Now that America’s institutions of higher education are beginning to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, a natural question for many is, what now? Will higher education go back to the way it was before the pandemic, or will it be fundamentally changed?
It is tempting to assume that our universities were relatively static until this recent disruption and that with a few tweaks, we can go back to business as usual. While the rapid spread of COVID-19 did require a quick and dramatic pivot to the virtual environment and engendered tremendous budget uncertainties, it is not the fundamental reason for structural changes in higher education in the 21st century. Let’s take a few steps back and look at what was going on before the pandemic.
Online education has been an important component of university offerings since the 1990s. In the last two decades, online courses and degrees have become commonly available at nearly every university in the country. Growth in online education has been driven entirely by demand, not just from working professionals and single parents, but from all types of students who want more flexibility and more options. The pandemic didn’t change that so much as accelerate it.
By necessity, we found creative ways to convert “hard-to-convert” learning experiences like music instruction and science labs to the virtual environment. Now there is more available in the online modality, and the modality itself has more variety with hybrid and synchronous options. As we return to campus this fall, our curriculum will have more versatility with 100 percent of our instructional workforce able to deliver it in any format.
In recent years, shifting demographics nationwide have meant that in most states, the number of high school students in the pipeline is either declining or growing at slower rates. Even before the so-called “enrollment cliff” was looming, competition for students was heating up due to the rising costs of technology (particularly for online education) and other infrastructure needs of the modern university. The recession of 2008 caused many states to make deep cuts in higher education investment.
Institutions sought additional revenue from more enrollment and higher tuition and fees. As the cost of a college education increased, some young people and their families began to question the value proposition of the investment. They no longer take it for granted that a college education will provide upward mobility and a better quality of life, even when statistical analysis clearly shows that it does. Furthermore, due in part to the Internet and changes in communication patterns, our cultural zeitgeist has trended toward immediacy and short-term gain, making a four-year commitment seem like an eternity.
In response to these pressures, institutions like the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have reassessed how we fulfill our mission. We began by questioning traditional assumptions in the higher-education business model. We cannot assume continuous growth of enrollment, nor can we assume that the market will bear a continuously rising price point. We also can no longer assume that all students are ready to commit to a long-term proposition or that everyone needs the same bundle of services.
Thus, we have recalibrated our approach to providing a college education. Though we have always provided quality programs, we are continually assessing the right mix of programs that give students the critical skills they need to be successful in any field, and major programs of study for which there is both demand and need. We know that students need to see the connections to a future career, so we emphasize different ways to connect the dots, including career mentoring, internships, client-based projects and a wide variety of research and field work opportunities tied to potential employers.
We also know that the students we serve come to us at different stages of their learning trajectory, so we must provide multiple entry points as students transition from high school, two-year technical colleges, other prior learning experiences, and for professionals returning to upgrade credentials. The student market is highly varied and expects our offerings to be “unbundled” for greater flexibility. We do this by structuring our curriculum as stackable credentials — smaller chunks of learning that give you a usable credential, but can also be stacked together to attain a traditional college degree.
As UA Little Rock adapts to the new realities of the 21st century learning environment, we have held fast to the importance of community connection for an institution such as ours. Our students still want to connect to us and to each other in a welcoming physical environment. Our industry and community partners want to be involved with us in a relationship of mutual support and enhancement. One important lesson we have all learned from the pandemic is that there is no substitute for meaningful human engagement.
Dr. Christina Drale is the chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.