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., InsideHigherEd.com 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 InsideHigherEd.com 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.)