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What Lies Ahead for Higher Ed

UVA has distinct advantages as it enters its next century. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

Across the country, institutions of higher education are planning for significant external pressures on the horizon. As UVA prepares to enter its third century, we ask: What might the University, and higher education broadly, look like as the decades unfold?

UVA appears well-positioned to address coming demographic changes, and new President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) has, through actions and words, made a clear priority of using the University’s advantages for the public good. Yet the institution’s comparatively privileged position gives it its own unique set of questions. Choices made by leaders yet-to-come will reinforce, reshape or reinvent UVA’s mission and values, some say. Probably, their choices will do all three.

A major source of change will come through demographics. Analysis by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education indicates that the number of high school graduates will begin declining in the mid-2020s owing to today’s falling fertility rates, which began dropping in 2008. By the early 2030s, high school graduation rates are expected to dip as much as 5 percent below today’s levels. With these changes, universities across the country will be choosing from a shrinking pool of prospective students.

Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College, says the news for colleges is even worse than is suggested by the coming drop in the number of high school graduates. After digging into demographic data to account for predictors of college attendance, he predicts “an unprecedented reduction in postsecondary demand about a decade ahead,” by as much as 15 percent.

UVA officials monitor these changes closely, says Gregory Roberts, UVA’s dean of admission. He says he expects their impact to vary by institution.

“There have been declines in the Rust Belt and the Northeast, but at the same time there will be significant increases in Hispanic students, for example,” he says. “We do not anticipate this to heavily impact our ability to enroll a richly diverse and talented class of students each year. However, some institutions nationally and within our state, particularly high-priced regional private colleges, are already beginning to feel the crunch and have seen enrollment decline.”

A changing demography is just one of the coming external pressures. Technology is fundamentally changing how we access information and what we do with it, so what colleges and universities do with students once they enroll is bound to evolve.

“I have a colleague who said in this day and age, content is cheap but learning is expensive,” says Josipa Roksa, a professor of sociology and education at UVA’s Curry School of Education. “If we’re going to exist as brick and mortar and have students come and invest resources to study in a place like this, our position has to be, ‘What do we offer that is not content?’ It’s going to have to be the experience. You have exposure to opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Robert Pianta
Robert Pianta Dan Addison

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School, agrees, saying that instruction will move away from the traditional model of a professor delivering information to one that asks: What can students do with that knowledge? He also believes that UVA’s third century will challenge it to rethink how students are evaluated and even what it means to be in a class. Online interactions with students are already more individualized than “when I was standing in front of a classroom of 30,” he says. “Often in that situation, you have two or three students who dominate discussion.” Course structures will likely expand, too.

“I think we will see some unbundling of the standard three-credit, 15-week semester model, even of education on Grounds, and watch it morph. We’ll see the emergence of a portfolio-driven approach” in which student work is compiled in order to evaluate growth over time. This, he says, is a “smarter and more efficient way to deliver education, much more nimble. It’s a big lift for institutions like ours and everybody else with this model of learning, but I have no doubt we’re headed that way.”

Additionally, he foresees that much more education will happen outside of the traditional classroom, particularly in courses where students are studying difficult economic, social and other issues. Increasingly, students won’t study an issue from afar but, rather, immerse themselves in environments where these issues are pressing.

“I think one big mistake universities have made with respect to solving social problems is that we predefine the problem for the client and then we drop in and drop out,” he says. Through sustained, firsthand experience with clients and communities, students can become more attuned not only to obstacles but also to an often unseen but extraordinary level of assets that already exist just below the surface.

“When you bring that back, you have opportunities to cultivate our students’ reflection, their own self-awareness about the biases they bring and the skills they’re learning,” he says.

The coming century will push UVA to become more outwardly focused for more reasons than just the students’ education, says Benjamin Castleman, an associate professor at Curry. He says it is a logical response to declining public financial support for higher education, growing skepticism about its value and rising student debt.

“All of that speaks to me about the importance of UVA in its third century being as external in its focus as it is internal,” he says. The coming century will challenge UVA to consider how it can use the skills and expertise of its faculty, staff and students “to support the well-being of the commonwealth overall and of individuals within the commonwealth,” a development he describes as coming full circle with aspects of UVA’s original mission and a priority for President Ryan.

Castleman says it is still too early in the development of online education to understand which models bring value for students and which will enroll more students over time. When that time comes, he believes it will give urgency to another question for UVA: “How can the University support the many people in the commonwealth who would benefit from a UVA education?” beyond, as he puts it, “a select few thousand Virginians who get to Charlottesville.”

Extending UVA’s reach throughout the commonwealth was a recurrent theme of Ryan’s inaugural address in October. “I see [a] vibrant presence in Northern Virginia for our business and medical schools,” he said, later adding, “I see a strong, mission-driven College at Wise and deeper connections between our campus at Wise and our faculty and students on the Grounds in Charlottesville.”

Lurking beneath all of these issues is the question of whom UVA serves. Grawe, the Carleton professor with the ominous demographic forecasts, predicts that the coming changes will further consolidate the positions of well-funded, high-reputation institutions like UVA. The falling enrollments, tightened budgets and reduced student services will fall most harshly upon the less-advantaged institutions that the vast majority of America’s college students attend. America’s privileged institutions, like its most privileged citizens, will continue to come out ahead, he foresees.

These issues deeply concern Roksa, the UVA sociologist. “The world is becoming more diverse but also becoming less equal,” she says. “Those two forces can have a perverse effect. … If you just let inequality forces work, [UVA] will become less diverse.”

Joispa Roksa
Joispa Roksa Dan Addison

Recent actions by the Board of Visitors and President Ryan and the responsiveness of UVA’s donors indicate the seriousness with which they contemplate these challenges. In August, the Board made a $100 million investment in matching scholarships designed to help fund UVA’s need-based aid. Donors fully matched a similar investment in 2016 in only 18 months, resulting in $212 million for endowments whose earnings will support more than 140 scholarships.

“In order to build a diverse, vibrant community at UVA, we need to make it easier for talented students to come here, regardless of their ability to pay,” Ryan said when that effort was announced.

Such initiatives can help the University counteract some forms of inequality, but the roots of many of the thorniest issues are well-established long before a student gets to UVA. White students will continue to enjoy the best pre-college educational opportunities disproportionately, Roksa says, even as their numbers dwindle and the country, as a whole, becomes more diverse.

High school graduates in the western U.S. are already majority nonwhite, according to the WICHE report, and the South’s will become so in the next few years. These trends are unfolding slowly in the Northeast and Midwest too.

The students graduating from high school during UVA’s third century will be more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, as will UVA’s future students, Roberts, the admission dean, says.

“Within a decade, white students will fall below 50 percent at many institutions due to shifting demographics and increasingly sophisticated recruitment and outreach efforts in underserved areas of the country and world,” Roberts says. He says UVA continually evaluates strategies to connect with all kinds of students and encourage them to consider UVA.

Roberts’ office will also continue its advocacy for expanding the reach of the Virginia College Advising Corps—which places recent graduates in under­resourced high schools to serve as college counselors—and continue to identify other promising strategies.

However, Roksa worries that even if the University recruits a more diverse student body, other trends could mean that students from different backgrounds will arrive in Charlottesville knowing less and less about one another.

“Students from the top and bottom of economic scale don’t encounter one another,” she says. “We have increasing racial segregation. Students don’t grow up in diverse neighborhoods or go to diverse high schools.”

It would be naïve to think that when these students get to Grounds, these differences would melt away, and indeed they don’t, she says. “It will be crucial for institutions to have a strong moral compass,” she says, particularly at a school like UVA.

Pianta, Curry’s dean, has similar concerns.

“The biggest challenge is inequality in society,” he says. “It’s just ripping us apart. I am a strong believer that education has a strong role to play in addressing that concern.”

Ryan made a similar point in his inaugural address, when, in announcing need-based tuition waivers, he said, “I see a community that opens wide the door to opportunity for first-generation, low-, and middle-income students.”

In all, it was a speech very much aimed at the future of higher education. Said Ryan, “We have a chance to show the world what progress looks like.”

Matthew Dewald is an editor and writer who lives in Richmond, Virginia.