The year 2020 has been difficult for everybody because of COVID-19, and schools were not excluded from its impact. Since schools are among the most crowded places when classes are ongoing, school officials in the US and across the world are still in a dilemma on which type of learning modes to use in a health crisis situation.
But prior to the pandemic, college trends were looking optimistic. While education will likely not be free in the near future, as implied in these free college education statistics, social shifts, technological demands, and financial considerations will all play a role in the coming years. Along with COVID-19, these areas can pave the way for a college education that is a bit more lenient and attainable for students. We’ll look at these trends and more in the following sections.
It was in September 2020 when the first wave of COVID-19 infections began in American campuses as college students started their fall semester. Before that month ended, an Appalachian State University sophomore died of COVID-19, one of the first reported cases in the US. Soon after, new cases of COVID-19 cases, sometimes numbering by the hundreds, were being reported every single day.
Source: The New York Times
Since then, colleges and universities across the US have been experiencing spikes. The university with the highest number of cases ever reported is the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, with 1,367. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill follows at second (1,192 cases), while the third is the University of Central Florida (1,100).
As of October 2020, a total of 88,000 campus infections had been reported (New York Times, 2020). Let’s now examine the college trends that matter the most during this critical time.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first hot spots were meatpacking plants, nursing homes, and hospitals. When the fall semester began, American colleges became the new heart of the COVID-19 contagion.
And this was the reason why colleges and universities across the country began announcing in-person class cancellations, with some imposing lockdowns to mitigate the spread. As expected, counties that are considered as college towns—where students comprise at least 10% of the population—were among the most affected places in the US.
A survey sought to explore how colleges have been holding their classes in response to the ongoing outbreak. Around half (53%) of the two- and four-year colleges that participated in the survey shifted to 100% online, while 44% have adopted a mixed/hybrid approach (online and in-person), and 3% remained using purely in-person instruction (Campus Technology, 2020).
Experts predict that the trend will favor the online mode mainly due to the uncertainties surrounding the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination measures. The shift to remote learning and pedagogy has been ongoing for years and the pandemic has only accelerated the shift.
Source: Campus Technology (2020)
The years since 1990 have seen the cost of college education skyrocket. The rate of tuition increase has slowed somewhat in the last decade. However, the actual cost of tuition at present is more than twice that of the 90s. In some sectors, it’s even three times as much! Putting this into perspective, in the academic year 2016–2017, you can expect to pay an average of $19,488/year (NCES, 2017) for a four-year program at a public university.
You can see how tuition fees have grown across three decades in the chart below.
Source: CollegeBoard Research
And these figures are only the beginning. Tuition may cover room and board and other fees, but it does not include books. All told, it puts the household under great financial strain unless the student is a scholar, the parents have saved a lot of money, or the household is extremely wealthy. For most students, however, none of these expectations are realistic.
The pandemic has caused colleges to lose significant revenues because of the adverse effects of COVID-19. For instance, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education expects to lose $100 million because of school housing vacancies. Likewise, The University of Wisconsin is projecting to also lose $100 million because of the declining enrollment (Forbes, 2020).
Institutions of higher education—universities and colleges—are increasingly reliant on data. It gives any organization, educational ones included, an accurate idea of the state of the establishment and how it can grow. This is especially important as figures show that colleges are only just beginning to recover from an enrollment slump from 2011 to 2017.
Everywhere in the country, the industry is waking up to what Big Data can do for education, especially in preventing students from dropping out. For example, Purdue University is using data to develop a system called Course Signals, which helps predict issues that students may encounter. The system alerts both the students affected and the teachers when intervention or action may help correct academic or behavioral problems, thus, helping them reach their potential and reduce dropout rates. The school administration reports that since the system’s establishment in 2007, it has helped increase A and B grades by as much as 28%.
And in line with the pandemic, several universities are leveraging big data analytics in monitoring and tracking the spread of the virus on their campuses. For instance, Boston University has launched its BU COVID-19 Testing Data Dashboard, which enables users to know the volume of conducted tests and the results of such tests. Likewise, West Virginia University recently went live with a public big data dashboard that tracks and compiles COVID-19 data gathered through the school’s system.
Among the first and currently most-followed COVID-19 dashboards is that of Johns Hopkins University, whose big data analytics spans the entire world (Johns Hopkins, 2021).
These are among the pressing reasons why higher education institutions are also turning to business intelligence software to sort through all the data they gather and make sense of them, especially when for life-and-death situations.
Data isn’t the only thing that technology has given to institutions of higher education. It’s also how people learn. Examples of these new ways of learning and earning your stripes are a Micromasters program (Study.com, 2021) and a competency-based education, or CBE.
Simply put, a CBE allows students to learn at their own pace and style. In a CBE system, students are measured by how much they have mastered a subject or course instead of putting in the required time. Traditionally, sessions last about four months, but in a CBE, a student can immediately take an exam to measure their competency on the course and earn credit if they pass. This gives an advantage to students with life experience in a particular course and can even accelerate the student’s education.
The Department of Education also endorses CBE as an alternative learning model, saying that it leads to better student engagement and outcomes. Thanks to this glowing review, institutions are planning to develop competency-based programs in their existing courses in the next five years. In fact, 83% of these schools (AIR, 2018) with some form of CBE are hoping to expand these programs across their entire educational offerings.
As the entire American higher education system had been affected by the pandemic, those who are currently under a CBE program are advised to contact their schools, academic districts, or state education authorities to ascertain the changes made in policy and schedules (REL, 2020).
Probably one of the most important trends in the coming years is using the internet to earn credits or even a full degree. Also known as distance learning, online education is now on offer from colleges and universities. Not only does this make higher education more accessible, but it also makes it more affordable. It’s faster, too.
Online education is praised by educators and administrators nationwide because of its flexibility. Students need not be full-time students with online education: they can balance their studies with work, for example, or other personal matters. It also opens up opportunities for students in a geographically remote location to pursue a degree program offered by a particular university without having to relocate.
And it’s not just the universities themselves that offer online degrees. Coursera is one of the biggest, allowing courses from several institutions to be accessed in one single platform. The University of Pennsylvania has partnered with Coursera to offer master’s degrees at only a third of the cost.
This is why online education has grown explosively in the last 10 years. In fact, one in four students (OLC, 2015) in higher education now takes at least a class online. And because of the pandemic, more than half of US colleges have been fully or partially online starting September 2020 (The College Crisis Initiative, 2020).
Running a college or a university is an expensive endeavor, making these institutions reliant on federal funding and donations. This has been made more difficult because of the serious economic effects of COVID-19.
Prior to the pandemic, Illinois depends on federal funding for a third of its operating costs (DMI, 2018), which means it’s highly sensitive to budget cuts. This means that by 2020, schools and not just colleges and universities would have already searched for alternative ways to acquire funding to insulate themselves from a financial standpoint.
There are donors, of course, but while educational institutions are receiving record-high donations, fewer donors are around to give them. Plus, in 2018, donations to schools have gone down by 1.3% (Giving USA, 2019).
Source: National Center for Charitable Statistics
One option is to create partnerships with big businesses or establishments, which we’ll tackle later on in this article. Another is to spend more focus on faculty research programs, which can attract businesses that can fund R&D. Finally, universities may switch gears in terms of fundraising. Instead of securing commitments on small donations, they can focus on billion-dollar fundraising or capital campaigns. Some may even use crowdfunding on a few platforms.
We’ve mentioned modular courses above, and this is what a stackable credential is mostly about. These are mini-courses designed to be completed quickly, sometimes taking only a few weeks long. They are then “stacked” together to form the academic requirements of a certificate or a degree. Even better, credits earned this way can be reused to fulfill other advanced programs.
Even prior to the pandemic, numerous two-year and four-year community college students had been “stacking” credentials (Brookings, 2021). This approach allows students the freedom to choose the topics they’re interested in and later form a specialty based on the stacked credits they’ve earned. It also prevents schools from monopolizing the choice of subjects or programs the student needs to earn on the way to their diploma, permits students to get on and off learning at their leisure and balance business or personal needs, and even keep tuition from ballooning too high.
A recent study found that adults who finished a stacked credential are likely to earn 7% more compared to non-stackers (EdWorkingPapers, 2020). It can likewise benefit non-white ethnicities, with a study citing that non-white ethnicities earned a quarterly median wage increase of $3,000 (Giani & Fox, 2016) after finishing a stackable course.
Stackable credits allow school administrators to offer their students a more flexible education package—no need for drastic measures like cutting costs or forgiving student loans. Stackable courses will also force these institutions to devote more time and quality to their educational products.
Another way to maximize student success is through the use of a Guided Pathway system. Unlike traditional ways of higher education, Guided Pathways takes a more strategic approach. It uses a structured program map where students are guided at each choice. This prevents overwhelming students with the number and complexity of degree programs.
Another advantage is that it uses data to streamline the program for a student by way of a program map. It can use the same data to monitor the student’s progress. If they’re encountering roadblocks, Guided Pathways can recommend an action plan to improve the situation. This is similar to enterprise platforms called learning management software.
Also, Guided Pathways allows foreign students to experience better higher education in America. While the US has seen a slight dip in students from other countries due to stricter immigration, Guided Pathways can help make their experience more successful and enjoyable.
Guided Pathways also see positive results in other countries that use such a program. This has led to an increase in internationally mobile students. Estimates place a two-fold increase from 2015 to 2030 (Study Portals, 2018). These earlier estimates had been affected by COVID-19.
Due to the pandemic, the number of international students enrolled in US colleges and universities has decreased by 43% (VOA, 2020). Almost 400,000 international students had postponed their studies, most of whom are incoming first-year students, with China still the top source of international students (IIE, 2020).
Source: IIE (2020)Designed by
The traditional age range for higher education is 18–24, but a lot of institutions are looking beyond the norm by trying to attract adults over this age. This is surprising for a lot of reasons. Four-year degree programs have mixed results when wooing post-traditional learners, thanks to outdated practices and rigid teaching methods that do not make much sense to this population. Even so, the National Center for Education Statistics believes that adult learners will increase through 2025 (NCES, 2016).
College student trends 2020 aren’t just about young people. Some institutions are trying new ways to draw adult learners in. One may award credits in proportion to military experience or providing support for activities beyond the classroom, such as counseling and child care. Purdue University, which was mentioned above for its groundbreaking CBE system, has also acquired Kaplan University in late 2018 to further consolidate its online and modularized courses.
Meanwhile, community-college trends are following suit. Some have received federal funding for the Plus 50 Initiative (LFA Group, 2009), which aims to develop programs that those over 50 will be interested in (or find useful).
Income Share Agreements or ISAs can counter student loan trends that are crippling the financial freedoms of young professionals everywhere. In this setup, ISAs allow a student to pay back their college education in full or in part in predetermined increments based on a percentage of their income. This payment scheme is similar to how you would pay for a long-term loan.
ISAs are predicated on the idea that a student should have a great, well-paying job after college. This encourages institutions to be more transparent with how they evaluate a student outcome post-graduation. That means graduates will depend on how their school has evaluated their chances on their field, while schools will also depend on such evaluations to recruit students.
Other countries (or certain schools) already have some form of ISAs. In Australia, for example, some schools offer a government-run ISA (ATO, 2019) that waives paying back a loan until graduates find a stable job or meet an income threshold. Other institutions in the US, such as Make School, only require students to pay back 20% of their income for the first five years after graduation. If they don’t find a job, the loan can be waived.
In an uncertain student market created by the pandemic, ISA can help American colleges to spread their operating budget and provide more assistance to students (NACUBO, 2020).
Community colleges have a bad rep, but they fill an important gap in America’s educational ecosystem. The idea is to earn an associate’s degree in your local community college to find a trade, then use the option to pursue more advanced degrees later. Given how tight most people’s finances are these days, however, this is not only impractical but a waste of time.
This is why a lot of community colleges now also offer full bachelor’s degrees. Originally meant to stave off acute teacher shortage in rural areas, states allowed community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees to students who want to become teachers. These days, community colleges that offer four-year programs also serve locales that are either too far away from a big university or whose households earn too low for enrollment at major educational institutions.
This obviously makes college more accessible and can bridge the educational gap in America’s poorest areas. However, some naysayers believe that this “dilutes” the skill set of the graduates of this program. Whatever the case, ongoing community college trends show that more community colleges are following suit in the coming years. Some even offer completely online courses as a means to cut costs.
According to the AACC, the number of community colleges per type in 2020 is as follows:
Source: AACC (2020)
Massively open online courses are one of the best ways to be educated, especially after formal schooling and higher education. Coursera is one of the leading providers of MOOCs, along with edX and Udacity. 2020 was predicted to see a shift in how students avail of MOOCs in two ways.
First of all, MOOCs will become more flexible. This is something, as MOOCs are already designed to be flexible and open (hence the name). That said, MOOCs were originally envisioned like an online class, with a far stricter schedule and narrower source of materials, specified deadlines, and rigid milestones. This time, however, MOOCs will have more leeway when it comes to submitting requirements and completing courses—and courses themselves will become far shorter.
Secondly, MOOCs will also become more premium, which entails some level of monetary cost—but not from your own pocket. Companies will likely pay for MOOCs that want to fill skill gaps in their ranks. A large multinational enterprise may even create an MOOC platform, such as SAP’s openSAP, where they have total control of the educational materials that their employees can avail of.
The widespread lockdowns because of the pandemic have caused a corresponding significant increase in MOOCs enrollment (The Conversation, 2020). For instance, Coursera had experienced a 640% increase in enrollment, while Udemy gained a 400% rise in enrollment.
Learning management systems are software designed to make a teacher’s job easier. Originally used by companies to train their employees, it’s now becoming more common for a university or a college to utilize an LMS to supplement traditional teaching methods.
And for a good reason: 85% of students (Magda & Aslanian, 2018) feel that online learning, which an LMS can provide, is just as effective as actual classroom instruction.
It’s handy for school administrators too. Such software not only allows teachers to create course content but also track the individual progress of students, their performance, and where they can improve. Plus, because an LMS “charts” the path of a student as they make their way through college, it can work together with a Guided Pathway system to streamline student progression.
Another way an LMS can enrich the student learning experience is by using newer technologies to maximize the application itself. One technique is to incorporate VR and AR. According to Internet2’s 2018 VR/AR in Research and Education Study, 28% of colleges and universities (eCampus News, 2019) are employing VR and AR to supplement learning.
Moreover, looking forward to a post-pandemic world, colleges and universities worldwide are likely to allocate as much as $350 billion to education technology, such as LMS, virtual tutoring, and video conferencing, by 2025 (Paradiso/Research and Markets, 2020).
Institutions of higher education are feeling pressure from both society and the government to adapt to the changing status quo brought about by a pandemic whose culmination remains unclear. This is right as businesses are looking for skills not always taught in colleges or even in universities. To accommodate these changes, these institutions are beginning to turn to outside-the-box solutions.
Depending on how you want to view it, it’s either ironic or apt that the biggest cause of these tectonic shifts in education—technology—is also one of the best ways that institutions can keep up. From utilizing Big Data to better, more engaging distance learning, education is becoming more accessible, affordable, and equitable. And data is the great equalizer, too. Studies show that institutions can save up to 10% by utilizing data analytics.
All these are ambitious projects, and the verdict has yet to come out on whether these ventures are going to succeed. One thing is for sure, however: college is going to be significantly different in the next few years as a likely long-term after-effect of the pandemic. Nonetheless, learning will likely stay the same.
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