The Future of Higher Education after the Pandemic

A popular exercise right now is to predict the future of higher education after the pandemic has ended. Predicting the future on any front is nothing new. But predicting the future of higher education after the pandemic is particularly fascinating because there are so many variables. Changes in student populations, education delivery methods and attainment goals have been common in recent years. Higher education has been evolving to meet student and business needs, adapting to new technology and striving to raise attainment rates.

Recently, however, the evolution of higher education looks more like a revolution. Rapid response to demands includes many disruptions that will likely become permanent, affecting the future of higher education after the pandemic.The student population across the US includes a large number of nontraditional students. Adults who may have some college but no degree, adults who are enhancing their education or those who delayed higher education enrollment after high school are part of this population. Since the pandemic hit, the label nontraditional student isn’t descriptive enough. The future of higher education after the pandemic has ended will include multiple diverse demographic groups.

A Strada Public Viewpoint survey gives insight into these demographic groups. The pandemic has made differences in education levels and work opportunities highly visible. Strada’s June report showed that about 23 percent of Black and 24 percent of Latino workers had been laid off, compared to 15 percent of white and 13 percent of Asian workers.  This has an effect on pursuing higher education. Many minority populations also found it necessary to change their education plans: 50 percent of Latino and 42 percent of Black students disrupted their educations compared to 26 percent of white students.

About 20 percent of American workers said they plan to enroll in higher education in the next six months according to the Strada survey. About 40 percent of people who lost jobs or income plan to enroll.  Dr. Valerie Roberson, President of Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts, says, “the pandemic has revealed a whole segment of the population that has not been educated adequately, and there are many students that we need to attract to higher education so that they can have an opportunity to change their economic trajectory.” She believes the future of education at her institution includes reeducating and retraining students for the workforce.

Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of EdX, online education provider created by Harvard and MIT, says there is another group that it is important for higher education to serve. He stresses that it is important for all workers to become life-long learners. Micro-credentials can serve this population as they strive to keep up their skills. These credentials can complement degrees or serve as attainment goals. “The second population is being created by the future of work, where it’s very clear that for people to stay employed we need to move to a culture where we are learning all the time. Gone is the day when you get a degree and then work for the rest of your life. Today, you have to be learning continuously and understand how to use data.”

And predictions are that the future of higher education after the pandemic will involve getting this continuous learning online. Up until now education has been in-person, online, or variations of both delivery methods. Coronavirus changed that. Social distancing includes education.

Agarwal believes online education is a good delivery method for students who will be pursuing education during and after the pandemic. He cites a study from the Fall of 2016 and Spring of 2017 that compared students who took the same course either fully online through edX or in-person. The stress level of students who took the course online was lower than that of students who took the course in person. Agarwal says, “The students love the flexibility. And frankly, studies like that show us that the online modality can be a terrific adjunct to the in-person modality on campus. He adds, “My belief is that the future is going to be blended.”

University of Massachusetts President, Marty Meehan, agrees with this. He says. “I think the coronavirus crisis just highlights the fact that we need to do more online learning. I believe there’ll always be students who come to four-year institutions and get a degree, but I think having more online capability is going to be critically important looking into the future.”

While nontraditional students are dealing with the fall-out of the pandemic, including taking care of their families, dealing with employment uncertainty, and facing economic hardship, they need courses that are relevant to their jobs and careers. They need higher education that provides timely results. Just as online instruction can provide flexibility, short-term programs can add job skills. Employers are looking for a combination of technical and soft skills. They need workers who can fill positions quickly and workers need jobs quickly. Courses that can develop skills that create stability and success will definitely be in the future of higher education after the pandemic. Colleges and universities along with companies such as Google, IBM and Microsoft are creating short-term credentials. Businesses that support their employees as they pursue certificates, micro-credentials and short-term programs are in position to have a strong workforce.

By Kathleen Eischeid, Edcor Business Development Coordinator