Shaping Postsecondary Education’s Futures

Topics: Future of Learning

Amidst all the uncertainty we are facing – from COVID-19 as well as from longer-tail technological developments, social shifts, political divides, economic turbulence and climate volatility – postsecondary education has been experiencing a range of trends that are shifting the current landscape and affecting future possibilities. This post explores those trends, looks at some of COVID-19’s impacts and suggests directions for postsecondary education.

Trends influencing postsecondary education

The financial climate surrounding postsecondary education has been shifting. Government funding for postsecondary education has been declining even as students and families have been questioning the return on their investment. There continues to be a push to make postsecondary education more affordable or free, as well as to make it more accessible to the increasingly broad range of students whom it aims to serve and who would benefit from it.

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In the meantime, some new ways of handling postsecondary education finances have been emerging. Among them, income share agreements are helping students reduce the risk associated with student loans by requiring students to pay back some portion of their income for the first few years of employment – but exempting them from payments if they do not find a job. In addition, Online Program Manager organizations are helping some institutions reach working-adult students.

Programmatically, there has been more and more acceptance of online learning, either on its own or in combination with other learning modalities. For example, some colleges and universities are offering portions of degrees online, charging less for that option than for attending in-person for the entire time. In addition, stackable degrees and certificates are becoming more common, enabling people to build toward certifications in a variety of ways that meet their needs. And competency-based education and alternative pathways have been gaining sway as more and more institutions provide credit for work and life experience or enable learners to demonstrate mastery when they are ready instead of taking specific courses.

These programmatic developments take place in the context of changing demands of postsecondary education. Among them, students’ need for well-being and mental health support has been increasing. In addition, more and more students are taking a pragmatic view of their postsecondary education experiences, turning to them for career preparation. Related, there is growing demand for lifelong learning, which some have been speaking of in terms of a 60-year curriculum – the idea that people now need to prepare for 60-year-long careers that will bring them into contact with postsecondary institutions repeatedly during their adult lives.

Importantly, the sector has also been placing increased focus on equity, seeking ways of attracting, supporting and retaining students of color and others who have been traditionally marginalized or underserved by postsecondary learning experiences. The move to place less emphasis on standardized tests in college admissions is part of this focus. There is also a push to identify more holistic approaches to student support spanning many units across campus.

On the technological side of things, institutions are increasingly using data to inform decision making, and artificial intelligence is being used more and more in educational activities such as grading and student support. The increasing role of technologies in supporting or mediating learning experiences is placing more focus on both instructional design and the design of user experiences. Beyond the role that such functions could play in individual institutions, there could be significant competition on the horizon from corporate providers of learning technologies and from enterprise training companies that work directly with employers to fill skills gaps. There could even emerge a ubiquitous learning platform, along the lines of Facebook, that would provide people with learning experiences apart from any specific provider.

COVID-19’s impacts

As this overview of trends shows, postsecondary education was already facing significant shifts before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. The rapid and deep disruptions that the pandemic continues to bring to education and the rest of life promise to accelerate some of those trends while permanently changing some aspects of the landscape in which postsecondary institutions operate.

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As reported by Inside Higher Ed, this past summer, Strada Education Network surveyed Americans ages 18 through 65 to understand the impact COVID-19 had had on their finances, careers and education. Among that survey’s key findings:

  • 65% of young adults aged 18 to 24 had changed or canceled their education plans because of COVID-19
  • The pandemic has had greater economic impact on Latinos and Black Americans than on White Americans
  • It has also had greater impact on Latinos’ and Black Americans’ education plans than on those of White Americans

These disproportionate impacts underscore the importance of making sure that postsecondary institutions are designed to support students of color as we recover from the pandemic.

Directions for postsecondary education

In the context of current trends affecting postsecondary education and the broad era shift that is underway, here are some future directions for postsecondary institutions to consider.

  • Programmatic changes and trends related to lifelong and modular learning that began before COVID-19 are growing stronger and will present long-term opportunities.
  • Online professional and continuing education are likely to provide avenues for institutional growth.
  • Institutions can consider how to foster ongoing connections to graduates as their needs change over their careers.
  • At the same time, focusing on human development and support alongside technical skill development will be important.
  • Postsecondary education institutions may need to differentiate themselves to occupy a specific niche or niches amidst growing competition.
  • New or extended partnerships could help institutions reach students in new ways or bolster the support that they provide.
  • Equity will need to remain a persistent focus as society works toward justice and as institutions work to meet the needs of increasingly diverse student bodies.

We always face uncertainty, but we are more aware of it than usual at this time. That uncertainty opens windows for doing some things differently and makes visible the ever-present invitation to consider both what we want for the future of learning and how we might play an active role in bringing those visions to life.

Three emerging issues complicate the uncertainty that education stakeholders face: leadership focus, contested power and strained systems. Read about them in Education in the Balance.