The Biggest Higher Education Stories of 2015

Posted By Eliana Osborn on December 28, 2015 at 10:19 am
The Biggest Higher Education Stories of 2015
Michelle Obama announcing her Better Make Room campaign. Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP Images.

Higher education is a mainstream news topic these days, with public policy up for debate and concern about costs from every segment of the population.  Some institutions shut their doors, while others were the scene of protests.  Take a trip down memory lane with these ten stories that caught our attention last year:

1. Corinthian Colleges collapses

After years of enrollment growth, all the lawsuits and student complaints finally made a difference. Corinthian Colleges, a large for-profit entity, shut its doors in May of this year.  What happened? First, students refused to pay back loans for degrees they deemed were worthless on the job market.  When federal student aid dollars were delayed, Corinthian filed for bankruptcy and eventually decided to close all their campuses nationwide.

As a result, the entire for-profit college industry has been shaken.  Enrollment at the University of Phoenix has plummeted and the Department of Defense won’t allow funding to go to the schools.  Other schools have closed, are undergoing investigation and been forced to forgive student loans.

2. Economy improves for graduates

Nationwide unemployment finally dipped to 5% after the struggles of the 2008 recession. Even better for college grads? The higher-wage jobs that degree holders qualify for are the largest set of jobs being added to the economy.  That’s good news for students who are worried whether the expense of college will pay off.

3. Costs and debt continue to rise

Average student loan debt is up nationwide, and not just at pricey for-profits. $29,000 is the new per-graduate average, up more than 50% in ten years.  Unsurprisingly, college costs are up across the board as well – more than 3% each year since 2005.  Some schools are worse off than others, but as state funding for public universities decreases, most institutions find themselves raising tuition.

4. Pell grants available to new groups

The largest program of aid for those in financial need has expanded on a trial basis to two populations.  Now, high school students and federal prisoners are both eligible to apply for Pell grants to help pay for college.  Dual enrollment programs for high school students are growing as a way of lowering overall degree costs, and this move will be part of that movement. On the other hand, allowing prisoners to have access to federal funds to continue their education is in keeping with Obama administration efforts to reform incarceration.

5. Greater transparency in post-grad data

How do students fare in the job market after they graduate?  Do they default on student loans?  How much do they earn?  How much will it actually cost to attend?  Data like this helps families make smarter decisions about college, but until recently, it was hard to find.  New tools like the College Scorecard are designed to help clarify things and collect information all in one place.

6. Proposals for free college

Early this year, President Obama announced a proposal for free community college.  Bernie Sanders has been campaigning on a plan to make college free for all students.  Hillary Clinton’s idea is for college that’s not exactly free, but debt-free.  As the Higher Education Act comes up for renewal in Congress, many different schemes for cost reform have been bandied about – especially by presidential candidates.  Individual states are trying versions of free college as well that could provide the federal government models to work from, including Oregon and Tennessee.

7. Better Make Room campaign

First Lady Michelle Obama has spent 2015 encouraging high school students to think about the future.  Whether that means four year college, vocational school, or something else, more training is needed in today’s economy.  She’s utilizing social media and celebrities to help get across her message with her Better Make Room campaign, which boasts youth-friendly partners like Vine, Funny or Die, and Seventeen.

8. Innovations in teacher training

Standardized testing is one of the biggest topics in primary and secondary education, and has been for several years.  More recently, though, teacher effectiveness has been a primary concern.  In response, education programs are changing around the country.  Some shifts are funded by government, while others are supported private foundations (like the Gates Foundation’s recent multi-million dollar grant to Texas Tech).  The goal, however, is the same: use data to figure out what great teachers do, then replicate those results.  With 3.6 million teachers in the US, this is an area where there’s a lot of room for improvement.

9. Racial biases and tensions in higher ed

Following protests about racial injustice in many major cities this year, the conversation about race also got louder on college campuses – the most prominent was at Mizzou, where the president and chancellor ultimately resigned.  The Black Lives Matter movement also continued to gain traction, drawing attention to inequities at all levels.  There continues to be a racial gap in student loan and graduation rates, which some schools are attempting to address.  Other issues on the table? Institutionalized racism, affirmative action and faculty diversity.

10. Companies offer education benefits

More and more companies are recruiting and retaining employees with the help of education benefits.  Fiat leads the pack, covering the cost of degrees for employees and their families.  Health insurance giant Anthem covers specific study paths related to their industry.  There’s even a move to create a 401k-type account for companies to use for student loan repayment.

2015 was a big year for higher education, and 2016 is unlikely to be different – especially with college costs at the forefront of the presidential election. We’ll be looking forward to seeing how these and other new stories play out in the New Year – check in here or on Twitter to follow along!

Image: Michelle Obama announcing her Better Make Room campaign. AP Images / Manuel Balce Ceneta

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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