Looking Beyond COVID-19: 4 Trends Shaping Higher Education

With vaccine administration up and running, higher education has reached a critical turning point in pandemic response. Last spring, several colleges and universities turned to virtual offerings, en masse, to keep faculty and students safe and in compliance with coronavirus mitigation measures. Now, with the next normal on the horizon, educational bodies are being made to revisit their student offerings.

Understanding and implementing key lessons learned in 2020 will be vital to the rollout of the projected, continued hybridized system of learning. But it’s more than just the pandemic shaping the future of higher ed — associative, pandemic-related trends are accelerating universities into change management framework.

Here are some key trends to watch out for.


A Continuation of Online and Hybridized Learning

Historically, higher education has been predominantly an in-person experience, but social distancing introduced a need for capable, reliable digital assets to support online learning in a way the general public had never seen.

And while distance learning and the pandemic appear correlated on the surface, in reality, institutions were leaning into online classes for some time.

Online education has proven especially popular at the graduate level, where there is greater emphasis on flexibility and less on campus life, even before the pandemic. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, post-baccalaureate students were twice as likely as undergraduate students to enroll in exclusively remote programs.

While the reason as to why is not stated, we can posit a greater efficacy in information absorption for learners that are interested in an academic experience void of the day-to-day stymies of on-campus life (e.g. finding a parking spot).

As colleges begin to “normalize” in the near future, look for continued investment in digital infrastructure at the institutional level. Asynchronous, online courses and in-person courses both have their place, and we expect schools to create compelling programs using both.


Undergraduate Enrollment Declined

The effects of the pandemic and accompanying recession have also been seen at the bursar’s office. Continuing a trend from prior years, undergraduate college enrollment sank in the fall of 2020. However, the downtrend was not universal.

While associate programs bore the brunt of the decline in 2020, graduate and professional programs experienced a modest uptick in enrollment, as to be expected with workers reskilling in an uncertain economy. Enrollment from international students has posted even sharper declines, an especially alarming trend for college finances, given that international students are a significant source of revenue

In light of these shortfalls, some colleges and universities are freezing or reducing tuition. Watch for administrators to streamline programs and shift priorities for the foreseeable future.


Credentialing Programs Have Entered the Mix

For students, earning a certification is a nimble method to bolster one’s resume with less cost and time commitment than a traditional degree program, and credentials have also been shown to hold sway with hiring managers.

With users stuck at home, COVID-19 prompted a groundswell of MOOC adoption – a trend that we’ve explored in detail. Some industries, in particular, have well-established track records in credentialing programs. For instance, computer programmers sometimes earn certifications in Froa specific coding language in lieu of a traditional four-year degree.

These programs are convenient for educators as well, since content is easily distributed at a fraction of the cost of in-person instruction. Sensing an opportunity to reach the general public, many academic institutions have rolled out new credentialing programs in recent years. One example is Purdue University Global, the online arm of Purdue University, which introduced new micro-credentials in criminal justice and other subjects last summer. Together, these offerings point to an intriguing future of à la carte online education.


Admissions Timelines are Changing

2020 was the unprecedented year we heard so often about, and for college applicants, their struggle was seldom highlighted.

They navigated varying models of remote and hybrid instruction throughout the school year, sometimes alternating between them. Then, health and safety protocols disrupted campus tours, graduations, and even ACT and SAT tests.

Thankfully, colleges and universities have taken notice of these developments and are accommodating students with flexible admissions processes — an empathetic response. Some institutions have set aside testing requirements and delayed deadlines to compensate.

Although order is expected to be restored eventually, the last year has led to some innovation in an otherwise routine admissions process. Many students chose a school unseen or relying solely on virtual tours. Moving forward, colleges are universities are likely to concentrate more on web presence and virtual experience to better serve the Gen Z generation.

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