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Future of Higher Education

The Real Future of Higher Ed is Still in High School

In the United States, K-12 education continues to struggle and adapt as states, districts, and individual schools walk the tightrope of safety and funding. As colleges and universities consider the changes they need to make to their processes and programs, decision-makers need to pay close attention to the challenges their future students are facing before those students can even consider post-secondary study.

Many adults are currently locked into relatively short-term thinking as we make our way through pandemic-imposed alterations to our work, but young adults still need us to think long-term. While we can’t predict which programs and services will remain in a year, or how long we’ll be studying remotely vs. in-person, leaders need to see and meet their future students  — all of them — where they are. 

Among the countless topics of concern, educators must focus on increasing access and support. 

Fixing inequities

The flawed assumption that it is enough to get laptops or tablets to students still misses the fact that broadband internet or 4G data is not everywhere and not always affordable. Many of us thought this was an urban vs. rural issue, until we read about school buses outfitted with hotspots parked in major metro areas, not just small communities. We can’t forget that many students can only access reliable internet in places that have been closed for months.

Standardized tests have long been a tool of inequity in college admissions, but now that the ability to test safely, if at all, is less and less likely for so many, it’s time for the remaining institutions who haven’t done so to announce test-optional or test-free policies for the coming year. Leaders should also push the NCAA and state scholarship agencies to do the same. Too many students feel pressure to test with no ability to do so and the testing agencies are using demand as the reason to offer their products, leaving schools and students in a Catch-22. 

The negative impact on college funding availability cannot be understated. Not only are personal funds taking a hit, but state and institutional funds are struggling, as are private foundations. The ability to pay will be a factor for a new cohort of students who hadn’t previously considered cost and will put many colleges out of reach as institutions struggle with their own budget shortfalls. 

More students may need counseling to cope with traumas that have been exacerbated by the double pandemic of COVID-19 and systemic racism. This includes students who self-advocate, those who may already be on the radar for support, and those everywhere between. 

Support for administrators

In many cases, admission professionals at colleges and universities have worked to innovate and support new ways to connect with school counselors and students virtually. This also places additional stresses on counselors and those admission officers trying to serve students while navigating uncertainty in their own lives. 

The admission office needs more than thanks — they need funding and generous flexibility to do their work. 

The extent to which a student can see a way forward to higher education is deeply impacted by the level of support they receive during their K-12 years. This is not new or due to COVID-19, but it is even more crucial as we find ourselves focused on an ever-changing present with an inability to predict what tomorrow will bring. 

Current high school students were born post-9/11, were young children during the last recession, and are now looking to us for a sign of how to proceed. Higher education leaders must remember and take into account the lives and experiences of their prospective students, and recognize the fact that their worlds are ever-changing as well. 

Students who have strong scaffolding in place for their success will develop patterns of learning and growth at the colleges and universities lucky enough to enroll them. Higher ed leaders need to support K-12 schools and students to ensure those students can see college or university study as a reality. 

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