With a second year of Covid under our belts and talk shifting from “pandemic” to “endemic,” it seems an opportune time to reflect on how some of the changes brought about by the virus may persist. Which altered practices are temporary, which are here to stay, and how should decision makers plan for a future landscape are questions we grapple with in nearly every project we undertake on behalf of institutions and companies operating in the sector.

Below, members of our senior higher education team share forward-looking insights based on our work in 2021.

The Three-Year Degree is Coming – Mike Goldstein

The late, great evolutionary biologist, Steven Jay Gould, described evolution as a process of “punctuated equilibrium” – very slow, except when it is violently disrupted. At the end of a second year of Covid, our equilibrium has clearly been punctuated. The pandemic hasn’t so much changed higher education as greatly accelerated already present trends. Long range planning has been forcibly compressed. Couple this with growing concern over the cost of a college degree, and the sudden recognition of the need for a trained and educated workforce, and we may well be entering a time when efforts to make the American undergraduate degree more efficient and more globally competitive gain serious traction. Perhaps the impact of COVID-19, like the Cretaceous meteor, will dethrone the sacred four-year baccalaureate and its evil sibling, the credit hour, in favor of new and more effective learning models. The future is arriving ahead of schedule. We have a train to catch.

The Future is Hybrid – Trace Urdan

Public institutions serving non-traditional students have long understood the value of offering both online and in-person classes. Learners juggling work and childcare benefit from the added flexibility provided by a hybrid schedule and the benefits are apparent in the higher completion rates enjoyed by hybrid programs. But prior to Covid, this approach was the exception at selective private institutions. At these schools, the campus experience is thought to be an important differentiator and online classes are still regarded by many instructors as inferior. While the majority of college students disliked the pandemic “Zoom school,” they did appreciate a number of its benefits. Our conversations with institutional leaders suggest that even at schools that did not previously offer online alternatives, students are advocating to retain the flexibility of at least some online courses, and that competition for traditional students being what it is, many faculty members may have to make a quick peace with online instruction. The future is likely one in which students that can afford to will still live on campus, but courses are just as likely to be online as in-person.

A Greater Focus on ROI – Kristen Fox

When I entered college, the perceived value of a traditional undergraduate education and its role in supporting economic success and mobility was strong. Since that time, calls for transparency regarding the ROI of higher education have grown significantly. Students (and parents) are becoming savvier consumers, considering the value of education purchases with better cost information from more sophisticated college search tools. While a postsecondary education still pays off, it depends on which institution you attend and which major you pursue. For prospective students, in particular those returning to school as adults, there is now a focus on obtaining shorter-form credentials that are aligned to career outcomes and can ladder into longer degree program experiences. In 2021, institutional leaders have been increasing focus on student outcomes by program/ major and by student population, a trend I expect to see continue along with a consideration for how financial aid is awarded and applied across programs of study. In addition, institutions will increase their focus on more seamless pathways in and out of work and education, with expansion into shorter workforce aligned experiences and shorter form offerings designed to help students prepare for career success. By necessity, closer alignment between employers and educational institutions will follow.

College Search is now Student Search – Gates Bryant

A few decades ago, my high school guidance counselor met with me and my parents to begin the college search process and she began the meeting by pulling a large volume off the shelf and thumbing through the pages to find schools that might be a good fit. She started with the schools that began with the letter “A” and then she went to the “Bs”. It wasn’t a very productive start to the college search process. In 2021, thanks to the growing permanence of test-optional admissions and declining overall enrollment, the tables have turned dramatically. Yet most colleges are searching for students with similarly blunt instruments, creating feasts for some schools that accepted too many students and famines for others that couldn’t matriculate enough. In 2022, enrollment management leaders will expect better contextual information about their prospective students and a variety of new and emerging technology offerings will gain traction to meet this need.

The Online Journey Begins on Separate Paths – Gregory Finkelstein

For every higher education institution, the introduction of fully digital instruction is a journey; but for it to be a successful one, students, faculty, and the institution itself must each follow a different path. If the perspectives of the different stakeholder groups are not considered individually prior to being considered in the aggregate, the road to change can become confusing and contentious. Work related to the student journey most often includes discussions around how best to engage prospective and current students with new technologies and emerging services. The faculty journey, on the other hand, begins with the recognition that the workload and pressure on faculty has never been greater and that many faculty members don’t aspire to be technologists. Finally, the institutional journey often requires added investment and retooled processes to even be prepared for the pivot that is required to succeed in offering online programs. Schools will have a better opportunity for success by first viewing each stakeholder journey in isolation prior to bringing them together to build a plan for the larger trek ahead.

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