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How Will COVID-19 Impact the Future of Higher Education?

Let’s talk about the future of higher education and why it is going to be spectacular. That’s right, I said spectacular! I want to raise your spirits because, even casual observers are stumbling on one of the numerous higher-ed “doomsday reports” and might feel a bit discouraged.

Negative news thrives sometimes, and that information sometimes paints a picture for the future of higher education as a negative one. I do not believe that the future for institutions of higher education is bleak. In fact, 2021 may be one of the best years ever for colleges and universities.

Higher education has been serving a critical role in communities for hundreds of years. Institutions of learning are an essential part of modern life, providing education, workforce development, community engagement, research, and beyond. Universities function as an important part of the mix for successful and productive communities. Throughout the span of history, shifts in population, economic uncertainty, and countless political or social events have no doubt impacted higher-ed.

This impact includes changes in the number of students each institution serves. Data collected in a recent study from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects higher education enrollments will decline through the graduating class of 2022.

But is it accurate to measure the future of higher education simply on the number of students enrolled? Of course not.

Admissions officers are reaching out to help underserved student populations and building new bridges to support more communities than ever before.

The future for higher education could not be better, despite complex societal challenges. However, countless individuals are fighting on the frontlines to reshape higher-ed for the next decade.

These professors’ scholars, educators, administrators, and staff are all working at full speed to address issues such as the economic and digital divide. This movement will no doubt democratize higher education, improving affordability and accessibility for everyone.

While the value of a degree has recently sparked a lot of questions, those questions are centered on the format of educational programs. The value of learning new skills and acquiring the knowledge future leaders need to thrive has never been more important.

All one has to do is look to see universities are now offering modular programs, competency-based education, also reimagining liberal arts and science education. These steps will be a part of the catalyst that transforms education in 2021. Higher-ed rather than retreating is embracing the challenge to rethink how education is organized, and how to best serve students of all generations and backgrounds.

The Future of Education Holds Promise

So, where’s the proof the future of higher education is going to be spectacular? We find it in the very technologies that are now abundant and affordable to help us address and solve the economic and digital divides students face.

Community college students are deeply challenged by affordability and accessibility. Undergraduate and graduate students alike are contending with balancing their tuition investments with their earning potential post-graduation.

Anyone interested in education knows something has to shift. We need to find AI tools that streamline services, save time, and reduce overhead costs to support institutions’ strive for greater accessibility and affordability. The shift from providing manual service and support towards personalized mentorship must happen immediately.

Educators need more time to focus on education and each student. We must teach students to think systematically and to prepare all students with broadly transferable skills and exceptional career readiness.

The more time we spend managing and enduring legacy, antiquated, paper processes, the worse the problem of reaching true service personalization becomes. The legacy approach to higher ed absorbs critical resources and wastes time that institutions could otherwise use to focus on meeting student’s needs. This is not only expensive, but also irrelevant to students of every generation.

As a former higher education CIO, I have seen the tremendous value AI technologies can provide firsthand. AI is here, and can bring about the needed modernization and change universities must pursue to embrace a bright future.