Why higher education must be reinvented to suit the new generation of students

One potential step colleges can take to build around students' dynamic, changing preferences is providing them with government-funded "learning wallets" to customize their academic studies. 

The pandemic was more than an inconvenient wrinkle to higher education. It may have transformed the sector for good, and those that cannot adapt shouldn’t be surprised when they close, according to a new joint report from Ernst & Young and Times Higher Education.

“Are universities of the past still the future?” challenges higher education leaders to consider a scenario where campus-based higher ed never bounces back post-pandemic. As a result, institutions must consider moving past its foundational model of fostering coming-of-age experiences for young adults to a knowledge service whose programs are as fluid as tomorrow’s digital native students.

“The business reinvention that is taking down giants in media, retail and energy is coming for higher education—and it is coming fast,” wrote the report’s authors. “This will threaten the very existence of those universities that cannot adapt to the sector’s new realities.”

The primary drivers of tomorrow’s higher education landscape are demographic shifts due to falling birth rates, geopolitical challenges, changing workplace demands and high student expectations for a quality digital experience. Below are some ways those drivers will manipulate higher education.

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The student of tomorrow is far from today’s

Higher education will have to adapt to a new cohort of students that are older, busier and digitally native. As a result, the way they interact with students will need to dramatically shift.

Soon, no institution will be able to rely on high school graduates for enrollment, as birth rates continue to drop across the U.S. Demographic shifts were a critical factor in the closings this year of Medaille University, Finlandia University, and Iowa Wesleyan.

Additionally, the advent of companies and services opting for a digital model that prioritizes customer convenience and accessibility, coupled with the higher demand for remote online work, will inevitably reach higher education. “In a world of ‘work from anywhere,’ people also want to ‘learn from anywhere,'” wrote the report’s authors.

As industries adapt to a customer-first model, new challenges arise as students inch their way into the driver’s seat. First, colleges must embrace program personalization models that can compete with private sector programs. The report notes that a significant reason private liberal art institutions are failing is that their programs are broad and are not strongly differentiated from others. Secondly, colleges must focus on student engagement through the gamification of online content and leveraging professors’ abilities to inspire and effect critical thinking.

While the report does concede that there may always be a cohort of students who desire the traditional college experience, higher education must leverage what makes student life so unique while cutting out any redundancies, such as providing course content that is subpar to online content.

“We have a whole generation of young people who are more open to online learning and, given a choice, might opt for different formats,” said Soumitra Dutta, a professor at Cornell University. “They might actually want 60% of the class online and maybe 20% in lectures, then maybe 20% through internships or other kinds of experiences.”

Looking ahead

One potential step colleges can take to build around students’ changing preferences is providing them with government-funded “learning wallets” to customize their academic studies.

Take your first steps toward a new future

To help college leaders embark on this intimidating journey, the report poses several questions to help point you in the right direction.

  1. Be clear about your long-term purpose. The future is unclear, so it’s important to define internally what purpose or mission your institution serves. Is it to advance the lifelong well-being of education? To solve global challenges?
  2. Think “future-back” to set your reinvention agenda. Ask, “How will my institution be relevant in one or two decades?” Begin to visualize what the landscape of your institution would look like if the sector consolidates or primarily becomes a digital platform.
  3. Build new value with new capabilities. Innovate your learning model based on customer demand.
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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