The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021 (2023)

BY Sam BeckerJanuary 04, 2022, 7:49 PM

The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021 (1)

The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021 (2)

Lori Loughlin, center left, and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded guilty in May to fraud charges related to securing their daughters’ admission to USC. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse—The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021 (3)The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021 (4)The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021 (5)

Higher education isn’t a stranger to scandals and controversies, and 2021 was no exception.While some scandals from previous years approached their inevitable conclusions, the COVID-19 pandemic—or ongoing pandemic, as we enter its third year—fueled a swath of lawsuits at colleges around the country. What’s more, students also took to the picket lines at some universities, demanding better treatment (and bigger paychecks).

Here is a recap of the three biggest scandals and controversies from 2021.

The “Varsity Blues” fallout

Unfortunately, the “Varsity Blues” scandal lacked Jon Voight, James Van Der Beek, or Scott Caan stealing a police car. But the college admissions scandal—which originally made headlines back in 2019, entangling some celebrities and other big names—effectively wrapped up in 2021 with guilty pleas, guilty verdicts, and sentences being doled out.

To recap, Operation Varsity Blues (as dubbed by federal investigators) involved a criminal conspiracy to get students placed into a number of top universities, such as the University of Southern California, the University of Texas, and Yale University, sometimes without students’ knowledge. Test scores were altered. Learning disabilities were conjured up in order to gain access to additional accommodations. Some students were even photoshopped into sports teams—showing them participating in sports that they never actually played.

It’s a long, intricate story. But as of the end of 2021, most of the dust has settled, with dozens of parents being implicated, along with college coaches and athletic administrators, and the ringleader of the whole thing, William Rick Singer.

“Money and connections are at the center of the Varsity Blues Scandal. What made this scheme different was that Rick Singer used the athletics department to be the primary vehicle of deception rather than the college’s development, alumni, or admissions office directly,” says Sara Harberson, a college admissions expert, former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College, and the founder of Application Nation, a private, subscription-based Facebook group designed to help parents navigate the admissions process. “Interestingly, the parents paid Singer only a fraction of what would be expected from a college to get a weaker student admitted.”

While the dust may be settling from the Varsity Blues scandal, Harberson says these types of schemes—those that involve lying or cheating to get a student into their desired school—remain common. And if anyone is to blame, it’s those people who work in admissions offices, to whom it would have been “blatantly obvious” that “things were not adding up in a student’s application,” she says.

“It still feels like 1952 in college admissions. Who you know, who you pay off, and who you are remain powerful tools that the wealthy and connected families use knowingly and effectively.”

Columbia University’s student-worker strike

At one point in 2021, the biggest strike in America was unfolding on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. Roughly 3,000 student-workers, mostly graduate students, went on strike at the beginning of November in response to what the Student Workers of Columbia (a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union) says are unfair labor practices.

Johannah King-Slutzky, a Ph.D. student in Columbia’s department of English and comparative literature, says that she and others took to the picket line to secure higher wages, more benefits, further recognition of student union members, and changes to Columbia’s system for investigating claims of discrimination and harassment. All told, she says, the dispute has been ongoing in some form or another since 2014.

“Columbia had a record-breaking year for earnings, and they have been trying to pinch pennies,” King-Slutzky says, citing the university’s latest annual report. “Columbia is one of the wealthiest universities in the country. It charges the highest tuition in the country, and despite its incredible wealth, it’s extracting as much as it can from its students and graduate students.”

Columbia University has published a proposal in response to the strike, which would include pay increases, stipends, and the creation of health care funds for student workers and their dependents.

However, the students feel that it’s not nearly enough.

“We’ve been asking for a couple of years for a fair contract, and the university has stonewalled us and refused to bargain in good faith,” says Daniel Santiago Sáenz, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow at Columbia, who is also an international student who was born in Colombia but grew up in Canada. “We’re just asking for what we believe to be a fair contract.”

The key issue, he says, is that the cost of living in New York City is simply too high—and student worker wages are too low—to make ends meet. As an international student, too, he’s not legally allowed to find another job off-campus, blocking one potential outlet for additional income.

In aggregate, the situation at Columbia is complicated. The striking students say they are looking for meager increases in pay and benefits in order to help offset the costs of living, studying, and working in an expensive city. And they feel pretty good about their chances, looking ahead.

“Many of us come from working-class, low-income, or underrepresented minority groups in academia. This strike is a class struggle, says Sáenz. “We’ll see what other doors this can open for a more stable and healthier academia.”

Remote-learning lawsuits resulting from campus closures

When the pandemic hit college campuses in March 2020, many students were forced to go home—and stay there. As a result, a number of students felt that they were getting shortchanged; they were paying full tuition and not really getting the on-campus experience and tutelage they expected. More than 4,200 colleges and universities nationwide closed their campuses to some degree, affecting nearly 26 million students. So it was only a matter of time before students started filing lawsuits in an effort to recoup some of that tuition.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed around the country, and the top five collegial targets of those lawsuits were USC, the University of Miami, New York University, Cornell University, and Pennsylvania State University—although each had fewer than 10 COVID-related cases filed against them as of December 2021, according to data from Carla Rydholm, senior director of product management at Lex Machina, a legal analytics company.

But the lingering question is, Do any of these lawsuits have a chance of being successful?

“In general, in order to have standing, plaintiffs only have to show that they have suffered some cognizable injury,” says Jonathan B. Orleans, a higher ed and employment attorney at the law firm Pullman & Comley. “In these cases, the plaintiffs contend that what they have received is less than what they paid for, so they have suffered monetary damages. I haven’t seen a decision throwing any of these cases out of court for lack of standing.”

Orleans says that most schools are asking the courts to dismiss the cases, but whether or not any of them end up being successful remains to be seen.

“The results depend very much on the specific facts in each case, and to some extent on the particular state in which the school is located,” he says. “Keep in mind that contracts are governed by state law, not by federal law, so we won’t necessarily get nationwide uniformity in the decisions in these cases.”

Further, many of these lawsuits may be the result of legal professionals looking for a payday.

“These suits are clearly driven by lawyers, not the students who are largely thankful schools did not completely close down,” says Dwayne Robinson, a partner at the Miami-based law firm Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, which served as counsel for Miami-Dade County College—one of many schools that was a target of lawsuits following COVID-related shutdowns.

Javier Lopez, the managing partner at Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, adds that while these lawsuits mainly concern students and schools, the general public has an interest in keeping an eye on them, as the taxpayer, ultimately, is on the hook for damages.

“We taxpayers fund these schools even if we will never attend them,” Lopez says. “So every time a public college or university spends money because a student claims they did not get to use the student union or the basketball gym for as long as they expected, we are all footing that bill.”

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The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021? ›

Recent controversies about college include those about preferential treatment for students whose parents attended the college of choice, "free" tuition, forgiving college debt, and the value of attending college at all. In each case, there are ethical considerations that don't receive adequate attention.

What are the current controversial issues in higher education? ›

Recent controversies about college include those about preferential treatment for students whose parents attended the college of choice, "free" tuition, forgiving college debt, and the value of attending college at all. In each case, there are ethical considerations that don't receive adequate attention.

What is the biggest problem in higher education? ›

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What is one major issue facing student affairs and higher education today? ›

The topics that do: student mental health, cited by 94 percent, and student well-being, by 91 percent. All other issues lagged well behind. This is from the first-ever Inside Higher Ed survey of student affairs leaders, conducted by Gallup.

What are the major issues in college education? ›

These include enrollment declines, rising costs and student debt, emerging college alternatives, and political interference. Historically, higher education has weathered crises and disruptions, but this time feels different.

What is one downside of higher education? ›

The cost of college, the availability of high-paying jobs that don't require a degree, and underemployment — there is a long list of reasons why paying for college may not make sense for you.

What is the most common challenge to lifelong learning? ›

In the actual global economic and educational environment, main challenges for lifelong learning process are: Inducement of informal learning opportunities. Stimulation of self-motivated learning. Acceptance of self-funded learning.

Why is higher education so difficult? ›

Students may generally find university difficult because of these five common reasons: a heavy academic workload, having additional responsibilities, dealing with relationship difficulties, lacking proper motivation or interest in their courses or the inability to properly handle being independent.

Why are college enrollments declining? ›

Between fall 2020 and fall 2022, the equivalent of roughly 24,000 currently enrolled undergraduates disappeared from the Cal State system. Part of the reason is that students on average are collectively taking fewer classes. In the last two years, students began taking . 4 fewer units a term.

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The role of student affairs in higher education is to: Engage students with education: Students are encouraged to relate their experiences to their education. Doing so allows them to draw deeper connections, feel attached to the material, and begin to understand other perspectives.

What are examples of problems of practice in education? ›

Problem of Practice: Students are having trouble comprehending academic information and successfully using the information they have learned, through reading and other activities, to complete assigned work that requires them to apply their learning in more demanding ways than remembering.

What changes should be made in education system? ›

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  • Disciplining students. ...
  • Endless paperwork & extended working hours.

What are two controversial topics? ›

Controversial Issues
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  • Affirmative Action.
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  • America's global influence.
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What is teaching controversial issues? ›

The term “controversial issues” refers to “issues which arouse strong feelings and divide communities and society”. Teaching around controversial issues means discussing them in the classroom.

Why are some topics controversial? ›

Topics typically become controversial when students have competing values and interests; when they strongly disagree about statements, assertions, or actions; when the subject touches on some particular sensitivity (e.g. political or religious); or when they arouse an emotional reaction.

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  • It Can Take More Than Four Years to Graduate.
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What are 3 disadvantages of going to college after high school? ›

Before starting college, make sure you are aware of the drawbacks:
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What are the challenges drawbacks or risks of attending a 4 year college university? ›

Cons of Attending a Four-Year University
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  • Requirement to Live On-Campus.
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“Namely: ADHD, processing deficits (visual and auditory), working and short-term memory deficits, and dyslexia. Even more than these disabilities, I've noticed a dramatic increase in students with anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.

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The focus of the concept of lifelong learning is based on four fundamental pillars: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be.

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Four factors were reported in studies that affected access at a national level: policies to support disadvantaged groups; programs to improve confidence and academic skills; an education system with compulsory education until the age of 16 years; and the number of HE institutions.

Does higher education make a difference? ›

The evidence that a college degree significantly improves one's employment prospects and earnings potential is overwhelming. Bachelor's degree holders are half as likely to be unemployed as their peers who only have a high school degree and they make $1.2 million in additional earnings on average over their lifetime.

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Student Enrollment Stats for 2033

Between 2020 and 2030, undergraduate enrolment is expected to rise by 8% (from 15.9 million to 17.1 million students). Nearly 16 million students were enrolled in degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States in the spring of 2022.

Is higher education declining? ›

Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, with declines even after returning to in-person classes, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The slide in the college-going rate since 2018 is the steepest on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Why do colleges reject overqualified students? ›

While there is some anecdotal evidence that overqualified students get rejected, these students aren't usually turned down because of their better-than-average grades or test scores. Most likely, the overqualified student isn't the right fit for a school or they haven't shown enough interest to admission officers.

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Question: For new college students, the most important goal of higher education is: meeting new people becoming career-ready exploring disciplines to find a major participating in clubs and teams.

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These are the aspirational core values we collectively embrace as we do our work:
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