I can’t start a personal reflection without first acknowledging how enormously difficult this year has been for my staff, our higher ed partners and faculty, and the students we serve together. As a leader and a parent—and a human—I’m so grateful for the ways my team has shown up for one another and humbled by all we were able to accomplish together in this tumultuous year.
Over the course of 2020, there has been plenty of discussion about what will and won’t return to “normal” once we’ve fought COVID-19 into submission. I can’t predict the future, but my bet is that many of the innovations and changes we’ve witnessed this year will stick around. And I know two things for certain: first, many students will go back to in-person learning, but the demand for high-quality online education and shorter, non-degree learning pathways—like boot camps and short courses—will continue to grow as people upskill, reskill and look for greater flexibility in education. And second: demand for online undergraduate and graduate degrees will grow too.
Millions of people in the U.S. have lost their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. Recent Labor Department figures show that 3.9 million people are experiencing long-term joblessness. The pain is more acute among lower-income adults, where, according to Pew Research Center, 46 percent say they’ve had trouble paying their bills since the pandemic started and roughly one third (32 percent) say it’s been hard for them to make rent or mortgage payments. Many jobs aren’t coming back. And according to a survey by Strada Education Network, over a third of Americans say they will need training or education to find new jobs.
Securing a bachelor’s degree from a respected non-profit institution continues to be one of the clearest pathways to social mobility and strong job outcomes in the U.S., and alternative credentials like boot camps and certificates have emerged as powerful stepping stones to careers in the digital economy. Universities that can meet the growing needs of adult learners with high-quality, career-aligned, accessible, and affordable educational opportunities are the ones that will emerge from the pandemic as stronger, more relevant institutions.
That’s been my level ground this shaky year: I still believe in the power of the great non-profit university to meet society’s critical needs, and I see higher education as more resilient, adaptable, and innovative than people tend to give it credit for.
We saw that in action this year as colleges and universities raced to make remote learning a possibility for students. It was the institutions that had existing digital education investments and strategies that were truly ahead of the game. Like our long-standing partner, Simmons University, which has offered online graduate degree programs since 2012, and just recently launched CompleteDegree@Simmons to provide women the opportunity to earn an affordable, career-enhancing, and academically rigorous undergraduate degree online. That’s significant in a year when women are being displaced from the workforce at troublingly high rates. Or another long-standing 2U partner, the George Washington University College of Professional Studies, that—in partnership with a local workforce development agency—helped us launch a scholarship fund for local residents from the Black and Latinx communities as well as women and individuals from low-income households.
These schools didn’t need to start from square one with a digital and lifelong learning strategy in 2020; they had the partnerships, relationships and investments in place to better meet the needs of students in this tumultuous year. That’s significant given the huge blow dealt to college budgets that’s been widely covered in the media this year. One of the challenges we will see carry over into 2021 is how universities find the resources necessary to drive continued digital transformation and meet the needs of students. This is evident in the conversations I’m having with university presidents and provosts who are recognizing that larger investments in a digital strategy and strategic partnerships will be a critical part of building a more sustainable future.
In fact, HolonIQ recently reported there are now 700 universities working with 200 partners to deliver high-quality online learning to students. That’s only going to grow. Edtech partners that have demonstrated commitments to quality and transparency in operations and outcomes can help smooth the road by working with schools to set intentional digital transformation strategies for the future built on science-supported learning frameworks. We can also help evolve the conversation about online education partners away from just being about the value-add to universities, to being about the value-add for students—which is what I want to see more of in 2021.
James DeVaney, associate vice provost at the University of Michigan put it best in his recent tweet, saying that we “need to move from ‘what’s your rev share’ to ‘what value do you create?’ And tailored to higher ed, ‘what is your contribution to learning?’ I care about reach, research, $ development, reputation, and revenue—but all in the context of learning. That’s the transparency we need.”
I couldn’t agree more. Here’s to 2021: a new year that places a higher premium on investments in online learning, outcomes, quality, and flexibility to drive great outcomes for students: the ones that matter most.
This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.