Hard Truths That Higher Education Has Evaded for Too Long

In a January 10, 2023 opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed, University of Texas professor Steven Mintz calls for those who care about American higher education to acknowledge a series of hard and unpleasant truths:

  • Postsecondary education in the U.S. relegates the students with the greatest needs to the most under-resourced institutions.
  • High performing Black and Hispanic students are less likely to earn a college degree than comparable white or Asian American students.
  • Elite universities operate with the top priority to preserve their prestige and brand.
  • Students’ academic success and well-being are depending on rich relationships. Fewer than one-in-seven undergraduates have rich relationships.
  • The main contributors to colleges’ rising costs are a growth imperative (think recruiting and admitting students), community colleges’ expanding mission, and four-year colleges’ expenditures on campus amenities, research, and fundraising as well as mental health, compliance, learning support and nonteaching professionals.
  • Graduate rates remain distressingly low for Black and Hispanic students, older students, part-time students, and community college students.
  • Inequities continue in higher education including gating factors for high-demand high-salary majors in computer science, economics, finance, engineering, and nursing.
  • College teaching continues to be “an amateur enterprise that fails to take into account the insights of the learning sciences.”
  • Most undergraduates exit college scientifically and culturally illiterate, unable to write well incompetent in math, data, and statistics, and lacking fluency in a foreign language.

Professor Mintz claims that these realities persist because:

  • Neither student learning nor equitable outcomes are pre-eminent institutional or faculty priorities.
  • Colleges and universities are pulled into too many different directions without focusing on learners.
  • The curriculum and educational experience offered represent a political compromise designed to maximize faculty autonomy, departmental enrollments, student choice and completion rate while minimizing instructional costs.
  • Accreditors do not require colleges and universities to be accountable for learning and representation of minorities in high-demand majors.

Changing this grim reality will require new ways of prioritizing learning and equity and adjust calendars, schedules, and course delivery modalities to better serve today’s diverse, post-traditional students. Dr. Mintz also writes that we should also devote as much attention to expanding instructor development in pedagogy and assessment as we do to research.

I am a fan of Professor Mintz’s Higher Ed Gamma blog that he writes for Inside Higher Ed. I agree with his observations. At the same time, implementing his recommended changes won’t be easy. The issues cited are social, cultural, systemic throughout K-20 education, and structural as it relates to higher ed’s very slow shift from emphasis on first-time, full-time 18-year-old freshmen on campus to working adults learning part-time and taking online courses.

While Dr. Mintz’s education and experience as a historian have honed his observational skills, the same cannot be said for politicians and leaders in many of our traditional colleges and universities. More than two decades after online higher education courses and programs launched in higher education, there are politicians, college presidents, and faculty members who think online courses are inferior education because they choose not to spend time understanding the framework of quality online courses. In an environment where finding solutions to declining enrollments from traditional students are the priority of most administrators, there are few willing to suggest pivoting their teaching, advising, and counseling services to meet the needs of the non-traditional, part-time learner.

There are examples of colleges and universities that are making changes in the direction suggested by Professor Mintz. Promoting institutions that lead the way for improving learning outcomes for all learners should be as important as pointing out what needs to be done. There’s no better incentive for a college leader than to hear that a competing institution is succeeding where their institution is not. There are impact investment funds whose goal is to find companies that make a difference in societal outcomes. Perhaps it’s time we identify Impact Colleges and Universities as well as Impact K-12 Schools. Set the bar high. Our future depends on it.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence