Over the past few years, alarm bells have been sounding about the decline in enrollment across higher education.
As of spring 2022, enrollment for undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. dropped 4.1% from the same time the previous year. This is in addition to the 3.5% drop seen in 2021, totaling a decline of almost 1.3 million students over the past two years.
While the National Center for Education Statistics predicts enrollments will begin to climb again over the next eight years, other red flags keep popping up when it comes to higher education meeting the needs of today’s learners.
Research conducted by Public Agenda found that almost half of Americans struggle to see the benefit of postsecondary education surpassing its costs. This was especially true for the next generation of learners who had yet to earn a degree. The research also reported that 66% of respondents found higher education to be outdated and unable to meet the needs of current students.
Different research by Morning Consult found that only 41% of Gen Z adults trust universities, while 35% said postsecondary institutions in the U.S. would have to earn their trust.
The interest level of teens wanting to complete a four-year degree is declining. ECMC Group surveyed over 5,000 students aged 14–18 over five rounds of research between February 2020 and January 2022.
The resulting study, “Question the Quo,” discovered that in May 2020, 71% of respondents were considering a four-year program, and that number dropped to 51% in January 2022—a 20% decrease. The research also found that half of respondents would consider something outside of the traditional four-year degree, and 33% of respondents are interested in their postsecondary education lasting two years or less.
This new research shows that while the traditional student still exists, they have also evolved to include new, different student types. Dr. Anne Khademian, executive director at The Universities of Shady Grove—an institution offering 81 degree programs for undergrad and graduate students from nine public universities in Maryland—sheds light on a new student type that she’s coined as fluid students.
So, what gives? Only so many fingers can be pointed toward the pandemic before it’s time to step back and take a holistic look at how and why higher education may be failing our future generations. And more importantly, what changes are institutions making to ensure they’re still relevant to and trusted by forthcoming high school graduates?
While there are a variety of angles to approach the changing nature of higher education, three overarching themes will be explored here on how to bring back the appeal of postsecondary education to the youths of today:
- The mental state of students—While the age-old adage says students need to be college ready, the tables have turned. The onus is now on colleges to be student-ready, to see their learners as more than just academics but as people.
- Career-focused education—To show the worth of the costs of higher education, students need to be taught the skills to start a career after graduation.
- Teaching with technology—Online learning is more than just a trend—it’s become a standard in modern education. It provides learners with more autonomy and the chance to be active participants in their academic journey, and it opens the door to progressive learning opportunities, such as virtual reality.
The Mental State of Students
Starting college can be an exciting time for new high school grads. For many students, it’s the first time living on their own and their first real taste of independence. But after the excitement wears off, sometimes anxiety can set in. Navigating a new place, way of life and learning can be intimidating.
That’s why it’s important for postsecondary institutions to consider the whole student who accepted their offer of admission. They’re not just a dollar amount contributing to the school’s success, but a person who has depth, emotions and needs.
Student Mental Health Support
According to the 2022 Sallie Mae report “How America Completes College,” almost one-third of the more than 500 students surveyed said mental health issues contributed to their decision to withdraw. A total of 14% said mental health reasons were the main influence on their decision to leave college.
Viewing students solely as academics is unfair. While studying is a large part of their student journey, providing them with the right resources to thrive in a college setting can help build trust between prospective students and postsecondary institutions.
More and more campuses are implementing student affairs offices aimed at monitoring student success based on their health, including their mental state. Resources are being dedicated to making sure students have access to help they might need, when they need it.
Many schools, like the University of Washington, offer an online screening tool for students who want to assess their mental health.
Taking it a step further, other schools have full lists of on- and off-campus resources available to students who are struggling with their mental health, depending on what is ailing them.
The University of Toronto has a website dedicated to providing students with detailed mental health resources available both online and offline.
Simply acknowledging student mental health as a topical problem won’t cut it anymore. Time and money need to be invested in providing students with access to tangible tools to protect their mental health. Colleges and universities need to continue to address the whole student, not just the academic, in order to build and maintain trust with future generations.
Understanding the Whole Student
Another factor that should be taken into account when considering the whole student is course design. With the rise of blended learning, using a learning management system (LMS) that strategically uses student data is beneficial for all parties involved.
An LMS like D2L Brightspace can use student data to identify at-risk students whose grades are slipping or who haven’t logged into the system in a while. Automated nudges can be created to help reengage them with their coursework.
The power of partnerships forged with your LMS can also help support the whole student. For example, D2L partners with Discourse Analytics, a company that prides itself on using data over demographics to engage with students on an individual level to meet their academic and wellness needs.
Using data provided by the LMS, the Discourse Analytics Digital Counselor™ platform can create personalized nudges to improve learning outcomes. Students aren’t considered demographically but on a more personal level. This information can be shared with academic advisors who can see how and why a student may need intervention and allow the advisor to create a plan to get them back on track.
Alternatively, student data pulled through the LMS can help inform course design as well. Students can’t be customized to meet course design, but instructional design can be adapted to students.
Students can’t be customized to meet course design, but instructional design can be adapted to students.
The LMS support team can use data to help determine student personas and their learning habits in order to put the student first when designing a course. For example, D2L offers learning strategy consulting (LSC) services that can create tools that dial into the student mindset. These teams look at the big picture to understand who the course is being designed for and optimize it based on their learning personas. The LSC team looks at who your institution considers to be your learners, what they need and their learning journeys. With this information, they suggest strategies for data that can be inputted to Brightspace so your institution can get the data needed to improve upon teaching and learning processes.
When you take the time to consider the whole student, courses can be optimized to increase success and address the mental health of learners.
Almost one-third of students in the U.S. have college debt. The average student loan debt in 2021 was $40,904 and upwards of $50,000 for Black and low-income students.
In recent research by Public Agenda, 67% of Americans said there are many people eligible to attend college but many can’t due to the steep cost of education.
The cost of education is an obvious financial burden but can also lead to further implications for the mental health of students taking on these massive debts.
Public colleges rely on tuition and student fees to keep them running and to be able to provide students with the services they deserve. However, the respondents in the Public Agenda research felt strongly about certain options when it came to making public postsecondary education more affordable:
- 86% support colleges being more transparent about the amount of debt students can incur
- 77% thought state governments should offer interest-free student loans
- 63% support waiting to charge tuition until after students graduate and start earning an income
- 69% agreed students should pay back loans based on a percentage of their income after finishing college
Student mental health can be impacted in a variety of ways, including through finances. Being clear about the cost of postsecondary education and providing feasible options to afford schooling can help foster trust between incoming learners and institutions.
Part of the college experience is having fun, trying new things and learning more about oneself. However, with such a hefty price tag, learners have high expectations of their job marketability upon graduation.
Research in the ECMC Group study “Question the Quo” conducted in September 2021 and January 2022 found that Gen Z teens had concerns over finding a career after college.
Research found that of those Gen Zs surveyed, 89% said changes need to be made in higher education to improve career readiness. This isn’t surprising, as 40% of respondents considered not being job ready after graduation among their top-three concerns.
Aside from making changes to affordability, respondents listed the following as their top recommendations:
- 26% want to see more opportunities to get work experience while in school
- 27% want clear information on their job prospects after graduation
- 32% want to be prepared to enter multiple job paths after their studies
With our future learners already identifying career-readiness concerns, steps need to be taken to ensure they’re being set up for success.
Experiential or Work-Integrated Learning
One way job readiness is and can continue to be incorporated into higher education is through what many institutions call experiential learning.
Experiential education in higher education, as defined by John A. DeGiacomo, former manager of the Student Placement and Cooperative Education Centre at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, “refers to curriculum options that recognize learning experiences outside the classroom and which integrate these off-campus experiences into an academic program.”
Some examples of experiential learning include:
Research done by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that work-integrated learning held many potential benefits for students. The ability to explore career options and better understand if their course of study was a good fit based on actual career experience were among benefits cited by staff and faculty. Building up a résumé, networking and finding opportunities to land a job while still in school or after graduation—with a better starting salary—were other highlighted perks.
Dev Degree is a program created by a partnership between Shopify and several Canadian and American postsecondary institutions. The program admits between 20 and 30 computer science students each September as they start their degree programs.
What makes this program different from other co-op or internship offerings is that while students are studying at their school, they’re also working at Shopify.
“Our students work part-time at Shopify as they take their computer science classes at school,” said Alison Evans Adani, senior program lead of Dev Degree. “At Shopify, they take an eight-month training path, and then they’re put on development teams. They’ll have three or four different teams they work on at Shopify, and they’re earning academic credit toward their degree for their work.”
Earning academic credit for the work they do at Shopify often allows Dev Degree students to graduate sooner—within three or four years—while also gaining over 3,800 hours of real-world work experience.
The program helps students apply theories learned in class to their work and use their work experience to accelerate their learning.
“We hear from our students that they’ll learn something at school, and then they’ll have an opportunity to get their hands in and work with it possibly during the same work period,” said Evans Adani. “We also hear that they may have an opportunity to explore a technology first before they learn the theory, which means they’re able to explore the theory more quickly, get deeper into it and really appreciate what they’re learning in class.”
Aside from technical skills, students in programs like Dev Degree also learn how to function in a workplace before graduating.
“We call them foundational skills: how to work on a team, how to reach out to teammates for help, how to work with other teams in an organization. Those are very useful skills that, combined with the technology and the skills they’re learning, really help accelerate their careers,” explained Evans Adani.
After seeing three cohorts of graduates, the success rate of Dev Degree students landing jobs after graduating is very high.
“Over 90% of those graduates have stayed on at Shopify as full-time developers, and 100% of graduates have received job offers to work full-time as software developers within six months of graduating, which is an industry benchmark,” said Evans Adani. “We’re seeing 90%-plus retention rates of those students as they work their way through the program.”
What’s more is that Shopify covers successful applicants’ tuition and offers competitive compensation and vacation time.
While Dev Degree may serve a small portion of students, the model on which it’s based can be replicated in other disciplines to support career-readiness among students.
College-to-University Transfer Programs
In some cases, partnerships have been forged between colleges and universities for students who want to transfer credit between academic institutions. Some of the benefits of these programs include:
- options for students who want to change programs and not lose credit
- saving time and money by getting both a diploma and a degree in less time
- gaining the perks of learning different skill sets while in college and university
The province of Ontario in Canada has a robust transfer program with public institutions. The Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer has stated that over 60,000 students use these agreements yearly to transfer credits. In Ontario, there are over 1,900 pathways available for transferring credit.
The Universities at Shady Grove has nine different university partners that offer a total of 81 degree programs. Dr. Khademian thinks these partnerships present a beneficial challenge that can help create a new model for transfer or pathway opportunities, so students with different needs and wants can move more fluidly between institutions and programs.
“We are a regional higher education center, so we have nine different university partners who offer 81 degree programs. Our challenge here is how can we become a hub of innovation for the university system of Maryland in order to experiment and take advantage of nine university partners working together. To figure out what new pathways look like for students and how we fill those pathways and what kind of on- and off-ramps there are for those pathways.
“Experimenting with how we build student services into the academic experience. We think that takes the form of career readiness, but it’s got to be very intentional,” said Dr. Khademian. “How can we work to, in our planning efforts, wed those two together so that there’s that kind of support for students throughout their pathway experience. How can we go from planning for degree programs to planning for pathways?”
With a growing number of nontraditional learners, it’s important to offer different ways to earn an education—ultimately leading to career success—that align with varying lifestyles.
While there are many definitions of what a nontraditional student is, Dr. Khademian describes what nontraditional students look like at The Universities of Shady Grove.
“The ones that we’ve been focused on identify as students who work; they’re a little bit older than the median age for a traditional student. They oftentimes have family responsibilities, often first in their family to go to college, often financing their own education. So it’s a little bit of a more expansive category. But at least about 74% of students in higher education today meet a lot of those criteria.”
In the first episode of Teach & Learn, D2L’s podcast for curious learners, Dr. Thomas Cavanagh, vice provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida, shares his thoughts on how different learning modalities can help improve retention by adapting to nontraditional student lifestyles.
“Students can pick and choose their modalities to suit their specific needs in any given semester. For example, we have students who take a face-to-face and online and a blended course all in the same semester, and they might even take also a course in one of our regional campuses,” described Dr. Cavanagh.
[Students] kind of swirl between modality and location, according to their own particular needs. By giving them that kind of choice, they have some agency over their pathways that we think really helps with retention.Dr. Thomas Cavanagh, vice provost for digital learning, University of Central Florida
“The next semester, maybe their work schedule changes, or grandma gets sick and they have to go fully online. Then the semester after that, the work schedule changes, and grandma is better now, and so they can come back on campus and take classes here. They kind of swirl between modality and location, according to their own particular needs. By giving them that kind of choice, they have some agency over their pathways that we think really helps with retention.”
Offering access to education throughout the lifespan is a great way to provide opportunities for individuals to learn new skills and sharpen old ones.
In the U.S., research has found that 92% of organizations offer their employees education benefits like tuition reimbursement. For Gen Zs who might not be interested in a traditional academic journey, companies that offer continuing education perks can become a choice employer.
Continuing education offers the option for learners to take advantage of micro-credentials, the ability to prove achievement of a skill in one area of focus. You can earn a micro-credential on its own or, in some cases, stack them to earn a larger credential in the long run.
Dr. Khademian believes that deeper engagement between higher ed institutions and businesses can lead to more empowered choices for students, which includes stackable credentials.
“What does it look like to be able to do four courses here, five courses there, another course here and put them together?” said Dr. Khademian. “What’s the framework for doing that in a way that empowers student choice, gets them somewhere they need to be, and they can do it in pieces or incrementally or more fluidly as opposed to having to do it all at once or all in one semester? I think those are some of the implications of that focus on career readiness or on giving meaningful employment.”
With the needs of the next generation of learners changing and moving away from traditional degrees, having options available that appeal to nontraditional learners is key. Thinking outside of the box about continuing education opportunities is one way to adapt to the changing needs of today’s learners.
Engaging Students by Teaching With Technology
The next generation of learners is looking for ways to make themselves more marketable upon graduation.
In a traditional classroom in higher education, the professor lectures while the student takes notes. Students meet in tutorial groups to discuss larger themes and complete projects, assignments and quizzes.
While these tasks help to form critical thinking and communication skills, it’s important to start considering how these formal methods of teaching can be enhanced to instill more marketable skills students can use to apply for jobs after graduating.
In May 2021, Mursion—a company providing virtual reality training across several industries—surveyed over 400 human resources (HR) professionals as well as 400 recent college graduates. The company’s goal was to discover what kinds of skills were desirable in the current workforce and where a skills gap existed. Some of the key findings from the report included:
- 61% of graduates didn’t feel ready to start a career
- People skills are favored over hard skills by 44% of HR professionals
- The most favorable people skills are teamwork and collaboration, and 40% of HR reps thought new hires were missing these skills
- 93% of grads and 74% of HR professionals thought higher education should incorporate more chances to gain people skills
One way to help higher ed students grow a more robust skill set is by introducing technology into the classroom. Colleges should start to change the traditional classroom experience and experiment with using technology in the classroom to help close the higher education skills gap.
Blended Learning in Higher Education
Blended learning in higher education—in the most basic sense—is combining in-person learning with online learning in a complementary fashion. Educators must combine the two modes of teaching to deliver courses in the best way possible, not view online learning simply as an add-on.
Incorporating online components into a course can help create new avenues for engagement among students. Your LMS should offer several options to help your students engage with one another.
Discussion boards are a great place to apply knowledge gained in the classroom. Faculty can ask students to post questions based on readings and to comment on each other’s posts to create discussions. Students can learn people skills by collaboratively discussing their opinions with one another in a respectful way.
Incorporating video into the online portion of a blended course is another way to help faculty and students connect with one another. An LMS like Brightspace offers several ways to forge connections through videos to help build people skills:
- Virtual classroom—Faculty and students can connect for instruction, assessment and feedback using a virtual classroom. Students are given more opportunities to connect remotely to help improve their communication skills.
- Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Zoom—These three online platforms create a digital space for faculty and students to connect virtually. Whether through office hours or meetings between students, including more opportunities to interact can help improve people skills.
- Video assignments—Asking students to complete video assignments helps them build confidence in their communication skills.
Dr. Noorin Manji, sessional instructor for Sociology and Legal Studies at The University of Waterloo, sees the benefits of incorporating blended learning functions like video in the classroom.
“In the past, our approach to teaching revolved around traveling to the campus to teach our classes and grade student assignments. When COVID-19 hit, we had to go 100% remote,” said Dr. Manji. “Now, we have the flexibility to bridge the divide between in-person and remote learning and to offer the best of both worlds, especially depending on the type of course and the content it entails.”
For example, Dr. Manji offers video assignments to all her students with the reward of engagement points. While it can be intimidating to present in front of a group of peers, the one-on-one video assignment option gives students a space to feel comfortable while practicing their communication skills.
Using Tech to Build Trust With Students Through Choice
Another way tech can be used in higher ed to appeal to skeptical Gen Zs is through the choice it provides learners. For potential applicants who may not trust higher ed institutions, showing students the way tech can give them the power of cocreation can build trust.
Dr. Tom Cavanagh, guest speaker in episode 1 of the Teach & Learn podcast, commented on how asynchronous learning opens higher education up to cocreation opportunities with students.
“During the pivot to remote instruction, I got more than a few letters from parents that either came to me or were forwarded to me through the president’s office, complaining,” said Dr. Cavanagh. “We increased our offerings and we had a variety of different modalities, but one of them was our typical high-quality asynchronous courses facilitated through the learning management system.”
The University of Central Florida has a history of offering these course types and was able to increase sections to meet student demand, leading to many students taking an asynchronous course for the first time.
“Some of the parents’ complaints were, ‘The faculty aren’t teaching my child. They’re teaching themselves,’ without understanding the constructivist instructional design that was built into [the course].
“The cocreation of learning is much more effective than a kind of passive sit-and-watch a video, which is what their mental model of learning is. I sit and you talk and if you can’t do it in person, do it online.”
In the end, Dr. Cavanagh explained the cocreation of learning—having students work with their instructors to design their learning—to the fearful parents, getting responses from some who were thankful for the explanation.
Another way technology grants students more freedom is through LMS features. An LMS like Brightspace offers users the option of using release conditions in courses. When release conditions are used for assignments, instructors offer a personalized learning experience by providing a choice between assignment types.
See how instructor and Brightspace user Lindsay Shipman uses release conditions to allow her students to choose between assignment types:
Ungraded quizzes and practice features in an LMS are another way to switch the dichotomy of power from the instructor to the student. Students can practice the skills they’ve learned whenever and wherever it suits them without the pressure of being graded.
Automated feedback, like students receive through Video Assignments in Brightspace, furthers student independence and power. The feedback is more informal and gives students the responsibility to adjust their future work based on the feedback on how to make it better.
Through self-timed practice and automated feedback, students can refine their skills and better prepare for formal assignments and tests.
The Role of Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality in Higher Ed
One way to make higher education more exciting is by incorporating cutting-edge technology. Tools like artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to enhance blended learning. Some institutions are even using tech to literally go beyond the traditional classroom by incorporating virtual reality (VR).
A survey by McKinsey & Company in November 2021 revealed insight from 600 faculty and 800 students from public and private nonprofit institutions in the U.S. on eight different kinds of tech used in classroom learning.
The survey found that while higher ed institutions want to adopt more tech, 43% of respondents said a lack of awareness prevented them from doing so.
If colleges want to continue to attract talent and reinforce the value of higher ed, they need to stay on top of tech trends and find ways to incorporate them into learning.
As mentioned previously, the faculty at the University of Waterloo have incorporated Video Assignments into their courses. This Brightspace feature allows students to record themselves presenting and have their audio automatically transcribed. The AI built into the system provides automated, targeted feedback for students to improve their communication, including:
- analyzing the text to determine clarity of speech
- highlighting the number of filler keywords
- assessing speaking rate over time
AI features built into your LMS can also make your institution more accessible to all students and offer more diverse information intake options for different learning styles.
Any videos uploaded to Brightspace can be automatically closed-captioned, including audio in multiple languages, and the files can be transcoded to stream on any device. These features make learning equitable for learners with different abilities, as well as those who may not have access to the latest smart devices.
Many LMSs may also have functionality to use AI to identify at-risk learners. In combination with predictive analytics and visual dashboards, AI helps instructors using Brightspace see if any of their students are off track. Analyzing trend indicators week-over-week can also help instructors know when to intervene with more support at the right time.
The McKinsey & Company survey found that 37% of student respondents were “most excited” about seeing VR being used in courses.
In 2022, Meta—the parent company of Facebook—announced its Meta Immersive Learning initiative: an investment of $150 million “to help develop the next generation of metaverse creators, fund high-quality immersive experiences that transform the way we learn and increase access to learning through technology.”
Part of the initiative is a partnership with VictoryXR and 10 U.S. higher education institutions to make digital twin campuses, more lovingly known as “metaversities.” These virtual metaversities will include the school grounds as well as the outside and inside of campus buildings.
For the 10 chosen colleges, Meta is footing the bill to create the digital twin campuses, as well as providing the VR headsets to participating students free of charge. The colleges are responsible for paying the licensing fees for students to access the software.
According to VictoryXR, metaversities allow for an enhanced online learning experience, including:
- “hands-on” learning
- virtual meeting spaces for students
- additional training and practicing through lab simulators
While the McKinsey study found that students are excited about the potential VR holds, and that 88% of students thought it holds great entertainment potential, a mere 5% thought it would actually help them learn more.
However, Morehouse College, one of the 10 chosen metaversities, has seen improvements for students participating in the VR program, including higher grade averages and better attendance.
Dr. Muhsinah Morris is the Metaversity director and an assistant professor at Morehouse College—a private, liberal arts institution with a historically Black population of all males—in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I felt like if [students] don’t have cutting-edge technology, then they’re behind the eight ball when it comes to going to graduate school or professional schools, and they’re competing against a global society now. It’s no longer just the people in your neighborhood, community or country,” said Dr. Morris. “We’re in the digital world, so for me, it was like we can’t just stick to the basics. We’ve got to innovate in the classroom. We’ve got to transform the way these students learn.”
Incorporating VR into the curriculum at Morehouse was considered during the pandemic as a way to keep students engaged while learning online. Since returning to the classroom, the use of VR at Morehouse has persisted and yielded a variety of benefits for their learners.
“When we added virtual reality, we saw increases across the board. Student grades increased, student engagement increased,” said Dr. Morris. “Their essay grades also increased. Their writing became fuller, more descriptive. We also saw that student attendance rates increased by 10 percentage points. That was really telling because if you can get students to attend class, be more engaged and be excited about learning, then you do see achievement increase.”
Dr. Morris attributed higher engagement rates to the immersive nature of studying through VR.
There has been pushback about the accessibility of VR for students, due to its bigger price tag. Dr. Morris considers grant writing and mirroring current computer lab models as a way to make VR more feasible.
For Dr. Morris, VR goes beyond creating student engagement to foster an environment of inclusion for students.
“It has restored hope that students have better opportunities to be able to create generational wealth as the first in their family [to attend college],” explained Dr. Morris. “We are a historically Black college, but we’re the only all-male Black liberal arts college. 2,200 young Black men who will be heads of households and pillars in the community have access to cutting-edge technology to be able to develop and create a new sustainable world where they’re included, where they’re not begging for a seat at a table. They’re able to build that table, and they’re able to create equitable outcomes for themselves, for others. And that, to me, is exciting.”
Proactively Pushing to Show the Value of Higher Education
The future of higher education needs to focus on the needs of today’s learners and colleges becoming student-ready institutions.
From focusing on the whole student to ensuring students are career ready to creating fluid pathways for students to achieve success, new models of how to approach higher education need to be developed and expanded.
We need to move from being reactionary to already having the models in place to help future students succeed.
“That’s the space we need to be in, thinking creatively about how we do this and how we can center the student experience, as opposed to the institutional experience,” said Dr. Khademian. “We help students across landmines […] how do you get from high school to community college and a community college transferring into a four-year institution, and there’s all these financial and transfer landmines and gaps. And we do a lot to try to support students through all that process, but why can’t we just figure out how to build it better in the first place?”