A Year of Grand Challenges or a Year for Grand Challenges?

Grand Challenges for tough-to-solve problems have been documented in higher education as far back as 1906. Earlier this year, EDUCAUSE issued a number of Grand Challenges for Higher Education that their leadership believed could be solved through a digital transformation.

More recently, the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) issued a white paper calling for four to 10 Grand Challenges related to assessment of learning and learning outcomes. (Full disclosure: I have been an advisory board member of NILOA for a number of years.) I wrote about both of these Grand Challenges, spending more time on the EDUCAUSE digital transformation challenges since technology and higher ed is more product-oriented than assessment.

Given the above, I was not surprised to receive an email from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) with the subject line “The State of Higher Education in 2020.” Susan Johnston, President and CEO of NACUBO, wrote that she wanted to share NACUBO’s latest State of Higher Education reports.

She also complimented her members, writing that throughout the daily challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, “[members] have been purpose-driven, working to stabilize – or even transform – your institution while sustaining its mission.” Good, I thought. I’ll read the reports and maybe learn a little more.

The first report was titled “The Value of Higher Education Through a COVID-19 Lens.” Oddly, the first paragraph presented two opposing statements. The first sentence, “The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened scrutiny of the value of higher education, renewing questions about the price of a college education and the benefits for the costs incurred,” was not surprising, given the many articles that I have read and blogged about since the beginning of 2020.

The second sentence, “But crucially, – and absent from much of the public discourse – the pandemic and its effects also have reinforced the immense value of higher education to individuals, communities, and society at large,” was a whopper. Not only did it contradict the opening sentence, but it contradicts the thoughts of many people. My only agreement was with the phrase “absent from much of the public discourse.”

The paper continues by stating the positive contribution of higher education to the public good and society at large. A number of examples of institutions providing personal protective equipment (PPE), vaccines, and other tools were cited.

The paper adds comments about the return on investment (ROI) to students with a college degree versus those without a college degree. Surprisingly, none of the metrics normally cited by researchers examining ROI were included, nor were recent studies mentioned.

An offhand statement was included about most ROI analyses looking at the first-year salaries after graduation, when over time, college graduates earn more. Metrics regarding the unemployment percentages of those with a degree versus those without a degree were cited as evidence that college educated individuals were more able to transition to remote work.

Health and safety disparities based on employment was the header for several paragraphs that transitioned to a discussion about the higher coronavirus infection rate among Black, Latino, and other communities of color. Ultimately, the conclusion was that there needs to be more investment in higher education to increase the representation of communities that have been historically underrepresented, so that they receive the same private benefits and health outcomes as those with higher levels of education.

The authors of the paper continue to write about the inaccessibility of higher education to many communities, especially economically challenged students, first-generation students, and students from Black, Latino, and other communities of color. Without acknowledging that the cost of a college education, public or private, is out of reach for half of the country’s population unless they borrow a lot of money, the authors state that it’s in the public’s interest to reconsider its view on the value of higher education.

The paper concludes with a statement that “it is vital to take the long view of higher education’s immense public and private benefits and recognize post-secondary institutions as crucial pillars of our society. The higher education sector will undoubtedly look different in the wake of the pandemic, but stakeholders – from faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees to policymakers – must look back on this tumultuous time and be able to say that they made every investment possible to provide students with a valuable education and that institutions were provided with the tools that they needed to make that happen.”

I didn’t have to reflect too much on my experience as a CFO with an MBA and CPA to bristle at the temerity of the NACUBO writers. Really? The market is oversaturated, and capacity exceeds demand. Also, tuition and fees are perceived as too high by many, return on investment is questioned, and the fixed-cost business model is broken. In addition, few institutions have responded to the labor market’s changes due to technology as quickly as prospective students and families would prefer.

The pitch made in the final paragraph sounded more like a request for a blank check “because you can trust me.” I expected more from the organization that represents the financial leaders of our higher education community.

I mentioned earlier that there were other reports. None of them represented the financial acumen that I believe it takes to run most of our universities, larger or small.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence