The first few months of every year bring lists of predictions ranging from scenarios of doom and gloom to those representative of looking through rose-colored glasses. Rather than provide yet another list, this article looks at aspects that might be useful for higher education to focus on as we continue our evolution in a world that is still trying to address the effects of COVID-19 and its new variations, while simultaneously addressing critical aspects related to value, equity, and agility.
While there is significant talk of hopes of an early return to normal, or of the progression to a “new normal,” there may perhaps be greater benefit to using the lessons learned and the experiences gained to re-envision higher education, developing an ethos that is appropriate for the 21st century in a time of increasing convergence of information and technology and the need for continuous upgrading of talent and knowledge levels rather than continuing to move within the confines of structures and strictures that were primarily designed for the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries.
1. COVID and its effects will be here for a while: Even though there are signs that the pandemic may soon become endemic, the effects of the past two years in terms of the learning loss on multiple cohorts of students, the additional stress on faculty, staff and students, and the effects of economic losses (real and perceived) will continue to be felt for years to come. These effects cannot be minimized, and steps must continue to be taken to address them. The acceleration in development of technological tools and modalities of interaction could well open new facets for engagement of students and for increasing access and success for populations previously underserved. Further modes of collaboration between institutions forced by circumstances could well be continued for the benefit of students and the community. Hopefully, the new agility and flexibility shown by higher education will continue, albeit with a higher level of institutional planning for the future and with greater support for faculty and staff.
2. Cost of tuition and debt levels will continue to be drivers: Even prior to the pandemic there was significant discussion related to the extremely high cost of tuition increasingly putting the opportunity of a better future through higher education out of reach of a growing percentage of the population. While recent steps by universities and foundations to “forgive” educational loans for some students are welcome, it does not address the real issue. A focus on cost containment within universities, increasing efficiency of operations while focusing on enhancing resources associated with the quality of learning, and the development of new structures and modes of support all need to be assessed. In addition, differences in cost overhead related to online and face-to-face modalities of learning, as well as of infrastructure, need to be reviewed and new financial models put in place based on contemporary drivers. The issue of loans, especially as related to ballooning interest payments that often form a majority of the amount owed by students, needs specific focus, as does the issue of whether a degree as currently structured is appropriate. All these are likely to be of continued emphasis for legislatures, educational policy institutes, and higher education administrators.
3. Consumer-based flexibility: The pandemic resulted in colleges and universities offering students flexibility in academic structures and modalities of attendance, ranging from multiple shorter and more focused terms to multiple start dates; and a palette of modalities of attendance ranging from hyflex and full digital immersion to asynchronous lectures and remote teaching. The continued offering of these options, and the further development of modularity and the carousel concept wherein a student could “jump on and off” as needed in order to pursue work or meet other responsibilities, assured that they could rejoin without negative consequences, would go a long way in meeting the diverse needs of an increasing percentage of learners and would decrease the level of “dropouts” for non-academic reasons. While the forced uniformity of the past ensured ease of operation to institutions, the ability to meet the needs of the consumer, especially the “Real College” student, through flexible and innovative practices will go a long way in enhancing equity of access and opportunity.
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