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How COVID-19 Has Changed Higher Education Forever

The onset of the Coronavirus forever changed higher education as close quarters and socialization suddenly turned universities and colleges into petri dishes.

Almost overnight, higher education faced a point of reckoning. With 100 percent remote learning for the near future, students began to question the value of higher education and delayed or put their college education on hold.

This created immense financial strains as institutions tightened their belts and either furloughed or laid staff off en masse. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Higher education institutions began to embrace digital transformation by automating menial tasks and communicating better through technology.

As we approach one year since the pandemic forced higher ed to embrace remote learning, here’s a look at the short and long-term impacts the previous year had on institutions.

Short-Term Impact

Making information available remotely – Many institutions understood the limitations of how they communicate information the minute that COVID-19 hit. Student Services offices were inundated with requests from parents and students alike regarding whether classes would be remote, social distancing protocols, and building access availability.

With none of this information readily available on the website, higher education dove head first into live chat technology to communicate changes that developed as a result of the pandemic. This advancement was especially critical as students went home or to a destination in order to create a more desirable remote learning experience.

Moving forward, higher ed institutions will need to provide the technology for students to text or chat at their convenience on any question. Even when students return to physical classrooms, universities and colleges alike will have to accept the reality that some students will prefer asynchronous learning.

Providing more transparency – Higher ed will need to be more communicative – and that starts with their website. As the pandemic hit, prospective students struggled to find updated information on financial aid, whether or not admissions departments required standardized test scores, and a host of other questions related to their rapidly changing reality.

Students and parents alike expect up-to-date information, and they want it quickly. With this changing environment, administrators should prepare to be more transparent by spelling out greater detail on public-facing information.

First-generation students may not have the resources or support at home to navigate and understand important subjects that could impact their eligibility. Higher ed needs to create better equity by doing everything possible to make attending an institution feel unambiguous.

Creating better employee accessibility – The pandemic necessitated institutions helping students find other ways to connect with advisors outside of phone and email. Without access to office phone systems, students relied on live chat and automated chatbots as a means to connect with students.

While there is no expectation for higher ed staff to be accessible at all times, the pandemic has made it clear that the days of physical call centers are coming to a close. It has also re-defined office hours.

Rather than dealing with the stress of scheduling office hours for all students who need it, the professor can work with students remotely at a mutually convenient time to ensure his or her success. With this type of arrangement, some of the roadblocks to asynchronous learning that originally caused apprehension, should resolve moving forward.

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

Long-term impact

More competition for higher education – With in-person learning suspended, students elected to take a non-traditional route, either by attending community colleges or opting for a gap year program. In order to be competitive in the future, higher education will need to invest in new programs that meet the needs of an evolving student population.

This means institutions need to think about how they can make education more accessible to students from different walks of life, including communication tools and virtual classrooms. With prospective students being exposed to alternative experiences, many will be reluctant to give that up for a more traditional higher education experience in the near future.

Enabling virtual classrooms – Prior to COVID-19, online graduate programs were slowly gaining popularity as an alternative to in-person learning. Yet there was still healthy skepticism over whether or not asynchronous learning could provide similar value to in-person learning.

Once the pandemic transitioned nearly every university across the country to remote learning, students and professors alike were challenged to make it work for them. Now, with two or three semesters worth of trial and error, institutions will need to take online learning to the next level.

It won’t simply be enough to teach a class over Zoom. Institutions will also need to create personalized learning experiences for each student and even use data to evaluate class-student fit evaluation to ensure students are following an optimal journey.

Growing continuing education – The pandemic has accelerated the need for higher education to scale continuing education. With the increase of students deferring or opting out of college altogether, higher education will need to find new revenue streams in order to stay in business.

As a response to these challenges, flagship universities are creating new, affordable, and highly modular courses providing continuing education opportunities for students. Institutions can attract more students into continuing education programs when the experience of enrolling is intuitive, fast, and simple.

Asynchronous learning offers limitless opportunities to increase class sizes while meeting the most pressing educational needs of the population.

COVID-19 laid bare a long-held belief that higher education needed to undergo a drastic digital transformation. But rather than having the luxury of bringing this change along slowly, the pandemic forced colleges and universities alike to adapt immediately.

Once in-person learning can continue, there is no looking back. While most students will likely prefer being in the physical presence of the classroom, institutions will need to provide greater flexibility and keep up with student preferences.