Few would argue that change is slow in higher education, that is until it was forced to transform instructional delivery practically overnight in March 2020. Who knew that it simply takes a global pandemic to alter a century’s-old education system? But now as we move closer to ‘post-pandemic’ the question isn’t whether higher education will go back to the way things were, but rather whether higher education can continue to make needed substantial change without a world-wide crisis as the catalyst.
As an industry, higher education is facing tremendous challenges that existed prior to the pandemic, and in some instances have become more dramatic as a result of the impact of the pandemic. For decades we’ve seen a drop in state funding for public institutions, contributing to annual tuition increases that frequently outpace inflation. Similar high increases have taken place at private institutions, and overall, it’s been difficult to make the case for the increasing cost of higher education, with parents, students, and the public questioning the value. The financial crisis only contributed to this problem as more people ask whether it is worth the burden of taking on large amounts of debt compared to entering the workforce debt-free.
An enrollment cliff that had been predicted for 2025 arrived early, with the most recent data showing a 9.4% drop in undergraduate enrollment from the start of the pandemic. This translates to 1.4 million fewer students on our campuses, with the most dramatic decline at community colleges where one-fifth of the student population was lost over the past two years. The current enrollment drop is due to the pandemic, so still on the horizon is a demographic shift of fewer high school graduates that will also affect college enrollment.
So where do we go? The first place is to reflect on opportunities created during the pandemic that can carry forward to strengthen higher education. One thing we learned is that many students and their parents were banking on a traditional college experience, and then were upset at not having the in-person experiential part of college. This speaks to our work in college unions and student activities, and now is the time to promote not just our specific programs and services, but to emphasize the value of student involvement and being a part of a campus community. This is an opportunity to promote the role of the college union as part of the value of higher education.
An additional area to examine is technology, as it wasn’t just the delivery of academic classes that were altered but also our programs and services. In addition to in-person experiences, what lessons from using technology remotely can provide value-adds to our work in the college union? Can we replicate the success of telehealth or teletherapy in coaching leaders or advising student organizations? What technology enhancements did we initiate in our restaurants and convenience stores that will improve the speed and delivery of services? If you haven’t retrofitted your meeting rooms, surely it is high on your list to add more advanced, yet easier to use teleconferencing capabilities.
Aside from looking at lessons learned, more is needed to save higher education. In looking at the big picture, we should be asking questions and suggesting changes at the institutional tables where we sit. Frankly, the area in most need of change falls far outside our arena, in academic affairs. For higher education to overcome its poor reputation, its high price tag, and enrollment uncertainty, different thinking and a different approach is needed. College union professionals are not afraid of change, so we can help colleagues to envision a different future, and to take the necessary risks.
For example, most colleges operate on a credit hour basis, with 120 credit hours needed to graduate. Yet our world now operates through attainment of certain skills, with employers especially interested in what students know, and what they can do rather than how many courses they took as an undergrad. What would it look like if we were starting fresh? Would we add more experiential components to degree achievement rather than simply sitting in classrooms and taking multiple choice tests? Are we teaching students how to learn, enabling them to adapt across the span of their career and gain skills for life-long learning? What is academia doing to develop the future leaders of our world who will be navigating an increasingly complex set of challenges?
There are of course no easy answers, and in the end, to save higher education we must ask ourselves who we serve and what our purpose is in a post-pandemic 21st century world. An academic answer would certainly be exhaustive and confusing. For me the answer is less complex and fairly traditional. We exist for the public good; for the personal growth, development, and learning of students; and to improve and move society forward. Even with such a simplistic view of our purpose, higher education desperately needs a 21st century makeover as an industry that is operating on an outdated educational delivery model. As educators and professionals we are certainly invested, and I hope you will use your voice to help save higher education.