5 Higher-Education Trends for 2014

Expect an increased emphasis on teacher effectiveness, technical education, and more.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

A number of education trends made their mark in 2013, from massive open online courses to evaluating colleges based on their graduation rates. The underlying forces that drove change this year aren't likely to change anytime soon: declining public funding, changing demographics, advancing technology, and a tough job market.

Here are five trends we'll be watching next year, with special attention to how they affect minority and at-risk students.

Earning College Credit for What You Know

The Obama administration, state governments, and foundation funders are all pressuring colleges to shrink the time it takes for students to graduate. Two strategies for doing so gained attention this year: advancing students based on mastery, and giving students credit for work experience.

The fancy term for the first strategy is "competency-based learning," and it works best online. Students move through course material at their own pace, their test scores—not time in class—determining how quickly they move through the material. At Western Governors' University, an online institution that pioneered this structure almost 20 years ago, students earn bachelor's degrees two years faster than the national average. This year, the University of Wisconsin system started offering a competency-based option.

Another strategy is "prior learning assessment," whereby students get college credit for on-the job and military training, volunteer experience, and hobbies. Credit is usually granted through placement tests, assessments of student portfolios, or according to the American Council on Education's recommendations. Some employers and colleges—like Starbucks and City University of Seattle—have struck up partnerships that allow employees to earn college credit for workplace training.

Career and Technical Education

After years of being pushed aside to free time for academics, career-focused learning is back. High schools, community colleges, and companies are banding together to help increase the opportunities students have to gain technical skills—often spurred by new state laws, like those in Texas and Georgia, that put a bigger emphasis on career and technical education.

Policymakers stress the economic benefits of CTE: Students with specialized training or skills find it easier to get hired in this tough labor market. Educators like that CTE can help get more students excited about math and science. Given that CTE and college preparation no longer have to be divergent paths, college costs are rising, and it remains hard for young people to find work, there's much less political opposition to career training than there used to be. The Next America recently profiled a majority-minority school in Georgia that illustrates this new vision for career and techinical education.

Student-Loan Outrage

Seventy-one percent of students who graduated from college in 2012 carry student-loan debt, some as much as $49,000 for a four-year degree. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that 42 percent of students blame colleges and universities for rising college prices.

As outrage grows over America's student-debt burden that now exceeds $1 trillion, policymakers will likely continue to focus on making college more efficient and cost-effective, not on drumming up support for a major public reinvestment. While there's much colleges and universities can do to provide a better service—such as ensuring students who enroll don't drop out—the focus on performance ignores the main causes of the student-debt crisis. State and federal funding for higher education and financial aid has dropped radically since the 1980s, and today's college students are less well off than they used to be.

Data-Privacy Concerns

This year saw the beginnings of a backlash over the collection and storage of student data, including grades, contact information, and disciplinary records. Look no further than the furor over data-storage company inBloom. A recent Fordham University study found that most contracts between school districts and Web-based services lack privacy protections.

Schools and colleges have embraced data-driven software to help them track student progress. Proponents of data collection and analysis point out that federal and some state laws limit how children's educational records can be shared. But a whole lot of parents don't trust the government to keep data secure, or don't trust corporations not to abuse access to information about how individual minds work.

Conservative legislative-advocacy group the American Legislative Exchange Council has put together a bill that would require state boards of education to make public their data-collection activities and restrict access to information about children's educational progress. State legislatures may consider the model bill, and others like it, when they reconvene next year.

Teacher Effectiveness

As policymakers move toward rewarding teachers for the quality of their teaching, not for factors like whether an educator holds an advanced degree, districts have to get better at assessing teacher performance. The big debate now is how closely teacher evaluations should be tied to student test performance and how closely they're tied to teachers' job security.

A recent union contract in New Haven, Conn., could show a path forward, the American Federation of Teachers believes. Teachers, not algorithms, set learning targets. Teachers are assessed based on classroom observation, principal reviews, and student test scores, and are given a full year's worth of support to improve their practice if they aren't performing well.

Teacher recruitment also matters. In 2014, expect to hear more calls for teachers who reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of students and debate over alternative teacher-training programs, particularly those aligned with charter networks.

Presented by

Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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