Look back at 2018: Top higher ed stories

Events and climate that reshaped campuses last year


In 2018, higher education continued to face a barrage of media scrutiny while contending with funding that continued to be disrupted by politics. Midterm elections saw Democrats win the House by the largest margin since Watergate, adding almost 40 blue seats. Colleges and universities may do well with this shift, with the possibility of more dollars and more positive political rhetoric around higher ed.

As these larger issues affected resources, campus leaders forged new ways to educate an evermore diverse group of students, to connect with their communities and to create economic opportunity. 

Riddled with questions: Sexual assault on campus

The #MeToo movement resounded on American campuses, with the callout culture resulting in instances of administrators and professors being named as sexual predators. Highly volatile sexual assault cases led to student protests at Ohio UniversityThe University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Some of these cases also led to executive resignations. In the months after the indictment of former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar, former Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon resigned. In December, Simon was arraigned on felony and misdemeanor charges around her involvement in the Nassar case.

Perhaps in an attempt to more clearly define appropriate sexual behavior, Syracuse University in New York banned romantic relationships between students and faculty.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reignited debate around campus sexual assault with a new policy as 2018 drew to a close. New proposed rules define sexual harassment more narrowly, and allow attorneys of the accused to cross-examine accusers.

Corruption in college sports

The year saw more controversy in the realm of college sports and the treatment of players. Against the board’s recommendations, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh fired football coach D.J. Durkin after 19-year-old Jordan McNair suffered heatstroke and died during a summer practice. Loh then announced he would retire from leading the university at the end of the academic year. He plans to spend the remainder of his tenure reshaping the culture of the school’s athletic programs.

Elsewhere, Adidas executive Jim Gatto, former Adidas consultant Merl Code and would-be agent Christian Dawkins were found guilty of conspiring with university coaches to recruit and pay undergrad basketball players. “Victim” schools include the University of Louisville, The University of Kansas and North Carolina State University. Former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was fired as a result of the fallout from the case. 

Emerging tech infiltrates campuses

In positive news on the athletics front, esports became even bigger as more schools introduced varsity teams and related programs, such as St. Clair College’s new esports administration and entrepreneurship degree in Toronto. To meet greater infrastructure demands, schools such as the University of Houston-Downtown and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania created thousands of square feet of esports space. 

Scholarships and leagues offer competitive opportunities for players and their schools. The National Association of Collegiate Esports, which works with 98 varsity programs in the U.S. and Canada, helped generate $16 million in scholarships over the past two years, according to The New York Times.

Artificial intelligence continued to spring up, with Echo Dots from Amazon in dorms and interactive apps helping students in the classroom. This creates ample opportunity to gather data around student behavior, but the spread of technology increases the risk of cyberattacks and data theft. 

In response, institutions tightened policies around the use of these devices, as well as the collection of the data they produce. Straightforward language and periodic reviews of IT policies better positioned universities to host safe, flexible technology environments. 

Today’s workforce needs cybersecurity and AI experts, and many institutions are developing educational offerings to meet that demand. For example, MIT received a $350 million donation for its Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, which will focus on the evolution of AI and its ethical application.

Online learning lands in the Ivy League as UPenn introduced its first digital bachelor’s degree. Some schools with struggling MBA programs looked to ride the digitized wave and touted web courses as a way to make learning more convenient for working adults.

Student safety, services updates

The definition of free speech and its boundaries were continuously tested on campuses, as controversial speakers sparked protests and increased security costs. Students made their voices louder at the polls, too, as many young people convinced their institutions to host election sites.

In 2018, schools recognized a wider breadth of student needs. A continued spike in mental health diagnoses among college students resulted in urgency around increasing counselors and the services available to struggling populations on campuses. The hunger problem among the student population became evermore evident, and more food pantries opened on campuses across the country.

Opioid use and overdoses are not as frequent in higher ed as in other facets of American society, but administrators are responding nonetheless. Some schools, such as Bridgewater State University, are storing overdose antidote Narcan in dorms and other campus locations, and training students to administer it themselves.

Admissions reconfigured

Attracting and enrolling students via the internet became a greater priority for higher ed in 2018. Universities tapped even more social media networks, leveraging Snapchat and Instagram with vigor to engage an ultraconnected group of possible students. 

Offline, college touring became more luxurious. Mandarin Oriental Hotels debuted an extravagant package, open to anyone, of airfare, a luxury suite and multiple stops at universities in cities including Atlanta, Boston, Miami, New York and Washington, D.C. In addition, New Mexico State began offering a concierge for its students to help plan visit itineraries.

Many higher ed institutions experienced a drop in international students, as changing policy and negative political rhetoric on the national level discouraged applicants. New enrollments of internationals fell by 6.6 percent in 2017-18, according to an Open Doors survey from the Institute of International Education. Universities in 2019 will continue to feel the loss of the full tuition paid by many of these students. In November, news went public that University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had paid $424,000 for an insurance policy to protect itself from a possible significant drop in tuition revenue from Chinese student enrollments. 

In the quest for fair enrollment policies, Harvard was taken to court by the organization Students for Fair Admissions over its use of affirmative action. The group claims Harvard is biased in its admissions process against Asian-Americans, and applies lower personality scores to this group of applicants. As the trial continued into 2019, other elite universities are developing more transparent admissions programs.

Sustainability efforts strengthened

Many higher ed institutions went straw-free. Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, Furman University in South Carolina and the University of Portland in Oregon banned plastic straws on campus. The University of Alabama at Birmingham and William & Mary in Virginia, among others, made new commitments to long-term plans for reducing greenhouse emissions and utilizing more renewable energy resources. The use of LED lighting and the reduction or elimination of Styrofoam and one-time use plastics are some ways universities are continuing to practice sustainability.

Student success innovations

Administrators devoted even more attention to student success, as universities enhanced first-year experience courses and reshaped orientations to create better relationships and share resources with incoming students. For example, Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania added grit training into its first-year offering for freshmen.

Completion initiatives with catchy names and aims, such as the new fifth-year-free UE Guarantee from Indiana’s University of Evansville, are helping students graduate in a timely manner. Marion Technical College in Ohio is encouraging student continuance with its Buy-One, Get-One tuition model. In the new program, the school pays all sophomore-year tuition costs that are not covered by Pell Grants or other assistance as students work toward associate degrees.

Undoubtedly, higher education will see even more changes in the next year. But 2018 proved to be a good primer for flexibility and keeping postsecondary missions in focus.  

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