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Future of Higher Education

The Challenges Higher Ed Faces in 2020 and Beyond

Amid a global pandemic, societal unrest, and a sky-high unemployment rate, America’s colleges and universities are at a pivotal moment. We talked with U.S. Distance Learning Association executive director Dr. Reggie Smith III about what schools can do to adapt and avoid being left behind.

Dr. Reggie Smith III

Chief Executive Officer, Distance Learning Association

What are the greatest issues higher education is facing?

There are several issues facing higher education today, however we will focus on three key issues that are on everyone’s radar screen. 

First, safety of students and staff based on this global pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause USDLA to re-evaluate some physical events and closely watch expenses. The pandemic has now impacted nearly every country around the world with over 25 million confirmed cases, nearly 17 million recovered, and 850,000 deaths at the end of August. 

Countries around the world, including the United States, are beginning to re-open with some level of uncertainty due to a resurgence of COVID-19 and, in some cases, care closing back down because of it. Therefore, health and safety is the No. 1 issue facing higher education today, and institutions will open, modify, or close based on infection rates. 

Second, the price point for tuition will be a sticky issue for higher education. We see now that students are pushing back on the price tag of an education, and especially those institutions with a higher price tag for onsite vs. online and/or those that charge the same price for both. This is nothing new, but it is something institutions in higher education will need to address. 

Keep in mind that the same faculty and, in some cases, more support services will be needed for students at a distance to include license/IT cost for software and support. 

Overall, the cost of an education will be challenged even more now during the pandemic, and the value of face-to-face vs. online education. Note that online education is an effective and efficient manner to obtain an education.

Third, the gap created by an increasing number of non-degree completers. According to a survey by Simpson Scarborough noted in Inside Higher Education last month, “40 percent of [incoming freshman] say they are likely or highly likely to not attend any four-year college this fall. Further, 28 percent of returning students who have the option to return to their campus say they are not going back or haven’t decided yet.” 

This number coupled with the data report from the National Student Clearinghouse that notes, “36 million Americans … who left college without receiving a degree or certificate … [will] have wide implications for colleges, systems, and federal and state policy makes.” 

This gap will have a huge impact on the future workforce and economic implications for the students that obtained loans without completing a degree, and the potential increased income higher education is shown to deliver over the long-term.

What must higher education focus on in the next year, five years from now, and even in 10 years in order to continue growing?

For the next five years, higher education will need to focus on a blending approach that will enable the industry to provide a quality education either in person or via distance learning. This approach will enable institutions to shift in seconds to a fully virtual environment for when the next global disaster comes, and it will happen again. 

Ten years from now, we will see a much different job market, possibly accelerated by the pandemic to focus on smaller/micro stackable credentials. 

According to USA Today, “The unemployment rate in the United States stood at 11.1 percent in June. While this is a marked improvement from the 14.7 percent jobless rate in April, it is still higher than at any time in at least the last 70 years. In some U.S. cities – many of which are major economic hubs – the unemployment crisis is far worse than it is nationwide.” 

Those currently unemployed will also consider career changes, and higher education will need to accommodate that and, in some cases, compete with community colleges, which traditionally allow students and learners to explore a wide variety of careers at a lower price point and a smaller timeline to completion. This is where your smaller/micro/stackable credentials will come into play.

How will hybrid and distanced learning amplify these challenges? 

Hybrid and distance learning will apply pressure around price points, broadband access, and outcomes. Institutions will need to provide a quality education via online more than ever, and not just convert PowerPoint to online. True distance education is about quality with the ability to deliver anytime and anyplace. 

Broadband will be key to meeting the challenges of distance learning, and, with so much being done online now to include high-quality video, the time is now to really invest in our infrastructure to deliver an extremely high-quality and blended learning environment that works seamlessly across all devices and equally, regardless of race, income, or zip code.

How can higher education put accessibility, equity, and diversity at the forefront of institutions’ missions?

Accessibility, equity, and diversity should already have been at the forefront of institutions’ missions. However, if not, then the time is now to fix it. 

Access, equality, and diversity have been part of USDLA’s goals since the beginning. I’ve been involved with USDLA since 1991, and it has been a wonderful experience. As the organization’s first African-American executive director, and the first African American president (2009) and chairman (2010), we have had a focus on access, equity and diversity. This has allowed us to react swiftly and address the important issues of today. 

In fact, on May 14-15, we co-hosted the world’s first virtual Town Hall to kick off a collaborative grassroots call to action started by HBCU Action NATION, and devise an action plan to assist the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). We discussed solutions to address the challenges faced by HBCUs as a direct result of the current pandemic. 

What is one innovation that will impact the study of higher education over the next few years? 

Mobile learning will expand more with broadband and will be the key space for innovation as we socially connect and share knowledge. The pieces are there and we just need to connect them for a seamless and continuous learning economy for all.

Why is now such an important time for higher education?

All of higher education will be forced to adjust as the workforce changes. Traditionally, higher education has served as a gateway to the middle class and beyond with potential for higher income and social status. 

The stakes are too high now with higher unemployment rates, students not returning to college, adults changing careers, student debt and social unrest. The time is now and those who do not act will cease to exist.

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