The Impact of COVID-19 Changes Higher Education

By Adrienne Way, Edcor Owner and CEO

The impact of COVID-19 is far reaching, and affecting every aspect of our lives: in the economy, in our social relationships, and in education. In the last decade the economy changed and shifted under the influences of automation, technology, and skill demands. But now the changes are accelerating and include great uncertainty, due to the impact of COVID-19, and are dramatically affecting higher education.

Higher education has had to make immediate changes due to the health crisis, taking education completely online.  Education leaders and analysts predict that there will be other changes in higher education delivery, structure and purpose.

Whether or not they have been in favor of online education, educators everywhere have adjusted to using technology to teach their students. It doesn’t matter if professors had experience or confidence teaching online, or even if they were familiar with online teaching technology. The impact of COVID-19 is that professors everywhere immediately started teaching material online. Susan Grajek is vice president of research at Educause, a nonprofit that works to increase the use of technology in higher education. She says, “We’re making a lot of changes very, very rapidly at colleges and universities across the country. Maybe some of those learning curves will now be flattened, and faculty and students and the staff will be more comfortable with some of the tools and technology.”

The need for higher education could be even greater after this crisis. After the last recession many low-skill jobs never returned. Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, says we could face that same situation again due to the impact of COVID-19. Right now people are dealing with financial worries, health issues and emotional strain. When this crisis ends, a long-term solution to these problems lies in higher education.

“Education should prepare us for the changing nature of work. Training on and off the job that engages us over our entire lives should equip us with the skills most relevant to finding and keeping meaningful work.”

One impact of COVID-19 is that the structure of higher education could be more flexible, says Ryan Ivers of Southern New Hampshire University. Alternate education formats and structure can address the needs of many higher education students. Many are first-generation, work full-time or have dependents to care for and support. There are 36 million people in the US who have some college but no degree. There are 65 million millennial-age students who will need to reskill and pursue more education throughout their work career.

One solution Ivers believes could help students achieve education they need now and in the future is the 60-Year Curriculum (60-YC). “The 60-YC initiative is focused on developing new educational models that enable each person to reskill as their occupational and personal context shifts.”  Schools that are developing this initiative have been working to create education that helps people learn skills and evolve their talents as technology and job demands change. The 60-YC may also help people weather the impact of COVID-19.

Ivers also predicts that CBE programs are a valid response to present education demands. CBE programs can also help prepare students for skill demands that will arise from the impact of COVID-19. CBE programs are accessible to many students and often are flexible, low-cost and accelerated. And they are effective, Ivers explains, citing the example of Capella’s Flex Path program. Data from the program shows that between 2013 and 2018 students had lower costs, progressed faster and had higher attainment rates. The National Survey of Postsecondary CBE showed that 76 percent of higher education institutions are optimistic that CBE will grow in the next five years.

Facing an economic recovery after the COVID-19 crisis means employers will need qualified workers and individuals will need to find education paths that help them develop in-demand skills. For both employers and employees the impact of COVID-19 will mean that employer tuition assistance plans  are more valuable than ever. Whatever form of delivery or structure higher education takes after this crisis, students will benefit from employer financial support. Providing tuition assistance to employees will ensure that business can create a talent pool to draw from within their own companies.