We reached out to some of the leading scholars of, experts on, and advocates for higher education, and asked them what, as the year comes to an end, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX
Reason for despair: I am in the field of higher education, and I am continually reminded of how challenging it is to transform this world through technology. While we’ve seen technology revolutionizing so much of the world around us, and providing so much access to everything from entertainment to communication, the same cannot be said of quality education. Education is a basic human right, but has remained relatively resistant to technology, and continues to be either of poor quality, or simply out of reach for so very many people around the world.
Reason for hope: The progress we’ve begun to see in technology-enabled learning gives me reason to hope. Online learning has the potential to revolutionize education in both quality and scale, enabling anyone with an Internet connection and a will to learn access to an education. Experiments with MOOCs have demonstrated that quality education can be offered to millions of students worldwide at near-zero marginal cost. Recently, barriers to university credit for MOOCs have also begun to come down, giving me tremendous hope that soon people will be able to get an education and also a meaningful credential to showcase their work.
Education has also been recognized as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the United Nations, so I’m hopeful that nations will now see a reason to invest more heavily in education.
Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success
Reason for despair: I’m discouraged that lower-income students and families face such a big gap between the college costs they’re asked to cover and what they’re able to pay, and this affordability gap has widened over the last decade. It’s reflected in the high debt levels of federal Pell-Grant recipients, who mostly have family incomes under $40,000. The most recent data show that nearly nine in 10 college graduates who received Pell grants had loans, and they owed an average of $31,200. Compare that to all other graduates, a little over half of whom had loans with average debt of $26,450. What’s driving rising overall debt levels and these income disparities? One big factor is declining state investment in higher education, which shifts the burden onto students and families. For Pell-grant recipients, the cost of attending a public four-year college increased by $7,400 between 2004 and 2012 (the most recent data available), but their total grant aid increased just $2,900. And despite recent increases, the maximum Pell grant now covers less than a third of the average in-state cost of attendance at a public four-year college: the smallest share in over 40 years.