How higher education might change in 2021

After decades of incremental change and gradual shifts, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the higher education industry into a period of rapid transformation. Colleges and universities spent the better part of 2020 adapting to remote learning, with some more prepared than others, and few fully equipped to handle the numerous impacts of an abrupt and total shift to distanced education.

As we begin 2021 and the start of both a new semester and a new administration, there are no signs that higher education’s rapid transformation will slow down. In fact, this period in history will serve as a catalyst for substantial changes in policy, teaching and resources – many of which have been called for in years past but lacked urgent support. Following the upheaval of 2020, that urgency has reached a boiling point, and will allow for a number of important trends to come to the forefront in shaping higher education in 2021.

Schools will focus on demonstrating education’s return on investment 

One of the biggest discussions brought forward by the pandemic is the role of higher education today. Both parents and students want a better understanding of what they are getting in return when they sign for those tuition payments and student loans – especially when the traditional campus experience no longer seems guaranteed. While colleges and universities will be hoping for additional funding from the next administration to help manage the effects of the pandemic, they will be looking to students for signals on where to best focus that support to demonstrate value.

The priorities for student amenities will be redefined

One of the first places colleges and universities will look to demonstrate that focus on value will be amenities. The pandemic has forced both schools and students alike to rethink what is most important to the student experience, as many of the traditional amenities became unavailable when campuses closed. For many the focus will understandably be on the job market and services that can improve their hiring prospects after graduation. This may include more private/public partnerships on skills programs and enhanced career centers designed to help students, even if they are now out-of-state.

The digital divide will become a focus for diversity & inclusion efforts

Through its Cabinet selections, the Biden administration has already made clear that diversity & inclusion (D&I) will be a key priority for its term. For education, this will mean addressing on of the most pressing D&I issues facing students today: the growing digital divide. Even with the vaccine raising prospects for a return to the classroom, administrators and faculty members realize that some form of online learning is here to stay. This will be an avenue of learning that will continue to be cut off for students who lack access to resources like laptops and steady Wi-Fi. It makes national broadband access not just a matter of infrastructure, but a matter of equity for the low-income and first-generation college students that the digital divide disproportionately affects.

Student mental health and well-being will move beyond the counselor’s office

Addressing student’s mental health concerns will also be a priority in planning for next year. According to one of the recent surveys conducted by the Barnes & Noble College Insights team, 75 percent of students said that COVID-19 has impacted their mental health. In an echo of what we’re hearing with the broader workforce, many students reported feelings of isolation and burnout as they worked through managing their online classes. While many colleges and universities have worked to provide additional mental health services in the wake of the pandemic, they are also recognizing that the well-being needs for this new world of learning goes beyond adding more counselors. Part of redesigning courses for the future will mean incorporating well-being into planning – making teaching methods more adaptable and flexible to students’ mental health needs.

While these trends present new challenges, they also present an unprecedented opportunity to modernize higher education in the U.S. The decisions made today will not just impact the aftermath of the pandemic – they will help to reshape what education looks like over the next five to 10 years.

For the Biden administration, that should be a higher education system that looks beyond the traditional fresh-out-of-high school freshman in its design. One that takes into consideration that more of today’s students are older, working full-time, or acting as caregivers to families. After all, they are the ones who are being most affected by the trends noted above, and who may benefit the most from these decisions.

Michael Huseby is CEO and chairman of Barnes & Noble Education (BNED), a leading solutions provider for over 1,400 educational institutions nationwide.

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