A 2016 Recap in Higher Education
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From the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series to Donald Trump winning the White House, 2016 has been a year of surprises. With all the shocking headlines to process, you could be forgiven for losing track of what’s going on for higher education.

If you’re struggling to remember what the big stories were for colleges and universities this year, don’t worry. Here’s the news from 2016 that you should know about and that may show up again in the coming year.

  1. SAT Gets a Makeover

For college hopefuls, 2016 brought several changes, maybe none bigger than the new version of the SAT.

Test takers welcomed several of the revisions as making the test taking process more convenient. These revisions include reducing the number of answers in multiple-choice questions from 5 to 4, eliminating the penalty for guessing, and allowing more time for fewer questions.

Some of the changes have to do with the actual content of the test as well. Obscure vocabulary is eliminated  and the emphasis is now on more practical, analytical thinking. Test takers are seeing more graphs, tables, and data analysis as well as content more closely tied to what is taught in the classroom.

The new format will stick around next year, but 2017’s test takers do have one thing going for them: unlike their 2016 counterparts, they have an idea of what to expect!

  1. Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action

In June, the Supreme Court ruled 4 – 3 in favor of University of Texas in Fisher v. University of Texas, a high-profile case that began with University of Texas’s decision not to admit white applicant Abigail Fisher in 2008.

While the case involved several technicalities specific to University of Texas’s unique admissions policy, it was seen more generally as a major challenge to race-conscious admissions.

The case has been making its way through the legal system for years, but this summer the Supreme Court came down on the side of University of Texas. This ruling means race-conscious admissions will continue as is for now. In the long-term, however, it’s possible we haven’t heard the last of this.

  1. FAFSA Timeline Shifts

This year was full of politically controversial higher ed stories, but here’s something we can all agree on: more time to fill out the FAFSA can only be a good thing!

Starting this year, families have an extra three months to complete the federal financial aid document, which for the first time went live in October instead of January.

This change was made possible by the Department of Education’s decision to switch to prior-prior year income instead of prior year income as the basis for financial aid. That is, students enrolling in fall 2017 now use their families’ 2015 tax returns instead of 2016 returns like under the old system. The CSS Profile, a financial aid document for private colleges and universities, has also adopted this new way of doing things.

  1. Chicago Letter Sparks Debate over Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings

The debate over “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on college campuses is nothing new, but in 2016 it reached a fever pitch.

In August, a dean at the University of Chicago kicked off the school year with a letter to incoming students declaring that “we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Within a few weeks, the school’s faculty shot back with a letter of their own, suggesting that safe spaces and trigger warnings have a place in academia: “such requests often touch on substantive, ongoing issues of bias, intolerance, and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges,” they wrote.

Either way, one thing’s for sure: neither advocates nor opponents of safe spaces and trigger warnings look set to pack their bags and go home in 2017.

  1. NLRB Opens Door to Graduate Student Unionization

Call it the revenge of the grad students. Graduate students working as teaching or research assistants have traditionally had limited rights to unionize. From a legal perspective, the key point is whether they are primarily students or employees.

In August, the National Labor Relations Board reversed an earlier decision on the question, ruling that grad students can be employees with a right to collective bargaining. This change paves the way for grad students at private universities to form unions, a process that has already begun.

  1. New “Coalition” Application Launches

2016 wasn’t a great year for the Common Application. The Common App’s dominance was challenged with the launch of a new competitor, the Coalition Application.

Like the Common App, the Coalition App bills itself as a shared application, and it has already racked up over 90 member schools, including many elite institutions.

There are, however, some differences to be aware of. For one, the Coalition App aims to bring applicants into the admissions process earlier by helping them curate “portfolios” starting as early as ninth grade. It also gives member schools more flexibility in how they use the application and what questions they ask.

The good news for applicants is that many schools are now accepting both the Common App and the Coalition App, letting applicants choose which one they want to complete. Time will tell whether one of these applications pulls ahead of the other or whether they’ll be able to coexist peacefully.

Start your year strong!
  1. Texas “Campus Carry” Goes Into Effect

Some people have different opinions on 2016 than others. If you’re the kind of person who wants to take your gun to class, 2016 was your kind of year. If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person who’d rather not be wondering which of your classmates have deadly weapons, you might not be such a big fan.

On August 1, Texas’s controversial “campus carry” law went into effect, allowing people to take concealed handguns onto public college and university campuses. The new law sparked protests, with some students and professors expressing concerns over safety as well as worries that entering handguns into the equation could lead people to self-censor in sensitive classroom discussions.

Texas campus carry’s introduction marks the beginning of a large-scale experiment on what happens when restrictions on guns are removed. The results aren’t in yet, but we do have one data point so far: in September, a student at Tarleton State University, in the Texas A&M University System, accidentally fired a gun in a dorm. No one was injured, and so far no other incidents have been reported.

Do these stories from 2016 give us a clue as to what 2017 might hold? One thing we know is that 2016 was a year of big changes for college applicants (think: new SAT, new FAFSA timeline, new Coalition App), so we can expect that 2017 will be less turbulent for those starting the admissions process.

We can also expect that many of the major controversies of 2016 – safe spaces and trigger warnings, campus carry, grad student collective bargaining, and so on – will continue into 2017. After all, if there’s one thing we know about controversies, it’s that they tend to stick around!

In a way, though, the biggest story in higher education of 2017 could turn out to come from the biggest story in politics of 2016—Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election. After eight years of the Obama administration, next year will bring changes in the Department of Education—the federal government’s education policy, and the Supreme Court. In the end, there’s never a dull year for higher education!

Best wishes for 2017!