Only fools make predictions, especially about the future.
Nevertheless, some predictions strike me as uncontroversial. Let me offer five predictions that strike me as likely to be true.
1. Equity will be the lens through which every institutional practice must be viewed. Whether we’re thinking about recruitment or admissions or even curriculum requirements, equity needs to be a guiding star.
2. Students’ academic and postgraduation success must be our institutions’ top priority. As the higher education landscape becomes more crowded and competitive, students will have many options. To thrive, campuses, especially broad-access campuses, will be under intense pressure to demonstrate ROI — return on investment.
Cost, graduation rates and time to degree will be part of parent and student calculations. But colleges and universities will also be under pressure to demonstrate that their students get good jobs, paying a decent salary. Institutions need to demonstrate their value.
3. Successful institutions must make much more effective use of data. Charles Dickens said, “The one thing needful is facts.” Let me replace facts with data.
Campuses need to leverage data to inform recruiting, financial aid allocation and strategic planning. But data is even more important in bringing students to completion. Data can help campuses identify roadblocks to student success, schedule classes and intervene when students are off track.
Administrators need real-time information in four areas:
- Students’ academic performance: Not just retention and completion rates, but credit accumulation, credit completion, gateway course completion, selection of programs of study.
- Students’ postgraduation outcomes: This includes information about postcollege employment, earnings, loan repayment, the pursuit of graduate and professional education.
- Institutional efficiency: Measures include excess credits, course unavailability, program costs, time to degree and expenditures per completion.
- Equity: Student success by age, race and ethnicity, gender, and transfer status are key measures of equity.
Data are essential if institutions are to pinpoint and address inefficiencies, areas of underperformance and impediments to student success.
4. Online and technology-enhanced learning will play a much larger role in higher education. For all the dissatisfaction with the quality and effectiveness of much remote learning, institutions need online learning if they are to better serve diverse student populations, control costs and pursue new revenue streams.
To make existing courses and programs more accessible and better serve students with disabilities and competing demands on their time, faculty will need to offer online or hybrid versions of existing in-person classes. To reach new markets, many institutions will need to expand their online footprint with new certificate, certification and professional master’s programs.
At the same time, virtual labs, simulations and interactives, and digital collaboration tools can provide a cost-effective way to enrich the educational experience, while online services can make it easier for students to access the support they need.
5. Despite resource constraints, campuses must enhance the student experience. To remain competitive, colleges and universities will need to expand programs in high-demand areas, like computer science, data science and health care. They will also need to effectively market the high-impact practices and experiential learning opportunities that their campus offers.
Their success will hinge on their ability to demonstrate their “value add.”
None of this will be easy. In the pandemic’s wake, money and staff will be scant. Already, campuses face tough decisions about priorities. As we’ve seen, in some cases, programs will need to be downsized or closed.
The challenge is to reallocate and cut without reducing quality or harming the institution’s reputation.
Let me offer four suggestions.
1. Reach out to populations we have served poorly or not at all. Roughly 80 percent of transfer students want a bachelor’s degree, but only 15 percent ever receive one. We can certainly do better — removing transfer barriers, instituting new forms of co-enrollment and seamless transfer, articulating pathways into majors, and encouraging community colleges to offer applied bachelor’s.
Meanwhile, many displaced and working adults need to reskill or upskill. Few have the luxury of taking four years to earn a degree. Campuses need to expand their offerings of low cost, job-aligned certificates and certifications — but only if they couple these programs with the wraparound supports, including job placement services, that these students need.
2. Let’s dramatically reduce the cost of higher education not by cutting corners but by expediting time to degree. There’s nothing immoral about awarding credit for dual degree programs or prior learning or ensuring that community college courses count toward majors.
Nor will it undercut quality by incentivizing students to take summer or intersession courses. More radically, institutions might consider shifting from a five three-credit courses a semester model to four four-credit courses as a full load.
And while we’re at it, consider allowing students to fulfill some of their gen ed requirements remotely, through online courses or self-paced modules and courseware.
3. Offer alternatives to traditional classes that many students might find more relevant and meaningful. These might include work-learn opportunities, like expanded internships or co-op programs, or scaled research and project-based learning opportunities that can enhance students’ résumés. Practicums and studio and field-based classes offer another way to make education more germane and applicable.
4. Make career preparation a red thread that runs through the undergraduate experience. Give students the chance to earn certificates and certifications. Offer skills workshops in areas of high employer demand, like project management and data analysis. Open windows into career opportunities and provide career coaching and job placement services. Prepare students not only for interviews, but in business etiquette, teamwork and giving and receiving constructive criticism.
A crisis is a calamity, but it’s also an opportunity — a chance to rethink, reimagine and redesign. Let’s not let this opportunity go to waste.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.