Expect several changes in higher education to intensify in 2022. Families and students should look for universities that willingly respond to a changing world: a triangle of triage is at work.
Enrollment at regional universities has been a challenge this year. COVID-19 played its part. Still, the greater impact resulted from those universities which don’t recognize that students are evolving, their numbers are diminishing and the expectations of university experiences are progressing. More and more students are nontraditional, working full or part-time, raising families, and in other ways engaged in activities that compete with the conventional and consuming nature of the college experience. The number of college-ready high school graduates is shrinking. In addition, the US birth rate is low, nearly the lowest ever recorded, and the nature of the value equation in higher education is in flux. Expectations and demands for viable value increase as costs go up. Modern students have different expectations of universities. Nonresidential students are less engaged with Greek life, intercollegiate athletics, clubs and organizations, and other activities which traditionally consume students’ time. Students want to attend college, take courses, improve their employment outlook, work and raise a family, and oftentimes all simultaneously.
The pinch on enrollment is most pronounced at regional institutions. Purposeful change will require unique approaches to serving diverse populations of students. The idea that college students are monolithic and that their needs and aspirations can be collectively predicted is a mirage. Major national universities may be able to do business as usual for now, but not regionals. Is this a reactive “Chicken Little – the sky is falling” forecast? No, but rather a sober and necessary reaction to a rapidly shifting reality.
Enrollment patterns will continue to evolve.
Some have seen online education as a panacea to meet the needs of nontraditional students in the twenty-first century. However, in the coming year and extended future, even traditional college students will increasingly hybridize (interchange on-campus and online study) the educational experience. Students may have transcripts with courses from a dozen or more institutions, coupled with simultaneous work and family life as alternatives for conventional “extra-curricular activities.” To be sure, the COVID-19 experience brought about changes. But that abrupt aberration has also brought a long-simmering, now boiling, need to provide alternatives to the surface. The four-year encampment on a university campus resembles a monastery to the current generation. Our new wave of students expect the opportunity to integrate personal, work and study life into a tailored, individualized, integrated whole - a customized experience that works for them.
Too many in leadership of educational institutions are too comfortable in programs that embrace century-old conventions. In 2022, expect to see universities grow hybrid opportunities, diminishing the distance between on-campus and online. Distinctions will vanish. I know current students who live in university residence halls, eat in university dining halls, and take all their classes online. New breeds of students expect more possibilities.
Online and on-campus instructional modes will merge until distinctions disappear.
Changing needs and aspirations of their constituents, aka students, have caught the attention of state legislators and appointed officials. There has been irregular growth and a wandering of purpose in much of post-secondary education for the last fifty years. Affordability, discounting, changing demographics, corporate/institution partnerships, learning and teaching management systems, competency-based education, micro-Masters programs, and many other experimental, often risky approaches are being developed. Some are successful; some are not. Entrepreneurship drives innovation and inevitable failures as the whole enterprise respond effectively to shifting forces at work. The clarion call from students and families alike is a receptiveness to programs that fit real needs, for real students, with real aspirations. Too many universities are and have been reluctant to abandon the comfort and predictability of the status quo.
Leaders, students and families will expect innovation and welcome thoughtful risk.
These and other changes on the horizon will continue to affect college and university life for all. There will be change. It will be uncomfortable. It is inevitable. Students and institutions who embrace thoughtful change will succeed in 2022 and beyond. Those who refuse will struggle, and some, to the point of calcification and extinction.
Comfort and predictability ain’t what they used to be.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.
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