Over the past several decades, higher education has faced financial and demographic challenges. Rigorous economic scholarship has identified stress points in the financial model for higher education, especially for private liberal arts colleges, where much of the operation involves fixed labor and facilities costs. The rising sticker price of colleges has put more pressure on discounting and financial aid, creating tension between revenue and academic quality at many institutions. All of these economic factors have been accelerated in the past year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In order for Kenyon to continue to thrive in the years ahead, we must develop strategies to effectively address these looming challenges to the higher education sector in general, and private liberal arts colleges in particular.
The annual income for families at the 80th percentile and below has increased at a significantly lower rate in the past two decades compared to the income of families above the 95th percentile, which has grown significantly. At the same time, the published cost of college has increased. This has put pressure on the operating model for institutions such as Kenyon: as tuition increases, financial aid must increase to enroll middle- and lower-income families. We identified this growing income inequality as a challenge when we set out on the Kenyon 2020 plan, and it has grown more acute in the years since then. How will institutions create opportunity for talented students from a range of backgrounds in the face of rising costs and family income trends?
Geographically, increasing numbers of high school students in the United States will come from the West and the South. Racially, Latinx, African American and Asian American populations will continue to grow. How can colleges enroll a talented group of students that reflects the demographics of the nation? What is required to build an inclusive campus to support the success of the changing population of students?
The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted life and social institutions around the world, including higher education. At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, residential institutions (including Kenyon) pivoted to remote teaching and learning, developing a new facility with technology in our teaching and in our basic operations as a community. As we emerge from the pandemic, are there lessons to be learned about the role of technology and remote teaching in the educational work of residential institutions? Can we deepen the significance of a residential experience in education, and can we articulate clearly the value of the residential (versus the remote) experience (especially the value in the context of the cost)? Social isolation and financial challenges to families posed by the pandemic have increased anxiety and depression among young people. Can we develop a model of health and wellness appropriate to respond to growing emotional and mental health concerns among our students?
The past year has brought long-overdue national and international attention to the persistent presence of racism, discrimination and injustice. Higher education has not been immune from these discussions; even as campuses become more diverse, colleges have struggled to confront traditions and current practices that inhibit a shared sense of belonging among all students. How can colleges not only cultivate a sense of belonging, but equip graduates to build belonging in their own communities?
Over the past half century our society, our economy and our lives have been increasingly affected by international interconnectedness. Greater global interaction places high demands on colleges and universities to prepare students for global citizenship. With the disruption to global travel caused by the pandemic and growing backlash to globalization both threatening the ability to promote international education, how can campuses build international diversity in the student body and among faculty and staff and integrate that diversity into our residential campus? How does the work of a liberal arts education — inside and outside the classroom — address the global diversity of humanity?
Rapid environmental change presents a serious challenge to individuals, communities and institutions. How will colleges practice the sustainable use of resources, and perhaps more importantly, how will they integrate environmental stewardship into the fundamentals of a liberal arts education?