The new students come to college this weekend. Families are doing frantic last-minute packing. On campus, we’re sprucing everything up. Faculty members are doing final planning for all their new students. Everybody’s getting ready for the real start of the New Year!

How can I still be excited after 50-plus years? Why am I still eager to begin again when it looks like every single condition has changed since I started teaching back in 1968?

Back then, the Baby Boom was in full swing. Every year, we could count on more students. The only problem was where to put them. A new community college opened every week across the country. Four-year state colleges were turning into universities, changing their names multiple times and being swept into state systems of higher education. Maine, too.

Selective Service and the Vietnam War ensured a steady stream of young men seeking higher education, and the veterans from that war were just appearing on campuses. Women’s participation in higher education was on the rise.

There was no competition from private for-profit institutions because they had barely been invented.

State funding flowed pretty reliably. Campuses acquired new buildings, gave regular pay raises, and rushed to serve all the boomers by expanding existing programs and adding new ones.

My place then, what’s now UMass-Dartmouth, added a whole College of Arts & Sciences and hordes of new faculty members to a brand-new campus.

There was no Internet. The lucky students had portable typewriters. And maybe most different of all, everybody assumed that college was worth it. Efforts were focused on getting access to this life-changing benefit for first-generation college-goers, immigrants, non-traditional adults and low-income students.

It was a beautiful world. I’m sad it’s gone, because it was a hopeful and tumultuous time to become an adult, start to find my place in the world, and forge a set of values through action, reflection and teaching.

And today? The baby boom is long over. In Maine, the numbers of high school graduates will fall to about half what they were. From an oversupply of traditional students, there’s now a scarcity. Now we must retain each one we are lucky enough to attract, and help each one succeed.

And other populations are the “new traditional” students for some institutions — adults, college completers, transfers and graduate professionals. Today women are the majority in higher education, while men are lagging. Veterans are once more coming back from foreign wars.

The competition is fierce from community colleges and from new for-profit institutions.

The Internet changed everything about the availability of information, enabled the invention of different modes of teaching and learning, enhanced the speed and affected the style of communications. Plus, the political climate of the last 30 years or so has featured attacks on the effectiveness of K-12 and college education and questioning of the benefits it confers.

There has been an unsettling erosion of the belief that college is attainable or even wise for low-income students.

And the money abruptly went away. The financial meltdown of 2008 made it instantly impossible to keep raising tuitions. The endowments, on which many private colleges depend, tanked. States struggled to keep previous funding levels. Increases are not happening. Financial recovery is slow. Flat is the new up.

So why am I still eager for a new academic year to begin?

Because one of the things I have learned from my life in higher education is the resilience of the human spirit, the genius of those in every new generation who take the heritage they’re taught and make something new out of it.

This is what higher education is really about, the creative inventions that keep popping up and that keep changing our world, the awful catastrophes out of which new things arise, and the role of colleges and universities as one of the main places in our society where that happens frequently. Some years we get just the new ideas. Other times, we also get the catastrophes. In this time of disruptive change we get both!

Our challenge for higher education today is to redesign ourselves to keep the money in line with reality, make opportunities for faculty, staff and students to invent the new ways to teach and learn, not punish the failures, and hold things together while we create the new academy. We don’t know what the results will be. We just know the next steps along the road. It’s a new year. The possibilities are endless!

 

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at kalikow@usm.maine.edu.