A glance back at 2021 showed, if nothing else, the stunning resilience and power of higher education. Despite waves of COVID-19 variants, residence halls, offices and classrooms remained open for social interaction, business and learning. That is, until the final days of the fall semester when omicron forced some to go back to virtual operations and exams. It was not the best way to finish up 2021, but the return to a new normal offered some silver linings and hope that those positive developments will reemerge in 2022.
Moving forward, however, might mean the permanence of ambiguity and uncertainty, as one president told University Business recently and one CEO, Michael Huseby at Barnes and Noble Education, also referenced in a conversation before the winter break.
“A lot of things that turned out to be very positive were somewhat interrupted by the uncertainty again of COVID, with the delta and omicron variants,” he said. “So for higher education, the need to be flexible and adaptable is important. None of us wants to manage an environment of uncertainty like COVID, but we’re starting to understand better how to do it.”
BNED is one of the many companies lending additional expertise to institutions as they steer through uncertain times. In April, it released a study called “COLLEGE 2030: Transforming the Student Experience” that offered deep insight into the future of higher ed. Five key foundational elements that will drive higher education over the decade emerged: mental health; the digital divide and diversity, equity and inclusion; shifting demographics; student amenities; and return on investment for students.
Though a lot has changed over the past six months, Huseby says higher ed hasn’t taken a step back on any of them.
“We’re getting closer to , there’s no question,” he said. “Like any other service, market demand drives change, and COVID has accelerated the change. If you look at the five key themes, and the rest of the observations that we got from our survey in 2030, it’s definitely headed in that direction. Having said that, who knows what else is going to happen in the world? But the key themes are being proved out by the experience we’ve had.”
One of the mainstays is mental health. While the isolation of COVID continues to affect students negatively, the infusion of sporting events and the return to classes reinvigorated campuses again.
“If you look at some of the studies about some of the issues surrounding online or virtual learning—alienation, and frustration, lack of access to broadband—the flip side of that are some of the benefits of being together,” Huseby says, noting from the survey that 75% of students were happy to be back on campus. “Part of the challenge and the new emphasis will be looking at the students and all their needs—not just academic needs, but their emotional and physical needs. It used to be, are the students college-ready? Now it’s, are the colleges ready to help the students in a broader way?”
Two related elements critical to institutions meeting goals are more flexible learning options and defining student success. From competency-based learning to open educational resources and remote learning, there is a huge movement to make degree paths faster, more efficient and more relevant. Florida International University, for example, requires students to earn three certificate badges to graduate, and they are not in traditional areas such as communication and writing but in data analytics, artificial intelligence and emotional intelligence.
Preparing students for the world of work in the coming years will require higher education to be far more agile, innovative and transformative.
“Success isn’t a GPA or a degree anymore,” Huseby says. “How do we as an institution do a better job of partnering with local employers and national employers to really define what our curriculum should be imparting? The use of technology is really accelerating in terms of the necessity for both delivering education and also delivering most services that we consume. Artificial intelligence is going to be extremely important going forward to all of education.”
Todd Heilman, Chief Success Officer at higher ed customer relationship management firm Element451, says AI will bring new solutions for top concerns, including one of the biggest heading through 2022: enrollment declines. “AI will allow institutions to manage risk factors, intervene, alert stakeholders and provide resolution to address student concerns in a timely and effective manner,” he says. “In order to address enrollment challenges, it is essential that institutions adopt the necessary technology to engage students, measure the engagement, segment by risk and take the appropriate action. AI will be imperative in these initiatives.”
What to expect in the coming year
There is an inordinate amount of considerations weighing on the minds of leaders heading into 2022, including affordability, advancement, discounting, student loan debt, business partnerships and how to further grow DEI initiatives and maintain civil discourse on campuses. Huseby and others weighed in on a few other areas where higher ed must continue to evolve.
The Big Four: COVID, supply chain, inflation and workforce issues. “They’re all intermingled. COVID is going to be with us for a long time and inflation is going to have a much bigger impact on higher ed than we’ve seen thus far,” Huseby says. “COVID has been very expensive. It’s taken a lot of school resources as well as external resources—testing students at no charge, smaller class sizes, office hours, managing the dining hall, and capacity. And costs are going up so much everywhere.” Low unemployment also means a struggle to get workers at reasonable wages. And will stimuli continue to be a foundation for institutions or will they go away?
Setting goals and hitting targets. “Whether it’s student retention or graduation rates, how do we develop flexible learning models so that our students can achieve those goals?” Huseby asks. “Taking a longer-term view has been impacted by COVID somewhat, but that has to be a focus. Making the necessary investments in technology to get there quicker rather than later is really important.”
Embracing technology. Kiko Suarez, VP of Higher Education and Workforce Development at Territorium, says, “Technology will continue to emerge to create a way to document a comprehensive learner record of what a student knows and has learned. Institutions will use secure portable learning ‘passports’ with the competencies and skills that learners acquire during their college journey, above and beyond the traditional ‘course/grade’ information available in a traditional transcript.”
New marketing tactics. “Schools will use digital marketing for recruiting much more seriously than before,” says Element451 CEO Ardis Kadiu. “Until now, social media has been primarily about brand building. Schools have also relied on retargeting ads to names they purchased from standardized testing companies. Those approaches simply won’t work to really move the needle.”
Managing staff and faculty burnout. “Faculty are starting to get fatigued,” Huseby says, noting the percentage of stressed faculty has increased threefold since the pandemic started. “Students can’t learn without the faculty, so how is faculty managed and treated? At the same time, institutions must help faculty move along in terms of their use of technology, combining hybrid, virtual and in-classroom learning experiences.”
Creating value: “The value of education is still going to reside in going back to the basics,” Huseby says. “The social experience is an important one for more traditional students. For the more non-traditional student—which is becoming more and more the traditional student—the value is going to be added by flexibility of approach and offering curriculum that gives them an opportunity to elevate their lives. And that’s going to be different by geographic area and understanding what their demands are so that you’re meeting them on a more of an individual basis.”