Solving the Higher Ed Crisis will Take Genuine Flexibility, Agility and Responsiveness

The academic ivory tower never really existed. If it did, the view from its window would not be pretty..

At its global conference earlier this month, CFES outlined five major challenges institutions of higher education are facing in a post-pandemic world: massive learning loss, teacher shortages, plummeting college enrollment, lack of skilled workers to fill millions of open jobs, and a precipitous drop in males enrolling in college.

“Political, cultural, demographic, health, and economic forces have created a perfect storm, which includes more obstacles than we’ve seen at any time in the 31-year history of CFES,” said the organization’s President Rick Dalton. “But alongside these challenges are vast opportunities that exist for us.”

No one who works in higher ed can be blamed if they can’t see the opportunities within these massive challenges. CFES stands for College for Every Student, which may not desirable for many seniors who are anticipating finally leaving the grind of schooling behind them. That said, the organization has focused on improving college accessibility and affordability for all students, even those who change their minds about college later in life. The sheer optimism of their vision of universal access to post-secondary education is difficult to maintain in the current climate.

But is there room for a more contained, careful optimism? Maybe. If institutions of higher learning can apply recent lessons learned to create programs that are truly flexible and responsive.

The pandemic has had a profound impact on students at all levels from kindergarten to college. School and faculty were unprepared for the immediate shift to emergency online learning. Students were no more prepared.  To recover from the resulting loss of learning, higher ed needs to look at how students learn and what their needs are. Those of us in the field know the current crop of students are not only the 18 to 22 year-olds everyone expects. They are working people, often parents, who need models that support serious limitations on their time and finances. Responding to their needs means including a variety of appropriate resources for review and designing curriculum that allows for a progression of learning and formative feedback from faculty. Tracking their progression and success online gives students the flexibility to repeat, revise and re-integrate knowledge at their own pace. It also allows faculty to circle back as needed to accommodate for any learning loss without creating frustration for students.

While the importance of gaining an education hasn’t changed, how students obtain that education has.  Emergency remote learning did not represent the best of online or hybrid learning. That shift to more technology-enabled course delivery has great appeal to those who can’t necessarily afford full time on-ground enrollment. More students study part-time, are older, and are less likely to invest energy in the traditional campus life. Colleges must see these nontraditional students as a population where there is opportunity for growth.

To realize enrollment growth, or even to regain lost enrollment, colleges need to fill gaps in existing curriculum and create programs that meet the skills required for today’s workforce. It is a time of reckoning during which college administration and faculty should be asking important questions about the nature of their relationship with the workforce. Where are workers re-skilling, up-skilling and retraining now? Are college programs offering competency based learning to require students to show mastery of the content? Or is it by doing a program analysis and looking, not only at what courses and programs you offer, but at the content that is offered within the courses themselves?

Colleges that advance this time of reckon to embrace reinvention will ask even more difficult questions. Are colleges providing value in every degree with real world relevancy and a connection to current trends? Do your courses allow students to apply what they have learned to tasks, assignments, or projects that will equate to job success?  Do companies seek out your graduates?

Colleges need to shift their strategies to embrace these new directions in order to regain lost enrollments and help students regain lost learning. Those colleges that enhance their options with high quality, student focused content will come out on top.

Sheila Fry, MBA, is the Chief Operating Officer of The Babb Group, a professor and an Instructional Designer.

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