A look back: Top college stories of 2016

Higher ed attempts to prove its worth
By: | Issue: January, 2017
December 27, 2016

American higher education in 2016 faced increased pressure on performance—from students with high expectations and an economy in need of qualified workers. Colleges and universities were also being pushed to eliminate administrative and academic silos to help students of all ages and backgrounds succeed.

Here’s a look back at what made headlines in higher ed this past year and how campuses responded.

Diversity and safe spaces

Equity and inclusion gained more national attention in 2016 as programs for low-income students won more federal support and college presidents were recognized for their efforts. Shortly before the conclusion of President Barack Obama’s presidency, the Department of Education released millions in new federal higher ed aid.

Recipients included minority-serving institutions and prison inmates, who can now apply for Pell Grants during their prison sentences. 

The call for inclusion became one of international interest, as Time magazine named The University of Texas at El Paso President Diana Natalicio one of 2016’s 100 most influential people in the world.

Under Natalicio’s nearly 30-year tenure, the border university has established itself as a research player, bolstering its previous $6 million research budget to more than $90 million annually. Over 80 percent of UTEP’s 23,000 students are Mexican-American, with another 5 percent hailing from neighboring Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. 

On the diversity front, a number of campuses hired diversity officers, and student campaigns led several institutions to change the names of buildings named after controversial historical figures.

Affirmative action was deemed constitutional in the summer of 2016 by the Supreme Court, with The University of Texas at Austin showing that its holistic admissions process considers income, familial support and race, alongside the more customary GPA and extracurricular activities.

More importantly, the university proved how important affirmative action is in terms of creating access for all students, especially those who are traditionally underrepresented on campus.

The battle over political correctness continued, with the issues of safe spaces and trigger warnings debated on campus and in the media. One of the few positions candidate Donald Trump did take on higher ed was to say that public universities should ensure their faculty and leaders weren’t pushing a political agenda. 

Education as commodity

The cost of college, how students pay for it and how their professors are financially compensated all continued to evolve in 2016. Colleges worked to create equitable relationships with faculty and staff unions, and the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at a private institution could unionize. 

Budget battles for state universities persisted, with most state funding still not returning to prerecession levels. Yet again, institutions were forced to do more with less while meeting student and taxpayer ROI expectations.

To increase price transparency, many colleges added tuition calculators to their websites to provide potential students with immediate estimates. 

Some for-profits, facing stricter federal regulations, shuttered—including ITT Technical Institute, Corinthian Colleges and Heritage College. President-elect Donald Trump settled a $25 million lawsuit with former students of Trump University who claimed they were defrauded and mislead by the now-defunct real estate training program. 

With prior-prior year tax returns now accepted by families filling out the FAFSA, institutions found themselves needing to plan further ahead in enrollment and financial aid decision-making. Some universities changed internal timelines to offer packages shortly after students apply. 

Others kept timing the same, with students potentially finding out what they receive in terms of grants only a month before needing to make an enrollment decision. Free community college programs also continued to catch on, with the Tennessee Promise serving as a model for other state systems.

Free tuition initiatives launched in Oregon and Minnesota, with Kentucky and other states working on legislation towards this goal. 

New laws to navigate

Several new federal and state laws presented challenges for higher ed. 

North Carolina put its House Bill 2 into law, making it illegal for anyone in the state to use a public restroom that does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. The NCAA has since said it will move seven championship sporting events out of North Carolina to protest the law, which it deems discriminatory to transgender individuals. 

Sexual assault on campus continued to be an urgent issue. Colleges have implemented bystander intervention techniques and alcohol awareness initiatives, with many institutions beginning these conversations during freshmen orientation. 

Others added a Title IX officer to their administration, and refined and standardized sexual assault procedures to better protect both the accuser and the accused. The Department of Education threatened to withhold funding from institutions not in line with federal Title IX rules.

A Texas law allowing people to carry handguns on college campuses caused heated national debate, with many administrators, faculty and students expressing concern about firearms in classrooms. Despite the outcry, these campus carry laws are now being considered in several other states, including Georgia, Ohio and Florida.

The legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana in several states has complicated matters for college and universities as well. Many institutions have maintained that, despite the more permissive state laws, federal regulations prevent use on campus.

Badges and makerspaces

Digital badges continued to catch on, giving students the chance to show potential employers specialized skills they’ve mastered in a single course or a small group of courses. Students display these microcredentials in the form of digital badges posted to social media pages, digital résumés and more. 

Colleges also opened and expanded makerspaces both on campus and out in their communities. 

These hands-on innovation labs allow students to experiment with new technologies while leveraging 3D printers and other devices to drastically reduce the cost of prototyping. Makerspaces also offer inventive community members access to advanced technology and university expertise—opening learning opportunities to all.