Today’s shrinking revenues and declining enrollments suggest that, more and more, students are questioning the value of a four-year education. Even businesses are beginning to discount the value of a traditional degree—an education seems to matter most when it’s combined with marketable skills. What does this mean for the future of higher education? Based on the widening skills gap, income disparity, and cost-to-value of a college degree, students will most likely enroll in schools that provide the job and life skills necessary to thrive in today’s digital world.
Larger, more elite institutions will likely weather the changes in the higher ed landscape, but smaller schools with fewer resources looking to stay competitive may have to consider adjusting the way they deliver education. To best serve students, institutions will need to offer education that is hybrid, bite-sized, and personalized.
The pandemic emphasized what many institutions already knew to be true—that education can be delivered in a hybrid model. In the spring of 2020, students started the semester on campus and were quickly forced to become remote learners. When colleges and universities brought students back in the fall, many gave students the option of returning in person or remaining remote, creating hybrid environments that allowed each learner to make their own decision.
Some students can’t focus on a Zoom conference, while others appreciate asynchronous learning from recorded lectures. A hybrid, omnichannel educational model allows students the flexibility to learn in person or remotely and to engage in learning through multiple channels and devices. Students can choose their preferred educational model based on their learning styles as well as the fluctuations in their lives.
For the growing demographic of non-traditional learners, a hybrid education allows them enough flexibility to succeed despite everyday challenges that might arise, such as a job conflict or a sick child. During the past two years, students have become used to having this level of flexibility in their degree programs and will be looking to continue in programs that deliver classes how and where they want them.
Traditionally, one of the key values of a four-year degree was its ability to demonstrate to businesses that the degree holder can perform specific tasks within a specific time frame. But the rapid evolution of technology has created a skills gap, and employers are searching for employees with hard skills and job experience to help fill these voids.
Students who want to secure lucrative jobs as they arise will be looking to gain skills quickly. They need short, bite-sized credentialling programs—such as those offered via micro-credentials—that allow them to learn necessary and demonstrable skills without committing to a full-time degree.
But it’s not only students who will be looking for bite-sized education opportunities, as some businesses are already looking for educational partners to help them upskill their workforce. Some are looking to enroll employees in courses that already exist, while others want local institutions to create programs of study to help workers reskill. As students and businesses alike seek out credentials and even micro-credentials, they’ll be looking for an education that gives them the skills they need as quickly as possible.
Many of today’s learners—particularly the growing demographic of non-traditional students—are beginning their college experiences already possessing awareness of the skills they need to advance in the careers they want. Part of why hybrid and bite-sized educational models are so attractive is that they enable learners to fully personalize their educations. Many students don’t wish to sign on to a one-size-fits-all educational program. Instead, they want to select courses they wish to take in the medium most convenient for them, be that in person, hybrid, or entirely online. In the future, students may even want the agency to create their own curriculum by choosing courses from different schools, combining a personalized learning program into a credential that they can show to a current or future employer.
In other cases, students may enter their undergraduate careers looking for help tailoring their educations to their skillsets and interests. They’ll need guidance on selecting programs and courses that can help them land a more lucrative job. Advisors can help students identify skills as well as help them personalize a course of study that enables them to meet future professional demands.
Declining enrollments combined with the demands of students and businesses are forcing institutions to re-evaluate the way they offer, package, and present education. Schools looking to remain relevant and continue providing value to their students will need to change their mindset and approach to delivering education. But while change can be uncomfortable, it doesn’t need to be painful. Modern technology allows colleges and universities to offer hybrid educations and even off-base courses that can help personalize the student learning experience. New, innovative partnerships and forward-looking strategies can help institutions put programs in place that best serve their student bodies.