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A Glimpse Into the Future of Higher Education Post 2020: 5 Trends

by Kathy de Jong, Independent Educational Consultant

Nobody can say 2020 has been normal, and the higher education world is no different. It’s difficult to say how many of the changes in secondary and college education due to the pandemic will stick, but there is no doubt that what “going to college” meant to us years ago, is not what it will be moving forward.

So what can we expect in higher education as we approach 2021 and beyond? Without a crystal ball and COVID vaccine plans, it’s hard to say. But here are some things that have struck me as I’ve stayed abreast of all things college. 

  1. Colleges and universities are in a financial bind. Expect to see planned capital projects, like new dorms, student centers, etc. postponed – particularly at state-funded universities and at small private colleges that were in financial trouble before the pandemic. Maybe the lack of a lazy river on campus is no longer a deal-breaker for students. Institutional financial aid may be harder to get, and there will be cuts in programs, faculty, and services. It’s inevitable at many colleges and universities. So doing homework on the financial stability and plans of an institution of higher learning is warranted. Think of it in terms of buying stock. Would you invest $100,000+ into a stock before doing your homework? Colleges will need to be more financially transparent and fiscally responsible.
  2. Online college is not going away. And perhaps this is for the better. This alternative allows access to more people, particularly the disadvantaged and the non-traditional student. While the quality of online learning in the spring was dismal at unprepared institutions, many colleges have thrived because they had already established this educational model. To survive, colleges will bolster their online offerings, infrastructure, and faculty training.
  3. A focus on leadership, analytical thinking, written and verbal communication, and interpersonal skills. I don’t know too many parents that prior to this year would put these skills on the list of the primary desired outcomes for their student’s higher education experience – but I think many of us now realize that our children are not prepared to step forward – to be seen, heard and take action without the technology “safety blanket”. Technology has made it too easy for this generation to hide behind a screen or an app. Yet, according to research done by PwC, by 2030, 40% of today’s jobs may be done by robots. What will be left? The jobs that require the “human touch”. And with these jobs, the aforementioned skills are required and will be in high demand. 
  4. If one college major is good, two may be better. In recent years, college students have intuitively figured out that having one major is not enough. If you want to broaden your career opportunities, double majoring or adding a minor or a concentration makes you more marketable. This popular trend will continue, particularly when it can often be completed in the same 4-year timeframe and cost. Many will incorporate the study of those all-important humanities and soft-science curriculums into their educational portfolio.
  5. Nimble. Evolving career preparation. The role of community and technical colleges will be increasingly more important. As our society’s use of technology and green energy sources increase and evolve, so does the need to train and retrain the workforce. But, attending a physical institution may not be necessary. Just as traditional 4-year colleges are moving online, so is specialized training. MOOCS, Massive Online Open Courses, will become more ingrained into the accepted educational options and allow instant access to curriculum while educational digital badges or “e-badges”  indicate to employers that a specific skill set has been achieved. To continue to be competitive, life-long learning may be the norm for most people – just not in a traditional sense.

These trends probably have legs, but it will be interesting to see what other impacts the COVID-19 pandemic will have on higher education, which is usually slow to change. That might not be the case now.

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