Perceptions of Higher Ed One Year Into the Pandemic

Monday, March 29, 2021 - Tamara Hiler joins us to talk through the opinions of higher education institutions and policy by students and the public, and Jeff and Michael reflect on key issues one year into the pandemic response.

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Transcript

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, if the pandemic did anything in higher ed it seemed like it spawned 1000 surveys of students of faculty, of parents, of the public.

Michael Horn:

You got that right Jeff. And keeping the pulse on what people think about higher ed in general in their own colleges has never been easier in some ways.

Jeff Selingo:

And it is allowed us to understand in the moment what's going on and today we're going to talk to Tamara Hiler at the nonpartisan think tank Third Way on this episode of Future You.

Sponsor:

This episode of Future You is brought to you by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. Subscribe to Future You wherever you get your podcasts and follow us on Twitter at the handle @FY_Podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, please leave us a five-star rating so others can discover the conversations we're having about higher education.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. Michael, when I saw the survey work that Third Way had done on students' perceptions during the pandemic. Surveys they did in partnership with New America another think tank here in my hometown of Washington as well a separate polling Third Way did of voters. I was really struck by some of the findings. There were some big disconnects with some popular narratives out there.

Michael Horn:

You're absolutely right Jeff and a big one was making college free to all who are admitted, ranked dead last in a list of goals that voters indicated were most important to them personally. What ranked highest was improving the value of those degrees.

Jeff Selingo:

Right. And on the student survey that students think their institutions have actually done a good job navigating the pandemic. The good news for higher ed is that it seems students don't blame colleges for the pandemic. Of course, how can they? But then there's this number from the Third Way New America survey. Half of college students agree with the statement that my institution only cares about the money it can get from me.

Michael Horn:

That's right Jeff. And I had a chance to recently catch up with Tamara Hiler, the Director of Education at Third Way about those survey results while you of course were doing your best to have some sense of normality by traveling again which is foreign to us. I know it didn't work out for you but nonetheless in your absence Tamara and I had a great conversation. Tamara, thanks so much for being here. Welcome to the show.

Tamara Hiler:

Thanks for having me.

Michael Horn:

You just conducted two interesting surveys recently. One that gives a snapshot of how current and prospective college students views of higher education themselves changed between August and December and then another one that surveyed likely voters about their perception of higher education and its value. And there're interesting findings in both that I think helped to explain some of the terrain if you will around higher education right now and so I would love to start with a survey of likely voters that you guys did. What were the three big takeaways from voters?

Tamara Hiler:

Thanks so much. I think the first big finding is that... Of course we saw that there was a slight dip in perception of the higher ed system as a result of COVID and I know we'll get into that more in detail in just a minute. But what we did find and I think is really important to remember is that voters still see the overall value in higher ed. 66% of voters still believe that higher education provides either a good or a great return on investment and that's compared to 76% of voters who said that earlier in the year. The other thing of course is that nearly nine and 10 institutional leaders of course continue to see really the value of higher ed that perception has not changed at all over time.

Tamara Hiler:

But I think it is an important reminder there's a lot especially in the higher ed sector right now. A lot of people are talking doom and gloom and it's crisis mode only but it is important to remember that even before the pandemic, a lot of people saw that there was value in higher ed and I think that actually the pandemic in some ways has sort of reinforced that because we've seen that there have been two very different outcomes. Economically for people who have had a college degree versus those who haven't in this time. That I think hopefully provides a little bit of hope for folks that there is still a lot... That people perceive the higher education system to be doing well and want to continue to seek out post-secondary education. But to caveat that a little bit I will say the second big finding from our survey of likely voters is that, it is very clear that voters now think that improving the value of a degree is a more important priority than it was before the pandemic. And this makes perfect sense as well. There are very real concerns about how much college costs and I think the shift to online learning and potential in particular has sort of potentially diminished the quality of a degree that students are receiving and people are asking a lot of questions around that.

Tamara Hiler:

We see some of this concern more acutely with Hispanic and Black voters who are likely feeling the impacts of this pandemic at a greater clip than some of their white counterparts. And we actually see that nearly two thirds of institutional leaders also say that value needs to be a bigger priority in the national conversation. Probably a large part because they realize that the sentiment has sort of reached a fever pitch and that their failure to address some of these bigger questions could have a long-term impact on the sector and especially in light of potential state budget cuts or other financial concerns that people will be having as we head into a post COVID recession.

Tamara Hiler:

One other point on this that I want to iterate here is that there was also a big chunk of people who said that actually the pandemic hasn't changed their opinion one way or the other. Which once again I think is notable too because that just reiterate that people have for a long time seen value in higher ed and they're going to continue to see that at this point. One other fine point here though in this section that I think is worth exploring more and I'm sure we'll talk more about it is that value has actually become more important to voters than one of the most prevalent conversations that we have dictating the higher ed landscape right now and that's free college. In fact making college free to all who are admitted actually ranked dead last in a list of goals that voters indicated were most important to them personally. Instead voters said they wanted to see things like ensuring students receive a degree that allows them to repay their loans, providing a degree that substantially increases the student's chances of socioeconomic mobility and supporting students who are working full time to complete their degrees were all priorities that ranked higher than free college. Which is likely due to the fact that those are all sort of tied to the bigger economic needs and questions that people have right now.

Tamara Hiler:

But we've seen this before in a lot of the survey work that Third Way has done which is that voters are not necessarily asking for college to be free. They don't mind paying something to get a degree but what they do want to see and that COVID has really sort of broached the forefront is that, they want to make sure that what they're paying actually gives them something of value in return and that it's fair that they're paying for something that's actually going to provide a return on investment.

Tamara Hiler:

And then just to sort of round out the third big finding from this survey is that both voters and institutional leaders sort of believe that institutions themselves have an imperative to deliver better and more equitable outcomes and that there's still a lot of room for improvement to make that happen within the higher ed system. Interestingly, institutional leaders were the first to sort of acknowledge the role that institutions themselves play or that they must play when it comes to securing greater value for students and taxpayers and also acknowledging a pretty strong margins that it is higher education's job to help students pay back their loans to gain skills and to graduate. And that there needs to be a bigger focus on not just getting students to college but also making sure that they're getting through college.

Michael Horn:

It's so interesting in a lot of those and I'm interested and heartened I should say by the emphasis on value. Seeing the value and then wanting more value across all populations not just those who've historically benefited. But as you referenced there's a really interesting finding there that has been consistent in your survey findings which is the fact that folks are prioritizing the conversation around value and outcomes over free college for all. And I'm just curious the political implications of that because this was done in December there had been a... Most people knew that there had been a change in administrations coming and that the election had produced that with an administration that would be interested in the free college conversation. I'm just curious from a policy and political perspective your reflections of what this will mean.

Tamara Hiler:

It's a great question and you're right. We hadn't had the Georgia special election results at that point and who is going to control Congress but I think people knew either way it was going to be either a 50/50 split or very, very slight or a slim majority on either side. I just think in general this is a really good reminder that we spend a lot of time... Or the press or other folks spend a lot of time talking about things like free college or of course the topic desoir debt cancellation and things of that nature. Even though we know that at the end of the day these are political non-starters for a lot of Republicans and there's also a lot of hesitancy from Democrats too to potentially go as far as some folks want to around these debates for a lot of reasons. They're expensive, they can be regressive in nature. I know you guys have covered a lot of that in the past.

Tamara Hiler:

But there are other ways that we can be focusing our energy where there really is a lot of bipartisan support and then I think would also help get to the root problems of some of the things that we're really trying to solve like making sure students and taxpayers are getting a return on investment and making sure that college is actually affordable and that that's a sustainable change it's not just a one-time thing. I also think that being able to focus on value rather than just free college or some of these other components, it just also gets to another big piece of the puzzle that's often left out of the free college discourse but it's something that really does matter to voters and students and that's the idea of quality. And making sure that regardless of what students are paying as I said before that they're getting something in return. And I think it also opens the door to a lot of other conversations where there is a lot of consensus which is trying to better hold institutions accountable for their outcomes and making sure they're actually holding up their end of the bargain which I think is something else that voters recognize the free college debate just doesn't touch.

Michael Horn:

Just doesn't touch. It's a really interesting set of points there. Turning to the student survey which was fascinating on several levels but you found that college students perhaps contrary to popular perception, report being quite concerned with catching COVID themselves but what was also interesting to me is that they express significant concerns with how their institutions have handled the pandemic and the cost of their programs in the sense of it's a lot more expensive, right? For them to be attending online, they haven't seen discounts. I love you to speak to those findings.

Tamara Hiler:

I think these were all really interesting findings to us as well. Yes. I think first there seems to very much be a misconception that college students who we've seen, clips on the news and things of them going to parties and that's going to happen but that they just simply don't care about COVID at all and that is not what we have found consistently in the surveys that we've been doing and sort of the post COVID landscape. They continue to rank either catching COVID themselves or having a family member or close friend catching COVID as their number one concerns even while they're juggling a lot of other things. Having to go to school online, paying their tuition bills et cetera. And we see this even more acutely among Black college students and caregivers who are particularly concerned with the impact that the virus could have both on their personal lives or the lives of their friends and family.

Tamara Hiler:

And that's not a surprise we feel that this survey, it was early December and that's when we really were experiencing a major surge in the country and that surge it included students and so that's not totally surprising but I think to your second point... I do think it is fascinating that we see a bit of a dichotomy between the way that students think that their institutions are kind of both doing the best that they can right now but also feeling like their institutions have not handled the pandemic either forcefully enough or sort of agilely enough over half of students. 51% in the survey said that... They agreed that, "The way my institution handled the pandemic this past semester made me trust its leadership less." Which actually rises to about 62% among the caregivers students that we surveyed in 63% among Black students.

Tamara Hiler:

We also saw that half of college students agree that with the statement that, "My institution only cares about the money it can get for me." Including 55% among Latino students and 59% among Black students. It's interesting... We've actually seen this sort of throughout the post COVID survey work that we've done where there's... Students seem to be very, very forgiving of their institutions and sort of feel like their school is yes. At the end of the day I Really do care about their health and safety and just have a broader recognition that the pandemic is not their institution's fault and that their institutions are sort of going through this in real time just like everybody else and trying to make decisions.

Tamara Hiler:

But at the same time, I think especially as the pandemic has gone on have started to have a little bit of less patients especially when it comes to some of the communication. We've seen in some of the qualitative work that we've done that students are much more forgiving and say, "Hey, I'd rather know, six months in advance that you are not reopening. Even if that's not the decision I want to hear, I want to just know that and I want you to make a decision and be clear with it and communicate it rather than this. Yeah. Come back." And then two weeks later, we have to close the campus down and upend your life again. That's probably where some of that disconnect is happening.

Michael Horn:

It's interesting because I think that reflects so many of our desire for certainty right now in society but also reflecting in terms of K-12 schools as well in this conversation. We know that a lot of Black families have been really put off by the changing guidance and rapidly changing information that they've received and it's really broken down trust in institutions. I'm curious in the higher ed context with students reporting some of this dissatisfaction, what do they expect their colleges or even the government to do to help them out?

Tamara Hiler:

I think right now a lot of it is just based on sort of that immediate need, financial relief, emergency grants and the student aid that they're receiving through some the stimulus relief packages. I think that's sort of the short term stop the bleeding. How can we just make sure simply that students have money to be able to even access high speed internet for example. It's not even that they need internet they need internet that will allow them to have a video chat with somebody and a lot of students just don't have that access or even a quiet space to be able to do their schoolwork. But I think sort of longer term this gets back to similar findings from the value survey that we did with likely voters is that students want to see institutions and the government provide sort of better oversight around things like transparency.

Tamara Hiler:

We've seen a lot and you've seen this probably in the lawsuits and things that have been coming out recently too. It's like students when they write a tuition check they don't know where that money goes in any clear way which is why there's confusion around why am I paying the same amount of money to take a class online that I was paying to be in person? And there's just not a lot of transparency or clarity around how institutions are spending the money that they're getting. And then I also think just having a greater focus and ability to be able to better assess which jobs are going to be coming down the pike, how their institutions are offering the skills that they need and making sure that the tuition rates themselves are affordable and that we aren't sending students or taxpayer dollars to the schools that maybe making students worse off in the long run.

Michael Horn:

A lot to follow but a lot of interesting findings and we're glad that you came on to help us make sense of this changing landscape and also understand the stability in that landscape as well. Tamara deeply appreciate you being with us.

Tamara Hiler:

Thanks so much.

Michael Horn:

And we'll be right back on Future You.

Sponsor:

Support for this podcast is provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which is committed to preserving and expanding educational opportunity for today's students now more than ever. Learn more @postsecondary.gatesfoundation.org.

Jeff Selingo:

And welcome back to a Future You off that interview with Tamara Hiler of Third Way. Michael, it might be worth it for us to spend our time together today talking about changing perceptions of higher ed both among the public and students a year into this pandemic. I remember last year at this time we're recording all those special episodes of Future You starting with Scott Cowen, right? The former president of Tulane about managing in a crisis. Because I think that what we all thought of this pandemic at that time that this was going to be a short term crisis that might be over in a few weeks or maybe a few months. But as the pandemic wore on, it's become clear that in this moment and that this will be a moment in higher ed and in world history. There's going to be pre pandemic and in post pandemic. Generations from now we'll be talking about that. Maybe you don't agree with my construct but if you agree with my construct there pre and post pandemic, can we talk about what changes in higher ed at a high level and maybe what we could do this more as a lightening round?

Michael Horn:

First Jeff, I do agree with your premise. I remember just frankly how frantic the days and weeks after things shut down were and how unsustainable it all felt but how we also... You and me personally felt a real obligation to pump out a lot of timely podcasts to help people in higher ed who are on the ground and understand how different parts of the ecosystem we're making sense of a fast unfolding and changing crisis. But it's been over a year now and I think it's worth taking stock of things, reviewing some the themes we've covered and think about what does this mean going forward for the future of higher education. I love the idea of a lightning round and maybe I'll start us off Jeff with a conversation first on price and the value of higher ed. How do you think this has changed in your estimation?

Jeff Selingo:

I think that the value of higher ed is going to be the topic post pandemic. What are we buying and what are we getting for it? I think there's going to be a lot of discussion about short-term credentials and the need for those short-term credentials and the value of them in both the marketplace but also within higher ed. Are they actually going to offer them? But I think a big thing and we've talked a little bit about it on previous Future You episodes is this idea of what is the residential college experience? Because clearly many students were not on campus for most of this past year but yet still paying regular tuition prices. And I think we saw a lot of anger about paying that price, right? We saw it in the survey that they felt like they were just trying to get money from them. And so I think there's going to be a lot of questions coming out of this about what is the value of the residential experience? How about you?

Michael Horn:

It's a great question. And it feels like this is a bubbling conversation that really boiled over in the last year because honestly Jeff, people that I talk to who are not in the higher ed world they're nowhere near the higher ed world let alone education, they're constantly now asking me about the value of higher ed and is it really worth the cost and the extreme price? And what other options do they have for their kids? And that feels different to me. It feels just fundamentally different that it's gone beyond sort of our sector wondering or are policymakers wondering. Just random people who follow along from cable news or NPR or whatever your source is and as a result I expect it to stick and force some serious changes. I think Rachel Romer Carlson, the CEO and founder of Guild where I spend most of my time these days. The other day I heard her say that in the old days you went to college so that you could get a job whereas now you've got a job so that you can go to college.

Michael Horn:

But this notion I think of flipping how we think of the sequence of higher education, right? I think that's going to be a big thing. That gap years is going to be a bigger thing for some people. Faster and cheaper pathways into that first job and then leveling up through stackability to get other credentials and ultimately a degree. I think we're going to have to see these things which I guess falls into the second category that I'm curious about which is flexibility of higher ed to be able to provide what students need. What is your thoughts on that one?

Jeff Selingo:

I think this is the thing that does change post pandemic because I think we see in the pandemic what a more flexible higher education system could look like, right? The calendar is completely different now and most colleges and universities they've done a way with long breaks. They allow some cohorts of students on campus, some cohorts of students off campus. They have some learning online, some students learning half online, half in person. There's just so much more flexibility that now we've created essentially a cohort of students who are used to this. I can't imagine suddenly going back to something after the pandemic to what we used to have. How about you Michael?

Michael Horn:

We obviously had Mark Becker the outgoing president of Georgia State University on and I thought his quote on this one was very [inaudible 00:24:09] which is that colleges are going to have to lean more into the hybrid or innovation zone if you will and figure out new ways not just serve students but make sure that they're successful. And that the only institutions that can't lean into that are those that have a very clear and valuable and differentiated value proposition and these were his words in essence which is he said, "That's not most of us." And so leaning into this and I think that flexibility of higher ed. I agree. I think it's going to be absolutely critical Jeff.

Jeff Selingo:

Going back to the first question on value, higher ed is a big policy priority in the States but it hasn't really been much in the last 10 years previous to the pandemic. Do you see that changing at all?

Michael Horn:

I Confess... I'm curious what you're going to say but I confess. I think this one is still murky. I think if anything the pandemic has made K-12 a much bigger deal and obviously K-12 eats up a huge part of state budgets in any given year. Higher ed does as well but it's lower on the totem pole. I actually think it may be stretch that out even more because people saw the importance of K-12 schools in providing childcare and helping parents stay in the workforce. We know a stunning number of women, right? In particular had to leave the workforce over the last year and so my sense is that K-12 is gone up in people's estimation. I don't know that I think higher ed is left with the reputation intact to be able to command the resources perhaps or the attention on State's policymakers list that some might guess. What's your take?

Jeff Selingo:

That's an interesting take and I think probably a year ago I would've said it's still losing priority on the list of things because of money but we've seen these recent estimates from Moody's and Bloomberg and others to say that state budgets are not going to be as hard hit as they thought it would be. Now we have more money now where I think it's going to be interesting and we're seeing this in Idaho and we're seeing this in Florida and other places is it seems like the culture wars are coming back in higher ed with the governors and state lawmakers really starting to lean in on what they think is, "indoctrination" of college students. And so I think that we're actually... Higher education might become a priority is less about how much money we give them but how much freedom they have on the curricular side.

Michael Horn:

All right. It's a great point and on that I would agree. Let's shift to conversation that relates though to resources and dollars which is how families pay and how students pay for that education. What's your crystal ball say on this one?

Jeff Selingo:

I think that we tend to be way behind the eight ball on rethinking our federal programs but there seems to be movement now in Congress to do that. I think that we have some interesting people now in the education department. Clearly we have some new energy and different energy on the Hill. It will be interesting to see what we do about one loan program or discussions about tying Title IV money to Pell Grants for example and the percentage of Pell Grants you have. I think there's going to be some movement but higher ed policy tends to... As we heard on a recent episode of Future You tends to move very slowly. I do not think there's going to be many changes and how we pay, I think it's going to be more on the price and value of higher ed that we talked about earlier. How about you?

Michael Horn:

I'm glad that you didn't say it was a pendulum cause we know two secretaries of education would disagree with you but no question I think it put pressure on this. You're seeing some appetite I think on both sides of the aisle for income driven repayment instead of loans as a mechanism through the federal government and making that the default repayment. Will that open the way for income share agreements? I think that's a question Mark. We've obviously in a past season, Future You had Beth Akers and others on to talk about ISAs. Who knows what happens there? People are wary of loans though, right? I think you will see more employers figure out what's their role in paying for this. And I do think you might see some more bipartisanship around lifelong learning savings accounts. The notion that rather than just sort of give dollars whenever someone calls for it that you give people a big chunk of money from which they can essentially manage throughout their life as they continue to need to re-skill and up-skill and I do think Jeff you're going to see increased Pell that seems like it's going to happen from my vantage point.

Michael Horn:

I think the big question will be how it's done and will it increase the size of the awards? Will it increase the coverage of eligibility by economic demographics? Will it increase the eligibility in terms of part-time students and those who are perhaps full-time working and adults and make it easier for them to access Pell? I think those are open questions. Then obviously you pay, right? And then the next piece of this is the student experience and I'm going to let you take this one all to yourself because I know you have some big thoughts about how this might change.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. This is something that I'm really kind of leaning into this year in terms of my own work. And, you we talked about earlier about the value of the degree and often we're measuring that and return on investment but I always felt like that ignores the value of what happens on campus during the intervening years because we're really measuring what happens after college. The distance traveled when a student rise on campus and when they graduate. And really in my mind and improving that experience by designing and delivering every interaction and measuring its impact is really a way for colleges to ultimately prove the value to tuition paying families. We know that if you ask allumns what college meant to them you're bound to hear about the personal connections they made with faculty members, advisors, administrative staff and the ease in value of engaging with services offered by the institution.

Jeff Selingo:

Whether that's academic services, career services or student life. And I really think this is going to be the thing that could potentially differentiate some colleges in the years ahead and also get back to that value piece that we talked about earlier in having people willing to pay. One last one Michael, we talked often about skills versus degrees. Paul Leblanc has told us that he felt before the pandemic that the focus on skills was increasing. He's now skeptical about whether that's going to be true after the pandemic. What do you think?

Michael Horn:

I will tell you from a Guild Education perspective that we have seen more employers get more interested in short term programs around skills training in the last 12 months than was true for Guild's history before. And I think the reason for that is the urgency of getting people back into the workforce quickly as they have been displaced is really urgent in people's minds. And a lot of employers have made a lot of investments in automation and technology in the last 12 months frankly in some cases just to allow for social distancing and maintaining their business but that has meant that they need better trained workers to program those bots if you will and manage these more technical processes and that points to quickly getting people's skills.

Michael Horn:

Now I will say I think it's going to be a false choice in at least in the short run between skills versus degrees which is to say that the value from short-term degrees and we heard... Excuse me. Skills. And we heard this from the secretaries of education it erodes awfully quickly, right? That you get a short-term credential and it's good for a couple of years but then it goes away. A degree is much more durable. And so I think that this false choice it'll be really skills and degrees conversation that you might get the short term credential, the skills to get you the next job but then the stackability to make sure that it adds up to a degree and frankly preferring those institutions who are able to make sense of different credentials earned from different places and help you stack it into a degree is going to be the strategic advantage going forward. Your take?

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm just going to do a plus one on that Michael because I agree with you [inaudible 00:32:33]

Michael Horn:

There we go. We'll end it there on our rapid fire. I think this could be fun to come back to at the end of the year and see if we've moved at all in this but we have a question from a long-time listener on Twitter. It's one of my favorite folks in higher ed as it turns out Deb Black lighter Eda Butler and hello Deb if you're listening. She wrote over Twitter, "I'm curious about Michael and Jeff's thoughts on the characteristics needed for higher ed leaders to support the future focused ideas that we share in these podcasts." Jeff, first I'll tease, we're going to have David Gergen coming on Future You and he can speak to some of that in terms of what do leaders need on higher ed campuses. But for you as a keen observer of higher ed what do you think higher ed leaders need to support these future focused ideas?

Jeff Selingo:

I think it comes down to it an innovation mindset that I don't think many of them have. We recently interviewed David for that episode and I didn't get a chance to ask him about the pathway to the presidency but most of these presidents do not have the experience unfortunately of overseeing an innovative portfolio at their, at their universities. They might've been a faculty member. Maybe they moved up to Dean that's probably the most innovative job you might have and then you move into the provost or another senior role in the administration. They haven't had a chance to really exercise those muscles and then they get into this top job and they tend to be risk averse because they're dealing with all these various stakeholders who they can never seem to please and I think that's the piece that we're we're missing now. And so when you think about the most innovative leaders... When people ever asked me about the most innovative leaders in higher ed I could almost literally named them on one hand as a result and so I really would like to focus on building that mindset of an innovative mindset much earlier on in the university. Putting people that you think have leadership potential into jobs where they can actually exercise those muscles.

Michael Horn:

I think it makes a lot of sense and Jeff the only thing I'll add is the way I always think about talent development and who's right for a role is what are the things that are going to be asked of them and what are the schools of experience that we've wanted to see those people in? And by that I mean have they managed a portfolio of different types of programs, innovating in different ways as well as the status quo. Can they do that job of ambidextrous leadership or managing dual transformation? Right? And increasingly I think that leaders to be able to do this are going to need to build that muscle not through academic books or reading but actually having managed it in a higher ed context preferably. We'll end it there. That's all we have time for today but thanks for listening as always and stay safe.

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