Monday, November 23, 2020

Post-Pandemic University Experiences

Last month I interviewed professors, deans, provosts and futurist on the future of higher education, and the university of tomorrow. All of them believe that the Covid-19 global pandemic will change universities forever.  The move to virtual learning environments has forced universities to adapt and learn new ways of operating.  It has also emphasized how much both students and parents crave an in-person university experience.  Both want a thriving social environment involving regular interactions between students, professors and classmates on a university campus in a park like setting with culture, sporting events, art, music, entertainment, class projects, clubs and student governments.  The pandemic, of course, has caused major interruptions to these experiences in 2020, and students are desperate for there to be a return to normalcy, but as we have all come to realize there is a very new and different normal ahead of us. 

Parents have long carried big expectations when they send their kids off to the university.  They want universities to help them transform their obstinate teenagers into cultured, skilled, self-sufficient, educated and responsible adults.  Students, as one might imagine, have some of the same goals, but prioritize them differently.  They are seeking friendships and transformative educational and social experiences.  It is during these experiences that many lifelong relationships and professional networks are formed.  In addition to classroom experiences, a wealth of valuable knowledge and experiences are gained from being coached, mentored and challenged in classrooms and during extracurricular activities by adults and classmates that don't carry the title of parent.

As nice as all this sounds, there were already cracks forming in this experience pre-pandemic.  University enrollment is down.  The debate over the value and economics of a traditional university degree is getting louder as the price of a four-year university degree and the mountain of debt that often comes with it continues to grow.  It’s one thing if you have a high-income job waiting for you that can easily pay your debt off in a reasonable time frame, but many graduates aren’t finding that job waiting for them.  Many find themselves struggling to pay off their student debt, working low paying jobs and moving back in with parents.  Increasingly students and parents are viewing this as a failed model.

In addition to the issues covered above, many students are not traditional university students.  Many have jobs, careers, families or are living far from a campus.  They need greater flexibility and are actively seeking alternative online educational models.

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has hit universities hard.  University enrollment was already down, and now the cash cows of international students have disappeared and revenue generators like sports are being played without paying spectators.  Universities are faced with unprecedented shortfalls in revenue.  Hard decisions will now have to be made about which experiences can continue to be included in a traditional university experience.  The traditional full package of both education and on campus living experiences is starting to unravel.

The traditional university experience will be increasingly viewed as a luxury, desired but not required for higher education.  As increasing numbers of universities offer wider selections of courses and degree options online, students will increasingly choose them.  Increasingly the traditional “university experience” will become optional, and perhaps outsourced to third-party commercial organizations to manage.  University experiences such as study abroad programs are in many cases already managed by third parties.

The pandemic inspired move to virtual classes and hybrid models, where classes are a mixture of virtual and in-person, have provided valuable insights already.  Lectures in cavernous halls can easily move online, but discussions conducted in small classes are best in-person.  These kinds of lessons are rapidly being learned and incorporated. 

Moving more students online, whether fully online or in a hybrid model, may introduce some unintended consequences for universities.  The less time and formative experiences students have on a physical university campus, the more difficult it will be to command loyalty to their university brand.  This will likely negatively impact future recruitment, sports revenues and fund-raising efforts.

Perhaps new organizations and places to gather will form to fill the traditional university experience vacuum.  Failing shopping malls could be repurposed to become next generation university campuses.  A place where students from all institutions of higher education can gather to escape their parent's basement.  These centers could be the epicenter of higher education activities including art, music, sports, games, libraries, bookstores, gyms, entertainment, learning, parties, clubs etc.  A place where the the digital classroom and the physical student come together and relationships and experiences can be cultivated and formed.

Watch all my interviews on the future of higher education here.

Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist | Leadership Strategies at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.