With another year of SXSW EDU in the books, what are some takeaways for higher education? After hearing expert insights at various panels, here’s a perspective into what higher education might expect to see in the year ahead. 


Equity was a recurring theme in each panel attended—whether AI, from a legislative perspective, or on-campus realities.  

When thinking about “Equity Concerns in AI & Education,” the speakers urged consideration and understanding of the holistic environment; it’s not just what interface you use, but the unseen parts of the system: the underlying dataset, who trained it, and how it was trained. These latter parts are often not disclosed, and this poses quite a lot of risk for equity. Stephanie Miller, VP of Data and Impact at Axim Collaborative, cited the demographics of EdTech leaders compared to those of Black and Latinx computer science students as an example of how we need more representative voices in all parts of technology. It’s something Miller is actively addressing as an adjunct professor of Data Science at Bowie State University, where she mentors students and advocates for graduate school.  If AI is seen to be the next equalizer, as education was by Horace Mann, the panel reiterated the need for access to the internet, tools, and training—in this case, AI literacy—from K-12 onward. 

In terms of addressing equity on campus, the “How Colleges Can Overcome Anti-Diversity Headwinds” panel cited 81 bills that would curtail DEI, eight of which have been passed into law, as noted by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s tracker. Dr. Shaun Harper, Provost Professor at the USC Rossier School of Education and USC Marshall School of Business, mentioned how these attacks on DEI are not new, and how DEI has long been underfunded. He mentioned how these trends apply to community colleges too, with faculty often not reflecting the diversity of the student population. Harper and Mushtaq Gunja, Senior Vice President at the American Council on Education, also pointed out how the military academies advocated and successfully negotiated an exemption from the Supreme Court ruling for race-conscious admissions

Community Activism 

Many of the panels discussed how individuals can make a difference. On “Equity Concerns in AI & Education,” Sara Schwettmann, Research Scientist at MIT’s CSAIL, discussed the visibility you need into the technology and recommended individuals sync up with their tech teams for AI use case hack-a-thons, making sure that a diverse set of participants gives input.  

Echoing these sentiments during his panel, Gunja recommended starting with your immediate sphere of influence, e.g., if you are a teacher or parent, start with your principal, then the local school board, then the state, etc. Harper also encouraged organizing as a coalition and movement, as it’s a well-funded anti-DEI campaign, with the language of the bills getting more specific and sophisticated.  

Student Centricity 

With planning the evolution of the Carnegie Classifications, Gunja wants to bring students to the forefront of university classifications. He is looking to add measures about the student experience, not just types of degrees offered, but considerations for: 

  • Social-economic mobility and post-graduate earnings 
  • Institutions educating students from their region 
  • Enrollment of Pell grant recipients and first-generation college students 
  • Graduation rates 

In her panel, Denise Forte, CEO & President of The Education Trust, wondered how we could introduce concepts of racial campus climate, civil rights, and basic needs of students into accreditation to really see the holistic quality of an institution. 

In terms of bringing student needs forward, Forte noted that learners have changed, but policy (like the Higher Education Act) and institutions haven’t kept up. She also highlighted the ongoing need for greater mental health resources for students on campus. Dr. Yolanda Watson Spiva, President of Complete College America, built on this idea, stating that universities must move toward a focus on students and student-centered learning in light of statistics that show that 50% of adults with BAs are underemployed. 

Change and Uncertainty 

Posed with the question of what may happen with the upcoming election, Forte mentioned possible impacts to program funding and a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  Watson Spiva posited that there might be more scrutiny around the loan forgiveness program and the short-term Pell Grant bill proposal. Dr. Steven Taylor, Senior Fellow for Higher Education at Stand Together Trust, noted the ongoing conversation about the affordability of a traditional four-year degree, debt forgiveness, and institutional accountability for the $1.7 trillion of student debt. He also wondered if models such as “earn and learn” or “work, earn, and learn” would be considered, instead of the current federal funding model that prioritizes the four-year college pathway.  

Accreditation was a surprisingly prevalent topic, as discussion of federal funding continued, since universities must be accredited to receive Title IV aid. Taylor mentioned how this makes it different for new models of education to be introduced, funded, and successful. Forte discussed accreditation and DEI, with the need for more diverse individuals to be participants in the site visits and the assessment.   

In a Shark Tank-inspired session, entrepreneurs and academics presented their ideas for changing and improving education. The pitches ranged from how to provide psychological support for law students, match high school students with their best-fit four-year college, give business students a “MasterClass” curricular experience, and build empathetic skills of high school students with experiential learning. The presenters got feedback from a team of three experts, but alas, no funding was given out in this session!  

Effect on Faculty 

But how will these macro challenges impact faculty? Watson Spiva noted that state appropriations could mean budget cuts, and she could anticipate more of the advising load falling on faculty versus staff advisors. Taylor mentioned that if there is a shift to competency-based assessments versus course credits, faculty may need to adopt different measures to assess students and their work.  

In addition, higher education could see changes to curriculum and identity-based academic programs. Harper stated that with the dismantling of DEI offices, more of that work is falling onto Employee Resource Groups and “free” labor versus staff members—and that could mean more service work for underrepresented faculty and staff who are already overburdened.  

While many of these issues are already top-of-mind for academic leaders, it’s always valuable to look ahead and get new perspectives on the impacts of technology, elections, and proposed legislation.  

 We look forward to continuing these conversations throughout the year at other conferences, our own Interfolio Summit, and 1:1 with our clients.  

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