignores the growing percentage of students age 25 and older and the declining confidence that many employers have in higher education.
Weise suggests that higher education create more online courses and emphasize competencies rather than credit hours. That means breaking apart traditional courses into modules that help students gain specific skills and that can be arranged into clusters of competencies that best fit individual students.
This approach isn’t easy either for institutions or students, Weise says, and must emphasize the rigor of learning. It also requires frequent assessment and use of data to monitor student performance and progress. He writes:
For students, this educational model is hard. They are not able to get away with a merely average understanding of the material; they must demonstrate mastery—and therefore dedicated work toward gaining mastery—in any competency.
Weise’s organization has been one of the biggest advocates for competency-based education over the last few years. Others, according to the education writer Audrey Watters, include the Gates Foundation, the Lumia Foundation and Western Governors University.
She also urges educators, administrators, legislators and students to take a closer look at programs labeled “competency-based,” largely because the term has become a buzzword used to suggest a forward-looking curriculum that may prove empty at its core. She suggests asking two critical questions: Who profits from this approach, and how? (In many cases, that has been commercial organizations like Pearson.) Watters writes:
“In theory, competency-based education changes the focus from how much time students spend in a class to what they have learned. But it does not really resolve the question of what it is we expect college students to learn or what’s the best way for them to demonstrate this.”
She’s right on all accounts, and competency-based education alone won’t solve the many challenges of higher education. It can help drive conversations about change, though.
A hybrid approach of traditional courses (ones that promote critical thinking, creativity and a broad understanding of the world) combined with competency modules (ones that provide specific, individualized skills) might allow us to pull along some of the naysayers while putting the emphasis where it belongs: on student learning.
All other Midwestern states reported declines in enrollment. Among surrounding states, that ranged from 5.4 percent in Iowa to 1.7 percent in Colorado. The totals include both public and private, two-year and four-year institutions.
Overall, the number of students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities fell by 1 percent this fall, according to The Hechinger Report. That was the sixth consecutive semester in which enrollment has dropped.
Two-year colleges had the largest declines, while enrollment at public four-year colleges and universities rose by 2.2 percent. Students over age 24 showed the largest decline in numbers.
“If it is not one big bubble, what we see in the market is a reflection of the honing of individual choices by both students and institutions―students running from risky for-profits or middle-grade professional programs, and colleges and universities acknowledging that growth is not a constant or perfect metric of success and ability.