Higher-ed leaders must take the lessons they learned in 2020 and ensure that education is accessible and sustainable for all students

Higher ed’s 2021 imperatives: Accessibility, delivery, affordability


Higher-ed leaders must take the lessons they learned in 2020 and ensure that education is accessible and sustainable for all students

Exacerbating these challenges are changing perceptions about higher education. For too long continuous education – particularly four-year degrees – has been perceived as elitist. Quality education has been “locked in an ivory tower” where getting a four-year degree from an expensive school is often valued over more affordable alternatives like regional universities or community colleges.

New learning models are enhancing access to higher education

As we embark further into 2021, it’s in everyone’s best interests to lower these barriers to education – both in cost and access. Our flailing economy needs talent to drive its recovery (it’s predicted that 149 million new technology jobs will be created by 2025). The big tech giants recognize this and are taking rapid action to fill the digital skills needed in a global economy. Microsoft and Google have debuted low-cost certification programs that will allow people to learn a digital trade without getting a classic degree – fast tracking their pathway to opportunity.

But where does this leave the traditional higher education industry?

Using technology as the great equalizer

Technology corporations aren’t in the business of education and may be doing so out of necessity. This creates a unique opportunity for colleges and universities if they can pivot from the way education has been packaged in the past. To compete or participate in this new learning model, leaders must find ways to make learning more efficient, accessible, and equitable, while delivering value to remote students.

Technology can help with these imperatives because it’s the great equalizer. Implemented in the right way, it can have an enormous impact on an institution’s operations, strategic alignment, and ability to deliver services in a digital age. More importantly, technology enhances experiences and drives engagement across the student, staff, and faculty body.

Case in point: Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). While other institutions are still grappling with the realities of the pandemic, SNHU, which offers a combination of online and campus learning, has weathered the storm and experienced a growth in enrollment during the pandemic thanks to technology and forward-looking change management.

Staying true to its mission statement of providing affordable access to high-quality higher education to all, SNHU has undertaken a multi-year effort to use technology to enhance the student experience and help them better prepare for a digital job market. Accelerated by the pandemic, the initiative led to a fundamental rethink in the cost and delivery of education to address the growing issue of college affordability and accessibility. As 2020 came to a close, SNHU announced the groundbreaking reinvention of its campus and academic and financial models to provide more affordable, flexible, and accessible pathways to higher education.

In doing so, the university is reimagining “…a broken model that too often leaves students behind.”

Technology is not a salvation; leadership must come first

Technology, of course, is not a silver bullet. As institutions continue to deal with the pandemic and enrollment challenges, strategic change management must also happen on the business side. When technology is viewed through a strategic lens – and not as a cost center – institutions will really understand the power that it brings and the opportunity it affords.

But this pivot isn’t easy. It entails a cultural shift and there will be resistance. But if institutions are to grapple with their focus and investments in the face of enormous change and opportunity, change can’t be ignored.

On this, we’re seeing progress. As disruptive as COVID has been, there’s a silver lining. The pandemic has accelerated understanding of the critical role that technology plays in an institution’s mission. More and more CIOs and chief digital officers are reporting to the CEO or president and being elevated to cabinet roles. These leaders are fusing business and technology and playing a key role in deliberations and decision-making. Experts in their domains, they corral the different demands of each department and rationalize the technology investments needed to support the mission.

Looking back, moving forward

This will not happen overnight. You can’t transform a sweeping, sprawling institution like a university or a community college in one fell swoop. The key to driving programs forward is to engage, deliberate, and iterate so that there is cultural alignment around transformation.

2020 brought about swift technology changes and higher education leaders must now make sustainable what they learned out of necessity – those who adapt will emerge stronger and in a better position to ensure a level playing field for their students. That’s our higher education trend to watch in 2021.

eSchool Media Contributors