As educators, we know the value of higher education professionally and personally. Beyond offering students specialized knowledge, higher education often leads to better job prospects, valuable networking opportunities, and frequently higher salaries. Just as importantly, it leads to personal growth and develops students’ soft skills, such as adaptability, ingenuity and empathy. These are helpful attributes regardless of our professional trajectory.
But as the cost of living and higher education rises, some learners are wary of entering a degree program. The prospect of higher education can often seem daunting and unmanageable. Meanwhile, declining enrollment has slowed to a pre-pandemic rate, but it continues to fall nonetheless.
The challenge is clear: Higher education institutions must find ways to continue proving their value and ensure that prospective students understand the positive impact higher education can have on their careers and lives. Institutions must refocus on the personal, human learning experience to adapt to an evolving educational landscape. Wherever possible, institutions should consider initiating cultural shifts that place the learner at the center of enrollment and education strategies.
Leaders in higher education can humanize the learning experience, make higher education more accessible, and clearly demonstrate the value of post-secondary education by concentrating on at least three key avenues of change.
1. Bridge the gap between higher education and the workforce
The skills students learn in higher education will always be essential to their workforce development. However, gaps still exist, particularly in emerging fields like cloud computing. Often, institutions speak one language while businesses speak another, leading to potential disconnects.
Micro-credentials are a partially effective way to minimize the skill gap, but they are insufficient to bridge it fully. Corporate-institution partnerships will continue to arise, but their success hinges on program alignment with job market trends and a clear framework for learners. Institutions should consider which skills are relevant for soon-to-be job-seekers and how they can help students more immediately translate those skills into real-world job opportunities. Offering flexible models beyond just micro-credentials, like certificate programs and non-credit program offerings, may fulfill learners’ needs more effectively, close the skill gap, and make education more obtainable, equitable and affordable.
2. Diversify enrollment strategies
Low enrollment trends may be irreversible in the short term, but diversifying offerings and enrollment strategies will help institutions find new learners, no matter the macro-trends. This includes embracing the idea that a brick-and-mortar campus education may not be suitable for many prospective students who value flexibility and personalization.
Institutions must continue to find ways to serve a wide range of learners, from part-time online students and hybrid learners to full-time, in-person graduate students. To cater to the unique needs of every student, institutions should be honest in their assessment of gaps in enrollment and audit existing capabilities for student support services.
3. Make the learning experience more connected and accessible
Above all, creating an authentic learning experience should be at the heart of everything an institution chooses to do. Offering a fulfilling personalized experience is just as important for hybrid or online learning as we all know it is for in-person interactions. Institutions and educators should work together to identify tangible ways to add a human touch to the classroom, whether online or off.
Creating accessible and engaging learning experiences that meet the needs of all learners should be a top priority for institutions as they work to make learning more human and increase enrollment. Additionally, students should be empowered to decide how they want to learn so that their education fits their lifestyle. This goes a long way toward humanizing the learning experience and showing the value of higher education. Learning is ultimately a human endeavor, and personal growth and knowledge expansion should never be lost, no matter the environment.
The challenge facing higher education is significant, but it is not insurmountable. With a thoughtful and learner-centric approach to education and enrollment, institutions can continue to support students and faculty—no matter who or where they are.