Higher education has been in constant flux since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person learning worldwide. From fully online classes to modified in-person learning and everything in between, students and faculty have had to adapt quickly and frequently.
There’s no doubt that the nature of higher education has been affected by the pandemic, but shifts in technology and the workforce also have a role to play. How will educational institutions adapt to and drive this innovation moving forward?
Here are three key trends in higher education that will prove critical for adapting to a constantly changing environment:
1. Flexible learning options.
Whether or not COVID continues to run its course, flexible learning options are here to stay. Students and faculty have come to expect at least part of their courses to take place online and have become increasingly comfortable with remote and hybrid courses.
But does that mean in-person instruction is a thing of the past?
The Connected Student Report, a study published by Salesforce, showed that many students both crave the on-campus experience and value the increased flexibility and decreased costs of online and hybrid courses. Students expect about half of their courses to be online in coming semesters, and 43% prefer hybrid courses to other formats. However, only 21% of students reported that they would prefer to take all their classes online—showing that the majority of students desire in-person learning at least part of the time.
The way forward is not a full-scale transition to online education but rather a hybrid model, where students enjoy interactive teaching in-person part of the time and the greater flexibility of online instruction part of the time.
The World Economic Forum describes the trend toward a truly hybrid learning experience where students don’t just learn from anywhere (meaning that they have the flexibility of learning in either a classroom or at their kitchen table) but from everywhere (meaning that their education provides immersive and experiential learning).
Hybrid learning has the potential to go beyond the online course to provide application-based learning in the classroom or in the real world. When students learn the basic material online, class time can be used for case studies, simulations, or presentations rather than lecture. On the flip side, a hybrid learning approach might include real-world applications and projects outside the classroom.
The way forward is not so much a shift to online but a shift to hybrid in-person and online solutions that provide an immersive learning experience.
2. Closing the skills gap.
The pandemic also widened the gap between what skills employers need and what skills the workforce has. For example, the increased reliance on e-commerce has increased the value of software engineering, data analytics, and digital marketing skills. This major disruption has pushed a drive for reskilling and upskilling in the post-pandemic era.
A recent Gallup survey
reported that 96% of chief academic officers at colleges and universities “believe that their institutions are very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the workforce.” Guess how strong this sentiment was among business leaders? Only 11% agreed. Additionally, only 34% of college students were confident that they would graduate with the skills and knowledge they would need to be successful in the job market. Tellingly, Gallup called this report “Crisis of Confidence: Current College Students Do Not Feel Prepared for the Workforce.”
Since 49% of students say that future career prospects are the top factor when applying to college, increasing confidence in their job skills is a key trend in improving the value of higher education. The research suggested two helpful actions are linking students with alumni in their field and encouraging faculty to initiate discussions about potential career options.
Even with faculty advisement and alumni support, however, it’s clear that students do not feel adequately prepared for today’s work environment. There is a large gap in expectations between university leaders and business leaders.
How can educational institutions bridge the skills gap? Many colleges and universities are beginning to rethink their model of higher education. Rather than solely offering traditional degree programs, many universities offer alternative learning options that focus on reskilling and upskilling individuals to prepare them for today’s workforce.
This may look like an increased emphasis on adult learning programs, executive education programs, and continuing education courses. For students fresh out of high school, this may entail focused certificates and micro-credentials rather than degree programs. Additionally, there are many learning options outside of formal educational institutions, such as LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, and employer-created last-mile training programs like AWS Academy.
The reality of modern society is that workers must stay abreast of rapidly advancing knowledge and technology. The pandemic has likewise exposed a growing desire for educational programs that directly prepare students for the job market.
3. Supporting student mental health and well-being.
The pandemic worsened an existing struggle with mental health in the college-age population. A 2022 survey of 1,700 college students
showed that 88% of students believe there is a mental health crisis on college campuses. About 70% of students reported experiencing anxiety or stress themselves related to the ongoing pandemic. Stressors included the impact of COVID-19 on the quality of their education (54%), their social life (54%), and physical isolation from friends or family (48%).
In terms of getting support, students expressed the need for more remote university mental health services. They also felt that remote social support fosters a greater sense of belonging. Even as many schools’ mental health resources are stretched thin, the most important step educational institutions can take in supporting student well-being is to ensure that there are adequate mental health services available and that students know how to access those services. Proactively providing information and resources and developing innovative online and in-person solutions will be powerful tools to promote mental wellness.
Mental health challenges are a major contributing factor to college students dropping out of school or dealing with disruptions to their education. When educational institutions promote overall well-being, students are better able to learn, maintain their grades, and finish their course of study. Performing well academically is related to the holistic well-being of an individual student—and when mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being are in place, it can only improve academic performance.
Flexible learning options, an increased focus on career readiness and skills training, and support for mental health will help universities—and students—adapt to whatever may come their way. The future is bright for higher education!