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  • Students: A Changing Constituency at the Heart of the Academic Enterprise

Students are at the heart of the academic enterprise and will be the focus of the first of two special issues of The Review of Higher Education which commemorate two decades of the Review’s publication. This issue focuses on students—attitudes, politics, persistence, and policy—and the next on policy issues in higher education.

We asked several colleagues who are well known for their research about students to reflect on the broader implications of their work for higher education policy and practice. The articles presented here go beyond the normal scope of many of the articles published in the Review in that they examine research and its relation to policy and practice rather than present and analyze original research.

It is especially important to consider students at a time when so much of the debate on higher education has been aimed at solving financial problems or stimulating greater productivity. We too often lose sight of the main underlying reason for the entire academic enterprise—teaching and learning that will benefit students. As the articles in this issue show, students face numerous challenges in a changing academic and societal context. At the [End Page 111] same time, the students who enroll in higher education are changing. The increase in the numbers of part-time and nontraditional students, the growing proportion of the student population that works while studying, and changes in the demographic profile of American youth all dramatically affect academe. The academic community needs to fully recognize the challenges posed by a changing student population.

Debate too often focuses on specific problems without adequate consideration of the changing context. Discussion focuses on remedial courses, while ignoring the demographic and socio-economic changes that have taken place in the student population. Similarly, studies of persistence do not pay sufficient attention to the economic problems faced by students in light of cutbacks in student loan programs and rising tuition. Also overlooked is that students face increasing difficulty in registering for needed courses because the implications of reductions in staffing are largely ignored. Finally, student opinions about the significant changes taking place on campus, from declining support for libraries to tightening up academic requirements, are not generally considered.

The articles in this issue deal with key themes relating to college and university students. Alexander W. Astin and his colleagues consider the changing opinions of American students over time. Arthur Levine and Jeanette Cureton discuss the political and social views of American students and focus especially on changing patterns of student politics and activism. In the next two articles, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, and Vincent Tinto discuss patterns of student persistence. Together these articles provide significant insight into changing student characteristics, emerging patterns of student opinions, and the conditions necessary to ensure that students have the best possible opportunity to complete their studies and benefit from their education.

Students will face ever-increasing challenges in the coming decade. Continuing increases in tuition combined with cutbacks in faculty mean that pursuing a college degree will be more expensive while at the same time less satisfactory. In many academic institutions, study conditions are likely to deteriorate as class size is increased, library resources are diminished, and other support services are downsized. The impact of the new technologies on teaching and learning is much discussed but little understood and likely to be implemented primarily as a means of cost savings rather than instructional improvement. While the most selective liberal arts colleges and top research universities are likely to continue to offer a traditional undergraduate education (although at a higher price) in much the same manner as in the past, much of American higher education will find this standard difficult to sustain. [End Page 112]

This issue of the Review certainly does not answer all of the questions raised here. However, our authors do discuss some of the most important challenges facing American students today and in the coming period. These articles provide the basis for further analysis and debate about American students in a changing academic and societal environment.


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pp. 111-113
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