After the Pandemic, Higher Education Can’t Afford to Go Back to ‘Normal’

Aug 06, 2020

As educators, we craft learning experiences based on the pedagogical foundations set by those who came before us. In higher education, the student persistence and retention strategies used by institutions all over the world are built on the seminal works of great theorists such as John H. McNeely (1937), John Summerskill (1962), William G. Spady (1971), Vincent Tinto (1975), Alexander Astin (1977), and others. However, as our country continues to wage war on an invisible enemy known as COVID-19, colleges are being challenged to rethink their persistence and retention strategies, as well as their approaches to teaching and learning.

To further complicate matters, statisticians have long warned of the pending “2025 cliff,” which represents the abrupt reduction of potential first-time, full-time freshmen projected to arrive in 2025 to 2026 due to the drop in birth rates between the years 2008 and 2011. And if that wasn’t enough to cause pause, older people will soon outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. According to United States Census Bureau projections, by the year 2034, there will be 77 million people ages 65 and older in comparison to 76.5 million persons under the age of 18.

These significant realities converge at the intersection of K-12 education and higher education, two powerful systems that our country relies on to ensure economic growth and sustainability for generations to come. All of that is now in jeopardy. COVID-19 has exposed the flaws in our ability to deliver remote education in a manner that is equitable, inclusive—and innovative.

To serve students during the pandemic and beyond, I believe institutions not only must innovate their approaches to learning, but also their approaches to teaching. No longer should we accept that simply delivering curricular materials online constitutes real innovation, nor that the incorporation of instructional videos is a sure-shot method of engaging students. Unfortunately, the “sage on the stage” from before the coronavirus has now become the “sage on the computer screen.”

The truth is, while many institutions have used the idea of “innovation” as a marketing ploy, the pandemic has exposed the lack of innovation in academe.

But student retention and persistence in the remote, online environment can be improved—if faculty are better prepared to creatively deliver engaging instruction that is relevant to today’s job market.

Without Innovation, Students Suffer

Unbudgeted financial costs associated with the pandemic are a primary concern for leaders of higher education institutions, according to a recent survey of 97 college presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research, but these leaders are also worried about their students. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on students from disadvantaged backgrounds is their second-highest concern. And although many leaders felt confident that their colleges will be able to deliver remote instruction, the survey revealed doubt about whether and how colleges will effectively engage with their student bodies virtually.

That echoes what I’ve heard over the course of this summer in some very interesting conversations with higher education professionals from community colleges and four-year public and private institutions. Many discussions have highlighted uncertainty about how colleges will support the academic pathways of students beyond their initial enrollment to ensure degree persistence.

The stakes are high and so are the needs of our students. In a recent study conducted by McKinsey & Company, statistical models based on academic studies estimated the potential influence of school closures on learning. The study found that not only were students less likely to succeed in the new online environments hurriedly crafted by many institutions in response to COVID-19, but that learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, primarily because the learning loss varied significantly by access to remote learning, the quality of remote instruction, home support, and the degree of student engagement. Furthermore, the study projected that this lack of learning could diminish students’ earning potential over their lifetimes and even reduce the U.S. gross domestic product.

How Innovation Can Improve Student Retention

So, what can institutions of higher learning do to improve student retention and persistence right now?

If students are fighting to remain enrolled in college, then institutions MUST fight to provide resources and offer proper understanding of the realities students are facing in this new pandemic world."

All over the world, students are questioning the value of their learning experiences and are responding in revolt with reduced enrollments and lawsuits. With the looming threat of students taking advantage of gap year opportunities for the 2020 to 2021 school year, and the unknown of just how long COVID-19 will last, colleges must commit ample resources to ensure high-quality learning for the students who decide to brave the unchartered waters of online, remote education for the fall 2020 semester.

Additionally, institutions must adjust their previous approaches toward the assessment of learning outcomes to meet the realities of today’s environment. And with many adults out of work, colleges should strengthen their workforce development offerings and think more deeply about engaging students of all ages with training that will help them quickly get back to their careers.

Put simply, if students are fighting to remain enrolled in college in these unprecedented times, then institutions MUST fight to provide resources and offer proper understanding of the realities students are facing in this new pandemic world.

As for long-term solutions, the spread of artificial intelligence technology, microcredentials and online education means institutions must redesign their academic programs and learning experiences—and also better prepare faculty to deliver them. Colleges that streamline credentials, incorporate workplace-relevant curricula and try creative teaching strategies will help students be more invested in their academic careers, because programs will align directly with their job pathways—thus improving student retention and persistence.

Furthermore, industry has shifting market demands and desperately needs higher education to step up and pivot in alignment with its needs. Failure to do so will not only lead to fractured relationships between colleges and employers, but rather than depending upon higher education to prepare its workforce, industry will design its own curriculum and ignore the traditional higher education structure.

If academe were honest with herself, she would see that she has so far failed to evolve at the pace necessary to ensure the growth, sustainability and vitality of the communities she serves. As institutions look to retool themselves for today and tomorrow with streamlined learning experiences designed to engage, educate and ensure student program completion, I recommend they consider these opportunities:

Empower faculty to innovate through online collaborations.

It is absolutely idiotic to believe as educators we can force our students to be innovative without academia innovating itself. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, institutions must develop long-term strategies to promote the learning and development of their faculty, but do so without the need for physical infrastructure.

Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox Collaborative has found a way to do just that with its Sandbox internal consultancy and collaborative workspace initiative. While the lab has a physical presence, faculty learning and interactions can happen virtually, as educators participate in an array of exercises to devise creative solutions to needs in their classrooms.

Institutions must rethink their approaches to faculty preparedness in this new era to ensure instructional relevance. This is an opportunity for colleges to question whether they have properly invested in the academicians charged with delivering innovative programs. Without investing in their human capital, colleges will fail to achieve their institutional missions and student success.

Increase the flexibility of instruction, learning and assessment.

Lewis-Clark State College provided faculty with an array of learning approaches and resources designed to keep their vulnerable students in pursuit of their college educations in the midst of COVID-19. Beautifully, the resource page acknowledges for faculty the difficulty of the times, but also provides resources for faculty to consider in supporting their student learning.

This in itself brings forward the great point that rather than institutions waiting to see how students will succeed through remote, online instruction in the COVID-era, institutions should proactively ensure the success of their students by shifting their approaches. From a long-term lens, these resources should be actively explored by educators as a means to ask deeper questions about how they have traditionally assessed learning and if these approaches have become not only irrelevant, but possibly even barriers to student success.

Advance workforce development through the integration of virtual reality.

Brilliantly, last month the Alabama Community College System worked with company TRANSFR to develop JumpStartAL, a private-public partnership that uses virtual reality training modules to teach workplace skills such as reading blueprints and using precision measuring tools. The program was developed with local industry partners to ensure learning outcomes are directly aligned with what manufacturing and other fields need.

This is an example of an institution creating an academic pathway in sync with student career pathways, and doing so in an engaging and innovative means. And as institutions look to become more efficient in how they use physical space, AI technology requires less infrastructure overhead while expanding learning capabilities.

Community and technical colleges around the nation should pay close attention to this program as it not only promotes learning in the midst of COVID-19, but advances workforce training and development beyond traditional brick-and-mortar infrastructure. As a sector, community colleges are well positioned to lead in this space. However, time is of the essence and market advantage can easily split if not pursued.

Revolutionize adult education and develop creative, flexible online learning to address skill gaps.

As America continues to retool its workforce, institutions must think creatively about how to approach adult and continuing education instruction. Streamlined learning experiences promote student engagement and program completion, thus improving student retention and persistence. Offering microcredentials is one way to streamline education that addresses immediate skill gaps and employment preparedness.

The Interactive Competency-based Online Micro-credentialing Academy set to launch this fall at San Diego Community College District will provide adult learners with highly interactive career education related to small business, entrepreneurship and information technology. This program is designed to quickly retool adults for employment opportunities present now.

In closing, COVID-19 has proven to be an accelerator of many trends. Institutions experiencing financial hardship pre-pandemic are now experiencing more financial hardship. Citizens looking for learning opportunities to secure their financial futures pre-pandemic are now looking for more fast, engaging and creative learning opportunities to address their skills gaps and career desires.

Colleges looking to address the needs of their current and future students must ensure faculty are prepared for this next frontier of learning. And they must change at a pace on par with industry demands to ensure students are equipped to meet the present and future opportunities in our markets.

As higher education continues to evolve and build upon the works of seminal researchers, our institutions must commit to innovating beyond theory. The growth and sustainability of our country depends on our ability as educators to transform our learning experiences.


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