May 2, 2021
Some say higher education will largely return to pre-pandemic normal in the coming academic year or two. Others predict a mass extinction of colleges and universities. Both are extreme ends (and highly unlikely scenarios) of the spectrum of what might happen to higher education. Somewhere in between those extremes, though, are eleven clear and lasting changes to higher education as a result of the pandemic:
1. The test optional movement will become permanent. Although many colleges and universities announced such policies as temporary during the pandemic, these will become lasting changes to the world of college admissions. One of the big reasons relates to #2 below.
2. Higher education institutions will be increasingly and lastingly held accountable to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) metrics. This will be most prominent in ensuring the student population is more diverse, but it will show up in faculty and staff hiring priorities for diversity as well. Pre-pandemic, higher education institutions paid more lip service to these priorities. Going forward, they will need to make real commitments to DEI because many constituents will begin holding them accountable to their progress.
3. Although most students desire a return to in-person learning, the majority also want to continue having the option to take classes online. This will force a permanency – driven by student demand – in colleges and universities continuing to offer many options for fully online and hybrid learning.
4. Relatedly – and even for classes continuing in-person only – it will become a norm that all lectures are video recorded for student review later. When asked what they’d like to see continue after the pandemic, the top preference among college students (desired by 79% of them) is to keep lectures available online.
5. There will be strong and lasting demand among both faculty and staff to continue to have work-at-home or other virtual work options. Just as many workplaces are contemplating permanent changes to place-based work, the same trends will apply to colleges and universities.
6. Linked to numbers 3, 4 and 5 above, the long-standing emphasis on building the physical infrastructure of college campuses will give way to an emphasis building the virtual infrastructure. Capital campaign priorities will move toward fundraising for more online degree and non-degree programs as well related virtual student services.
7. Virtual internships and jobs are here to stay and will grow in prevalence. Much like classes were forced online during the pandemic, so too were internships for college students and jobs for freshly-minted graduates. As employers have become accustomed to the shift to virtual internships, they are beginning to see tremendous advantages to them – including being able to recruit more diverse candidates where physical location used to be a barrier (think cost prohibitive locations such as Washington DC or San Francisco). Additionally, there is strong evidence that non-white students greatly prefer virtual internships and jobs over white students.
8. Employers will continue to drive a growing movement toward non-degree education and non-traditional degrees. Google’s move to treat their tech certificates as equivalent to degrees in the hiring process is now supported by more than 130 other companies while over 250,000 people have now taken one of their certificates in the first two years since being offered (57% of which didn’t have a college degree). Employers will continue to invest in education-as-a-benefit programs where they provide financial support to employees seeking degrees – but nearly all of these degrees will be for non-traditional students and/or fully online programs. Both of these trends will continue to weaken the market for residential 4-year degrees.
9. The traditional academic calendar is no more. Many universities made innovative changes to their academic calendar during Covid and are now recognizing that these changes can provide valuable flexibility to both students and faculty while also providing degree acceleration opportunities for those looking to graduate more quickly.
10. There will be a new kind of price war in higher education. Instead of ever-increasing tuition prices and expenses, universities will now compete to launch lower-cost online degrees to serve a growing market of value-oriented prospective students.
11. Elite colleges and universities are no longer role models. Despite a history characterized by Harvard-envy – and a lingering obsession among parents, students and the media with top-ranked institutions – their relevance to the rest of higher education is headed toward zero. A lack of willingness to grow enrollments and serve more students in innovative and non-traditional ways – along with a dismal record admitting poor students and minorities – will make elites oddities in and of themselves. Make way for the new role models in higher education: the public flagships and up-and-comer privates that innovate on many dimensions, find ways to freeze or lower costs, and dedicate themselves to being student- and employer-centric.