COVID-19 has made us near-sighted. Over the past six months, the pandemic has resulted in so many changes to higher education that it’s challenging to define the future, much less imagine what it will be like.
Is higher education’s future the next few months, as administrators and boards navigate the unknowns of resuming operations, or the spring semester, when a typical flu season could collide with a still-rampant coronavirus? Is it the 2021-22 academic year, in which many hope higher education will return to “normal?”
Despite the extraordinary burden of “now,” higher education must look much farther out and see the future as a path to innovation and transformation. It’s not a destination, but a direction for the continued strengthening of higher education and the full delivery of its promise. By focusing on the direction instead of a specific endpoint, higher education can navigate through future challenges while still keeping on course.
One of the challenges higher education can anticipate is the significant shift in the numbers and nature of what we’ve called traditional students. This “enrollment cliff” has been well documented. By 2025, there will be fewer 18-22-year-olds, and they will be more diverse than any previous generation entering college class.
Because of this transformation in who is going to college, we envision a future in which higher education thrives and fulfills its potential by becoming radically student-centered.
By that we mean colleges and universities will, at last, have made significant adjustments to such things as academic policy, curriculum, calendar, pricing, and claims made in mission statements and marketing pieces. Higher education institutions will have received key support to make these changes for students, from partners that include accreditors and the Department of Education.
Becoming radically student-centered will require transformation that will not be easy.
A student-centered future
One of the biggest challenges will be rethinking the price of a college education. While no one argues that high-quality education is expensive, the fact is that the growth in the price of a degree has outstripped the growth in families’ ability to pay. And, even though institutions are increasing the amount of institutional funding they offer students through scholarships and tuition discounting, students and parents are still too often left with a sizable gap between price and what they can afford.
By addressing price, higher education will reduce the decades-long struggle with access and make the possibility of a college education real for many more students.
The change in pricing will be the hardest and most critical change that results in higher education becoming radically student-centered, but it alone is not sufficient.
A thoughtful blending of admissions, academic affairs, and student services will result in higher retention and success rates. That means making degrees and credentials meaningful to students and employers. Students’ needs and abilities must be identified in the admission process, and personalized academic plans need to be created even before students enroll so they understand the commitments of time and money needed to reach the end before they make it to the starting line.
Administrative processes must be streamlined, academic calendars condensed, and credit given for work experience and prior knowledge. The opportunity cost of obtaining a high-quality degree needs to be reduced, which could cause three-year degrees became common as a result. Data will be applied to missions and marketing, which will cause both to be more finely honed to clarify for what students can hold their institutions accountable.
Collectively, these changes that focus on students will make pursuing a postsecondary credential more appealing and possible for adult learners, and, as a result, the overall enrollment in higher education will increase and buck the long-anticipated enrollment cliff.
Many of these changes have been discussed by colleges and universities for years, but the pressures introduced by COVID-19 must finally steel institutions for transformational change that results in student-centric decision-making on all fronts.