The decade’s most significant higher ed events

What a decade the 2000s has been for higher education. Like every other institution out there, higher ed has been buffeted by forces beyond its own sphere — from economics and technology to legislative and judicial forces to random madness of individuals. As the ’00s draw to a close, I’ve been reflecting on all the many changes we’ve seen in higher education over the past decade and wondering which of the major events have had the greatest impact on higher ed. Here are my picks for the 10 most significant events in higher education over the past decade. Feel free to disagree and make your case in the comments.

10. The million-dollar president. Executive compensation for leaders of private colleges and universities has skyrocketed over the past decade. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (username and password required), 23 private college presidents now receive more than $1 million in pay and other compensation annually. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Shirley Ann Jackson earns the most — nearly $1.6 million. And to think it was a mere seven years ago, in 2002, that the Chronicle wrote about the rarefied air of the half-million-dollar club.

9. Fighting digital piracy. With the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, colleges and universities have in essence been made partners with the music and film industries in their battle against illegal file-sharing. The law asks colleges and universities to develop “plans to effectively combat the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material, including through the use of a variety of technology-based deterrents,” and to “the extent practicable,” offer students legal alternatives for peer-to-peer file sharing as “determined by the institution in consultation with the chief technology officer” (source). While it’s uncertain what the long-term impact of these provisions will have on colleges and universities, it places new responsibilities on IT and student affairs staff.

8. A billion-dollar gift. In July 2006, Indian-born mining tycoon Anil Agarwal pledged to give $1 billion to help build a new university for his native country. “India desperately needs to improve education,” he explained to TIME. “[And] what is the point of money if it’s not made to be given back to society?”

7. The rise of the billion-dollar campaign. University initiatives to raise $1,000,000,000 were once rarities. Harvard was the first to break the billion-dollar barrier, in the 1990s. Today, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education (username/password required), 32 institutions are in campaigns to raise $1 billion or more. Several of these universities are publics — a sign of their increasing reliance on private donations as state budgets get stretched and hit by other needs. Will the economy’s collapse affect these campaigns or cause other universities to scale back their fundraising plans? This is a story that will continue to unfold in the coming decade.

6. Breaking the racial barrier. On Nov. 9, 2000, Brown University announced that Ruth J. Simmons would become president of that university. In so doing, she became the first African American to head an Ivy League institution.

5. Greater competition for international students. While the international student market grew dramatically in the 2000s, new policies enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led to a sharp decline in the number of international students coming to the United States. Although the tide has turned in recent years, “U.S. competitiveness for international students has collapsed in this century,” says NAFSA. The reason is a combination of “vastly increased international competition” coupled with “the unwelcoming environment created by post-9/11 security measures and anti-foreign attitudes.” In 1970, 29 percent of the world’s college students were enrolled in the U.S. In 2006, just 12 percent were enrolled in the U.S., reports. Will the U.S. regain its pre-eminence as the nation of choice for higher education? Data from the latest “Open Doors” study offer glimmers of hope, but may not take the latest economic data into account.

4. Rebuilding after Katrina. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans — and many of that city’s colleges and universities — when it struck in late August 2005. The disaster forced Tulane University to cancel its fall semester and displaced hundreds of students from that university, Dillard University, Loyola, the University of New Orleans and others. In the four years since, those universities have struggled to rebuild and reinvent in the wake of an unthinkable act of nature.

3. Tuition “sticker shock.” The rising cost of a college education was seemingly in the news throughout the decade. But as the economic downturn of 2008 spiraled into a recession, cost has become an increasing concern. In recent months, public universities across the nation, facing steep cuts in state funding, have hiked tuition dramatically. The University of California’s regents voted to increase tuition by 32 percent, sparking ’60s-style protests and sit-ins. I doubt we’ve seen the end of this. Until colleges and universities learn to do more with less, hiking tuition seems to be the most expedient approach to budget woes. But perhaps these troubling times will lead to some new thinking on education delivery and some much-needed reform for higher ed.

2. The incredible shrinking endowment. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 has wreaked havoc with university endowments. “The overall value of university endowments in the United States fell about 23 percent on average for the five months ending November 30, 2008,” writes Jim Wolfston in an article. “The steep declines are forcing many colleges and universities to adopt wage freezes, layoffs and a halt to on-campus construction projects.” Wall Street has rebounded, but the economic recovery is going to be tough sledding over the next couple of years. Portfolio managers would do well to take a more conservative approach to investing in the coming years, rather than “playing high-stakes poker with other people’s money” (Wolfston’s words).

1. The Virginia Tech tragedy. What single incident has affected higher education more than the April 16, 2007, massacre of more than 30 Virginia Tech students and faculty? The tragic, senseless loss of life is certainly enough to merit inclusion on this list. But the tragedy’s impact reverberated far beyond Blacksburg. In response to Virginia Tech, and with prodding from parents, students and lawmakers, colleges and universities worldwide have stepped up their emergency-response and early-intervention efforts in hopes of preventing a similar incident. The idea of a college campus as an open, welcoming place is no more. Yet still, campus leaders grapple with the question: How safe is “safe enough”? That’s a question we’ll continue to struggle with well into the coming decade.

What did I miss? What did I overstate or understate? Let me know your thoughts, and feel free to share your own top 10 list either in the comments below or on your own blog. (Please share the link to your lists in the comments, too.)


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

9 thoughts on “The decade’s most significant higher ed events”

  1. Andrew, this is a really great post. I don’t know if I would put VA Tech at number one though….I think the recession is going to have long standing implications on higher ed that are greater, many of them probably not even realized yet.

  2. I’ve got to agree with Karlyn on this one – VT is definitely top ten worthy but probably lower in the list – if we’re picking the “10” based on impact to higher education … changing technologies (Twitter in the classroom, Study groups online, Cheating, Faculty/Student Online Boundaries/Privacy), are definitely shaking things up as well.

    Plus, free online university content/MIT Open Courseware/ITunesU … Ken Steele’s annual high ed trends keynote toys with the concept that bricks & mortar degrees may get displaced with new ways of learning. I guess you touch on this a bit with the fighting digital privacy though :)

  3. Karlyn – I hesitated about placing the Virginia Tech tragedy in the No. 1 spot. The restructuring, realignment or reinvention of higher ed that is likely to come due to this recession and other economic factors certainly will be big stories for the future. I agree that we haven’t even felt some of those affects yet.

    Melissa – I also thought about the online and open-source movements, as well as the rise of the for-profit university (University of Phoenix), as major stories of the past decade. Thanks for mentioning them. These too are forces destined to shape the future of higher ed.

  4. I think 3 and 2 are the ones that will end up being bigger and bigger issues as we head into the next decade. I think #1 was a great choice though. The shocking nature of it, really left me thinking a lot about how we prepare and how vulnerable college campuses really are to this sort of violence. What gripped about it wasn’t even just about the fact that it happened, but that it could’ve happened ANYWHERE is what was so significant about it.

    But I think we’ll see a ton of mergers, closings and other innovations that will have to come from a shift in the value of a degree and a decline on the en masse push we’d seen for decades now that says every HS kid should pursue a college degree.

  5. Ron – Yes, the idea that Virginia Tech could have happened anywhere really slapped me in the face, too. And maybe another reason I put it at the top is my background in PR and crisis communications. The enormous crisis communications response required for such a situation just boggles my mind.

  6. I think (10) precipitates (3). I would think “doing more with less” would entail recruitment of competent leadership that can get by on a “modest” six-figure salary.

    I also think (5) and (8) are somewhat related. I would guess many of the international students who went to school here (USA) in the 70s and 80s are eager to see the development of their home countries. That, coupled with greater restrictions on immigration in the US make for greater incentive for their kids to go to school somewhere else.

    I also agree with Ron.

  7. Ron – I agree with you that shrinking endowments will be a big issue for the next decade. It will require a different way of investing and spending and more creativeness and accountability.

    Although, I am most curious to see how international competition plays out in the future. This speaks to the quality, value, and perceptions of higher ed in the U.S.

  8. Nice blog. This definitely recaps the last 10 years.

    While very tragic and scarring event, I agree the tragedy at Virginia Tech is a profound event that has effected higher education indefinitely. Also with as many institutions of higher education having very rough budget times, it is hard to believe that so many schools are starting to follow the trend of the million dollar president.

    I have two more events to offer up. A) Similar to Melissa, but going a bit ahead of the social networking timeline – wireless connectivity has taken off wildly over the last ten years. Ten years ago, many schools were scrambling to install T1 lines and other wired connections and were barely, if at all, looking to install wireless connectivity. It has transformed classrooms, dorms, and communication infrastructure. So much so that many colleges require a wireless laptop. Wireless connectivity on campus could be one reason for the use of Twitter in the classroom and other tech related innovations.

    B) College, not so much for all. Kind of going off of 3 and 5. But the rising admissions standards for students at many public state schools has closed the door on many (this is pre-recession). Dealing with the 5+ year college student, infrastructure issues, budget issues, college rankings, and increasing student population – many colleges felt they should raise admission standards. The higher the incoming test scores and GPA of a potential student, the faster the student would complete their degree. Fewer students with higher incoming test scores would cause fewer infrastructure issues and possibly raise ranking scores.

  9. Andrew (not me, the other Andrew) – I agree with your observation that internationals who benefited from their US education are eager to build the college/university system in their own countries. We’re seeing a boom of new universities in China and elsewhere.

    Travis – The IT infrastructure issue was huge on college campuses over the past decade. In the early 2000s, our campus bragged about how many computer labs we had. We invested heavily in wiring the campus. Then along came wireless, and we did a 180. Trying to anticipate and plan for IT changes is tough over the long term, and the “long term” these days is probably 18-24 months max.

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