The confluence of emerging digital technologies and a global pandemic have accelerated long-overdue changes in higher education. For decades higher education has celebrated school brands that take great pride in exclusivity reinforced by prohibitive tuitions, outdated admissions and testing processes, and capitalistic endowment structures. The tone-deafness of academia has encouraged the continuing influence of inequitable systems throughout society. However, as higher education relies more on digital experiences and online teaching, students and parents are reassessing the value – and, consequently, the purpose – of higher education.
The value of education is measured by the quality of life it provides individuals and communities. Somewhere along the way, that value has drifted further and further away from the existential purpose and objectives of academia. As higher education became less aligned with its intended value, schools were also charging more money to access the same quality knowledge and resources. This trend of charging inordinately more amounts of money for the same product has created a tremendous imbalance that reverberates throughout communities, from crippling student debt to deepening inequality. In fact, according to NYU Stern School of Business Professor Scott Galloway, "We have raised tuition rates 1,400% over the last 40 years.” With such rampant inflation, something, Stern contends, had to give. COVID-19 helped create that something.
Aligning Higher Education with Real-World Value
Tangible value is a threat to artificially generated perceptions of value. Out of necessity, the global economy is prioritizing real-world skills such as programming and analytical thinking over institutionalized privilege and the manufactured aura of prestige many institutions of higher education have relied on to legitimize charging such exorbitant tuitions. However, as lifelong digital natives, students entering higher education today already possess skills that overlap with and extend beyond the scope of established majors and curriculums. To embrace this reality, higher education should think less like slow-moving academic bureaucracies and more like results-focused technology platform companies.
Change, however, is difficult – and higher education’s response falls into two general categories: moderates, who are internally skeptical and reacting slowly, and progressives, who are quickly becoming agile, online, and global. Harnessing this opportunity will determine which schools are left behind by the future, and which schools thrive. Dynamic, proactive institutions that embrace technology – from large public universities and community colleges to elite private schools and HBCUs – are strongly positioned to make a mark on a global economy that values practical abilities more than the branded mystique of academic privilege.
The End of Standardized Tests and Processes
Employers of the future will prioritize lifelong credentials and ability over educational scores, academic pedigree, and outdated testing mechanisms. Employers realize that, historically, access to higher education was often determined by powerful but nuanced societal forces such as financial status, social standing, and geographic factors – including access to quality education, affordable healthcare, and reliable WiFi and connectivity. Many of these inequities can be attributed, at least in part, to the long-term effects of higher education investing in its own brand equity and students with financial resources instead of the overall health and well being of the greater society.
Spurred on by the pandemic, digital technologies are shifting the power dynamic away from exclusive universities and more toward the people who offer the world, and global economy, tangible value. Technology is broadening access to the knowledge and human capital once centralized by academia and stored behind costly tuitions and standardized testing. Both students and schools, thankfully, are trending toward change. According to Forbes, admissions for the year 2021 will see an unprecedented 1,600 four-year schools forgo including SATs and standardized testing as part of their admissions consideration process, with many more considering eliminating testing entirely from their admissions requirements. Centering resources and protocols around student success also elevate the school’s value and prospects.
With academic transformation, institutions of higher education can transform adverse scenarios such as the student debt crisis, rising tuitions, and misaligned curriculums into positive outcomes for students and employers. Student-oriented initiatives that reduce destructive psychological and financial burdens – including income-sharing agreements, increased access to financial aid programs, and employment opportunities through collaborations with employers – connect student potential and the purpose of education with real-world, long-term career opportunities.
In addition, automated business processes that streamline administrative efficiencies and academic effectiveness can replace outdated transcripts and institutionalized tests that have been historically imbued with implicit bias. The value of a student’s knowledge and acumen will be communicated by lifelong digital credentials acquired throughout their academic and professional careers. As blockchain becomes increasingly integrated into our personal lives, student records will be integrated into holistic distributed ledgers that detail the story and context of a person’s skills and intellectual development.
A student’s academic profile and passions can be traced from kindergarten up through their doctoral certificate, for example. Administrators in higher education will also adapt and use AI and cloud-based systems to centralize admissions and registration processes, coordinate financial resources, and offer students more customized educational support and career counseling. Academia will focus on the overall humanity and potential of the student, and not the bureaucratic benchmarks they’ve fulfilled along the way.
Empathy and The Future of Higher Education
Technology creates transparency for students, teachers, and administrators. As higher education pivots to the emerging needs of students and employers, teachers will play a critical role in understanding each student’s individual talents, challenges, and prospective job opportunities. Traditionally, the core of a teacher’s value was the content and subject expertise they brought into the classroom. However, as digital natives, students have unfettered access to this same information; but they lack the human involvement that is key to contextualizing, navigating, and understanding the knowledge being passed on to them.
Teachers must be adept facilitators who can skillfully connect students to long-term business strategies and critical thinking techniques that drive unique, valuable insights. Empathy will define the student-teacher relationship. Technology and digital platforms will redefine the dynamics of learning as a student’s aptitude and progress are clearly communicated to educators through real-time data and metrics. Teachers of the future will know just as much about their students as their academic areas of expertise. And students desire this level of attention. In fact, a recent PhilonEdTEch survey reveals that more than 80% of students miss interacting with their teachers.
Higher education institutions of every size and structure will feature their teachers as hero differentiators. From traditional classrooms to remote teaching, educators will be authorities in the digital tools and technologies that are rapidly changing how and where students learn. Faculty will represent a school’s commitment to the prosperity of every student, and emphasize the importance of human involvement in shepherding and cultivating young minds and careers.
Empathy will transform teaching into an ongoing and expanding human experience instead of a transactional exchange of money for knowledge. Placing the interests and well being of students first will inherently and positively impact graduation rates and successful student outcomes. A culture of empathy led by teachers will redefine the meaning of an intellectual community and become the hallmark of schools that students consider desirable.
Hybrid Curriculums and Balanced Lives
Hyper-connected students burdened by a constellation of pathways and responsibilities require high-flexibility, hybrid curriculums. As higher education realigns courses and schedules to accommodate changing demographics – from a rise in degree-seeking international students to adults returning to school as single parents or after dropping out – educators and employers are collaborating to offer hybrid curriculums designed to match unfilled job opportunities with qualified graduates.
New WYWIWYG (What You Want Is What You Get) education-training models have schools and businesses forging game-changing partnerships. Toyota Motor Manufacturing, for example, recently invested more than $200,000 in STEM education at local Texas schools and universities to close the skills gap, eliminate training costs, and provide students direct avenues to meaningful employment. Similar partnerships are becoming increasingly popular across the U.S. and other nations.
Disruptions to higher education and learning will have profound consequences as students attempt to recalibrate their time, routines, and energy. No amount of education is successful unless students have a healthy balance of body, mind, and spirit. Students worldwide are suffering from mental health issues – such as anxiety and depression – and lack the ability or resources to balance demanding curriculums and stressful career development goals with other key human needs.
Mental exhaustion must be offset with physical activity and connections to greater forces such as nature and our surrounding communities. The rush to online learning and remote classrooms in a post-pandemic world left little time for an organic evolution of habits and behaviors that have an impact on our larger relationships and connections to society. Bharat Anand, Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard University, explains, “Replicating the community aspect — the student-to-student and the intergenerational interactions — of a campus experience is surely one of the most important, and perhaps the most challenging, pieces to replicate in the online space.”
Ultimately, higher education institutions and empathetic teachers must communicate the importance of balance, and reinforce that claim by integrating the arts, physical activity, and appreciation for the magic of life into everything they teach. This unique moment in human history – where technology and academia are so aligned – presents schools and educators with the opportunity to restore the true value of higher education. Learning, after all, is about improving one’s life, community, and engagement with the universe.
Bharat Anand, Harvard Business School