Five Issues Facing Higher Education in 2018

By Jason Allaire on January 15, 2018

Higher education in America retains an implicit trust and faith in our culture. It is the support of knowledge and learning. It is the gateway to good jobs and a prosperous life for many of us.

Universities and colleges have always dealt with challenges and issues particular to a time and place. The now-familiar student unrest movements of the 1960s were largely played out on university campuses. As we head into 2018, higher education will face a particular set of challenges and issues.

Each of these issues are highly specific, yet they all impact and interact with each other.

In this article, we're going to dive into five specific challenges universities are facing today.

Issue One: The Rising Cost

Adult entering credit card information on a laptop

One of the primary issues facing higher education is the rising cost of education balanced against the benefit of a college degree.

As valuable as a college education is, the cost is often the first and most important factor people face in weighing the value of universities.

Forbes reports that the rising cost is amplified by a diminishing field of well-paying job opportunities. The result? Many recent graduates are underemployed and face massive student loan debt.

Though success in the workforce usually requires a college education, the ability to pay for college has become difficult for many.

During the recession years, the cost of education actually rose at a higher percentage than today, where it is just over 1.5%.

However, the net cost—the cost balanced against grant aid and tax benefits—are actually costing people more than during the 2008-09 recession years.

One thing is certain: if the cost of higher education continues to outpace the ability of middle and working class families to pay, the problem will snowball into other areas of higher education.

Of course, colleges are very aware of this issue and doing everything in their power to provide creative financial solutions for strapped students. For example, many colleges are offering online classes so that students don't have to pay for on-campus housing, a meal plan, etc. The goal is find ways to give students an outstanding, cost-effective education.

Issue Two: Declining Completion Rates

With increasing costs for college, it shouldn't come as a surprise that there's also a rise in the number of students who don't complete their degrees.

Less than fifty percent of students complete their degree within six years. Although many of these students transfer and complete their education at another university, a large number never finish. This includes both two-year and four-years institutions. As many as one in three students drop out entirely and never finish their degrees.

Even as there is an overall rise in enrollment, completion rates have not kept pace.

A college education is considered the primary mark of a well-educated workforce. The low completion rates is an indicator that the United States lags behind other countries with higher rates of completion.

There have been efforts at universities to address this problem and there is some evidence of success. As a report on the declines noted:

Indeed, one might easily conclude that without them the declines could have been even worse for particular types of students or institutions, given the demographic and economic forces at play.

As we continue to stay out of a recession, we should expect to see completion rates go back up, but sustained policy at the local, state and federal levels are required to fully address the challenge.

Issue Three: Growing Privatization of Public Colleges and Universities

College graduate holding a graduation cap in the air

State funding for colleges and universities has steadily decreased since the beginning of the 21st Century.

For example, the University of California state system dropped 37% from 1990 to 2004.

This trend is nation-wide and is expected to continue. As funding for higher learning institutions decrease, universities must seek funding from private sources. Some universities have even made some of their high-profit programs, like business schools and law schools, fund themselves through a combination of student tuition, businesses and other private sources.

This creates a pattern of privatization of the public college and university system. The source of funding is no longer the institutions of higher learning but private business interests.

These programs, and therefore a substantial part of the university system itself, are essentially privately owned at this point. The result? They're no longer subject to the same systems of regulation, admission and even academic requirements as rest of the public state system.

The growing privatization of the public higher education system is a growing concern for scholars and administrators. The main concern is that as private interests take over a public university, their business interests may not serve the public good.

Educators and administrators worry that the benefits we've come to expect from the public university system will be diminished as this move toward privatization continues.

Of course, as noted above, universities are working hard to make their programs more financially accessible to students, which in turn could raise admissions and lessen the funding worries that cause them to turn to private businesses.

Issue Four: New Methods and Curricula

In other matters, the changes in teaching methods and curricula brings challenges. By and large, teaching methods are moving away from the old-fashioned model of lectures aimed at passive audiences.

Students are now much more interested in interactive and self-guided approaches. With so much information online and available for free, universities and colleges are restructuring curricula to stay current and equip students to work with emerging technologies.

Universities also recognize that uniform methods of learning and evaluation are becoming outmoded. More student-centered forms of criteria are being used to evaluate learning and success. Things like individual response systems in the form of clickers are being used to allow students to participate directly and immediately.

Team teaching and peer-led teaching models are also emerging as alternatives to the old professor/student dynamic.

For tenured, long-established professors, new curricula and methodologies can be difficult to incorporate into their long established teaching practices. They can find themselves frustrated by having to use teaching methods they don't like and not knowing how to most effectively implement the new curricula.

In fact, these challenges are becoming so widespread and important that universities are granting leave time for faculty to explore and develop new teaching methods.

Issue Five: The Role of the University, Free Speech and Campus Civility

Students leading a peaceful protest on campus

As is apparent to anyone who watches the news, these issues aren't going away anytime soon. The university has historically been an oasis of freedom of speech and freedom of expression for students and faculty alike.

As centers of learning and research, the university has always been a place where new and potentially threatening ideas often emerge.

It's been the mission of higher education in the United States to ensure that these freedoms are treasured in institutions of higher learning.

However, recent events have challenged these ideals.

The current political climate and the potentially violent threats which have emerged not only on university campuses but also in cities across the country have put university administrators in a difficult place.

They must strike a balance between free speech and maintaining a secure and safe environment on university and college campuses.

Free speech has always been an essential part of college life, and we should expect to see universities working hard to create safe environments for the discussion of various opinions. Additionally, universities are often on the forefront of new ideas, making them easy targets for opponents of free speech. Look for universities to take increasingly strong stands on this issue.


The shape of global culture and economic balances have shifted as we made our way into the 21st century.

The strict divide between public and private has been blurred and new relationships between the private sector and public sector have unfolded in response to global changes.

These shifts and changes are reflected in some of the issues and challenges facing higher education as we enter 2018.

Additionally, the cultural and political climate of the country is being challenged at some fundamental levels, and with this comes disagreement and conflict.

These issues, disagreements and conflicts also present challenges to higher education for the coming year.

Of course, universities have always faced a variety of challenges and have always managed to find solutions. We should expect that to be the case with these challenges. Thankfully, we live in a country where learning matters. We can be confident that universities will be present to both educate us and enlarge our minds.

On top of this, it's essential to remember that education is critical. Those who miss out on higher learning often find their opportunities limited. Even though many universities are confronting challenges, we shouldn't expect to see a decline in higher education.


Because it's an essential part of our country's fabric, and without it, we'll all be worse off.

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Category: Why College