By Dr. Kat Cohen, IvyWise CEO & Founder
The landscape for higher education is always evolving. In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed unprecedented levels of change, leaving many students and families with the same question: what will the future of college look like?
Although there’s no crystal ball to use for absolute certainty, several trends have emerged that foreshadow what might be next for higher education. One of the most notable changes is the mass-transition to online learning. With schools temporarily shifting to remote programs, many are beginning to question the value of a college degree. From four-year schools to trade programs and community colleges, every type of higher education institution will be impacted by this shift to online learning.
Although the college experience looks very different these days, the importance of a degree is unwavering. Keep reading to learn more about the educational opportunities of the future, the value of higher education in this new era, and the shifts that we can expect to see.
Traditional Four-Year Universities
Let’s be honest here: the four-year college model isn’t going anywhere – at least not any time soon. Higher education as a whole is slow to change, and while the pandemic has ushered in a lot of considerations about the value of a college degree, the fact remains that most of the close to 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the US are not going anywhere overnight. Yes, some small schools that were already struggling have closed due to financial woes exacerbated by COVID-19. But there’s a big difference between small colleges already on the bubble and the top 200 universities in the US that have tens of thousands of students on campus. And we’re already seeing that enrollment this fall is not down as much as people predicted. So students are still invested in the traditional college experience. Why? To many students, attending college is about so much more than just taking classes. While advanced coursework with esteemed professors is a top priority, students can also learn from a diverse network of peers, explore new passions, and live independently.
That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the traditional college experience on its head, and both colleges and their students have been hit hard financially. Colleges need students to be enrolled in order to survive, so schools are implementing a myriad of different learning models in order to continue education during the pandemic while still trying to deliver (in some format) the campus experience students are used to. It hasn’t gone well in some places (just check out #NYUfood on Tik Tok) while others have been able to rise to the challenge. Students have been starved of social interaction on campus since the spring, and it’s highlighted how much that piece of the college experience is valued for students.
One bright spot in all of this is how hybridized options that blend online lectures with smaller in-person discussions can help reshape the overall higher educational model. It is likely that this type of blended approach will continue on for the foreseeable future, particularly as colleges invest in upgrading their technological infrastructure and move the more impersonal and crowded lecture courses online. This approach offers students the best of both worlds: college attendees will be able to work collaboratively and connect with other students while also reaping the benefits associated with improved online learning. This could also provide a long-term solution for short-term enrollment dips – more robust online degree programs (at a lower cost) for fully remote students across the globe that blends online lectures with smaller Zoom-based discussions.
There’s also been talk of colleges collaborating with major technology companies such as Google and Apple to offer specialized programs, while others hypothesize that future college students will be able to personalize their course of study in new and exciting ways. Such predictions indicate a bright future for college attendees, in which technology underpins new and customizable options.
Two-Year Community Colleges
With the traditional four-year college model in flux, community colleges have the opportunity to shine with shorter degree programs at a considerably lower cost. Short-term, community colleges are facing the same enrollment issues that four-year universities are facing. But when looking toward the future, community colleges are poised to play a major role in not just providing access to two-year degrees, but also upskilling and training millions of students from all walks of life. A recent study by Opportunity America, a non-profit focused on economic mobility, released 11 recommendations for how two-year institutions can take on this role. Key takeaways include: focusing on trends in the college’s local economy, creating partnerships with employers, and implementing work-based learning programs. The study asserts community colleges are in one of the best positions to help students pivot their skills to adapt to a new workplace reality and changing economy. In addition to recent high school grads, community college will be an attractive option for adult learners of all ages, due to the flexibility associated with many programs and the ongoing need to upskill. This gives students more options for their education and career goals, including pivoting to a four-year institution should they want to.
ROI is a big on people’s minds, especially with the cost of higher education and the struggles with online learning this past year. Let’s face it: the traditional college experience isn’t for everyone. But that doesn’t mean “higher education” is out of the question. Learning a trade is just another form of an advanced education and training. The number of students enrolling in trade school programs has been on the rise for quite some time; between 1999 and 2014, enrollment nearly doubled to reach a total of 16 million students. This trend shows no signs of slowing down, and is likely to continue in light of COVID-19. Fields like manufacturing, infrastructure, and technology are all predicted to grow in the coming years, and many of these roles may not require a traditional, four-year degree. Instead, some students will gravitate towards vocational programs designed with a specific career path in mind. These programs are generally two years or less and focus predominantly on developing the technical skills needed to fulfill a certain role.
As online education becomes more normalized and students pivot toward shorter programs with the goal of a faster ROI, alternative credentials like online certificate programs will likely grow in popularity. This is another way for current professionals and students to upskill in order to meet the demands of a shifting job market while also fulfilling their educational goals. Interest in these types of programs is already rapidly growing as students and professionals alike grapple with the fallout of the pandemic and how it has shaped career prospects. Like the prediction that universities will partner with corporations to provide specialized programs, expect the same opportunities to arise with one-off certificate programs.
What will the job market look like?
It’s not just higher education that’s evolving; changes in the workplace are also at an all-time high. Every employer is currently reevaluating their strategy to ensure long-term operational continuity. Success in the future job market won’t just be about having the right skills; instead agility will be a top priority. As opposed to preparing for a specific role, future job seekers should expand their horizons and broaden their skill-sets. Students with a four-year degree will likely have a noteworthy advantage here, as many liberal arts curricula emphasize a multi-disciplinary approach. A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce also found that in the long run, an education at a liberal arts college pays off more than an education at other colleges. This sentiment will continue to hold true in the future, as employers continue to prioritize academically curious and well-rounded job applicants with the soft skills needed to evolve in an ever-changing environment.
The bottom line is this: for all the evolution and innovation that’s happening in higher education – which is greatly needed to meet all student needs – there is a still a lot of value in a college education. A college degree can open doors that would be closed otherwise to many students. Yes, you can earn more money with a college education and get a better job, but higher education is much more than job training. It’s an important experience of self-discovery and allows students to learn how to think critically, collaborate with people from various backgrounds, and become an overall more informed and global citizen. These skills not only serve to make students successful in future careers, but also successful human beings in how they approach day-to-day life and challenges.
Although the college experiences of the future may look different than those from even a few years ago, higher education still holds a multitude of benefits for students. From gaining an edge in the evolving job market to discovering new interests and passions, there are many reasons why pursuing a higher education is a smart option. If you are in the midst of your own college search and looking for advice to prepare for the admissions process of the future, contact us today.