Planning for the Post-Covid Campus

In Brief:

  • The overall student experience as the next stage of student success

  • A continuation of flexibility in the form of hybrid learning and services

  • Thinking of college as continual, not episodic

Blog Post

I’m looking forward to speaking at CampusConnect 2021 later this month about what’s next for higher education after the pandemic.

Covid-19 exposed challenges in higher education that had been festering for years, from the technology infrastructure to the student  experience to the financial sustainability of many institutions. But in the long term, the staggering disruption to traditional higher education and the broader world of work during Covid-19 offers a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to radically reimagine how colleges and universities serve their students and the workforce they’re preparing them for.

For the last 18 months, I’ve been meeting (mostly virtually) with prospective college students, current undergraduates and graduate students, adult learners, as well as faculty and campus leaders. One question I ask all those stakeholders is what changes from the pandemic in higher ed will stick for the long-term? What do they want to stay and what do they want to see return to the old normal?

From those conversations as well as other research and reporting, I’ve started to develop what an approach to a post-pandemic university might look like:

  • The overall student experience as the next stage of student success. Improving that experience by better designing and delivering every interaction and measuring their impact is a way for colleges to ultimately prove their value to tuition-paying families. These day-to-day interactions make up the essence of the “student experience,” which, when it is positive, results in higher retention and graduation, and provides the ultimate ROI of a college degree—and in satisfied alumni giving back to the institution. We know that the best thing institutions can do to create an engaged alum is to ensure an engaging student experience while they have them in their grasp.
  • A continuation of flexibility in the form of hybrid learning and services. Although many students gave low marks to online education during the pandemic, they don’t want to dispense with the flexibility that accompanied their virtual college experience. Students of all ages are increasingly accustomed to a world outside of higher education where they toggle between face-to-face and online experiences (for example, when they shop). They now expect the same whether they interact with classes or services in college. As a result, institutions must be more accommodating and retain the mix of digital or hybrid services they adopted during the pandemic—especially where they resulted in more flexibility for students, and by extension, better engagement.
  • Thinking of college as continual, not episodic. The college campus has long been conceived of as a physical place that a student enters at a particular time in her life and leaves when a degree is completed. But increasingly, colleges and universities are turning into platforms for lifelong, continual education –– to help people keep current in a career, to learn how to complement rising levels of automation, and to gain skills for new work. No longer will students “enroll” then “graduate” and become “alumni.” Those terms one day might become outdated. Instead, learners will have an affiliation with an institution throughout their lives. That affiliation will be social and professional, much as it is today, but also educational. Learners will see colleges and universities as providers of constant, always-on education and training that can be consumed in short spurts much like they use Netflix and YouTube today for entertainment.

Throughout the history of higher education in the U.S., moments of crisis have often led to significant changes in how institutions are operated and funded: the Morrill Land-Grant Act in the midst of the Civil War; the GI Bill after World War II; the Higher Education Act during the Civil Rights movement. The pandemic provides another critical pivot point for higher education and I look forward to our discussion about what’s next.

Jeff Selingo
Author: Jeff Selingo

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