New Higher Ed Insights Survey Yields Insights for Counselors, Too

By Martin Kurzweil, Rayane Alamuddin & Daniel Rossman, Ithaka S+R

In fall 2015, Ithaka S+R invited a select group of 110 higher education administrators and experts to take part in semi-annual surveys on issues of national importance in higher education. In Higher Ed Insights: Results of the Fall 2015 Survey we report the findings from the first panel survey, which was administered between November 16 and December 27, 2015. The survey focused on innovative initiatives and strategies aimed at improving three student-centered outcomes: degree completion rates, the quality of student learning, and affordability. It also solicited panel members’ opinions on the current state of undergraduate education in the US and obstacles to successful innovation. It is useful for counselors to understand these findings, as they are an indication of the direction higher education is heading.

To improve degree completion, the 96 respondents see the most potential in guided pathways and proactive advising strategies. These strategies recognize that many students enter college lacking familiarity with academic and career trajectories, and that those challenges can slow down or stop progress toward a degree. To reduce the risk that students become overwhelmed, a number of colleges are providing students with clear maps of courses leading to degrees and then to careers. Academic advisors then monitor students’ progress and check-in regularly or when a student goes off track.

The logic behind these efforts has implications for students’ high school experience, as well, where counselors play a critical role in preparing students for college and beyond. The more counselors do to help students consider their next steps as a pathway through postsecondary education and into a career, the more likely they are to hit the ground running in college.
Respondents view intelligent adaptive learning technologies—instructional software that adjusts the material presented to students in real time, as students interact with the software—as the most promising initiative for improving the quality of student learning. Technology-assisted instruction is becoming increasingly popular at the college level; encouraging high school students to familiarize themselves with online learning (for example, through a free Khan Academy course) will help to prepare them for the college experience.

Asked to rank a list of efforts to make earning a college degree more affordable for students, respondents were most likely to select as their top choice unbundling college credits and services—allowing students to pay for only those courses and services they want, and to combine mini-credentials from multiple institutions to earn a degree. These credentials need not be earned only at the postsecondary level: more and more students are earning college credit while in high school (through AP or Early College, for example). It is important for high school students to begin to think of these experiences as part of their overall postsecondary and career plan. Students could also save considerably on tuition, or accommodate other personal needs, by learning about unbundling opportunities they can pursue before signing up for the all-inclusive room and board college experience.

When asked about obstacles to successful innovation in American higher education, respondents most frequently cited barriers grounded in institutional culture and structures. Although they recognize the role played by ineffective public policy, low and declining public resources, and market inefficiencies, our survey respondents, mostly higher education insiders, see the biggest roadblocks to innovation inside the academy. These include misaligned incentives for faculty, lack of clear vision by leaders, and commitment to outdated instructional and organizational models.

Respondents from the Higher Ed Insights panel see great potential in a number of current and emerging initiatives to improve degree completion, student learning, and affordability. It is not, according to respondents, a lack of good ideas that holds the higher education sector back. Rather, to improve student prospects, leaders and faculty will have to overcome sometimes deeply entrenched cultural norms and organizational structures to put those ideas to work. That challenge is not small, but our respondents are optimistic that it will be met.