Did COVID-19 make any positive contributions to higher education?

There has been no shortage of dire predictions and lamentations over the negative impact the pandemic has had on higher education. There is no denying that student enrollment, graduation, and mobility was disrupted last year.

A Pearson Global Learner Survey of 7,000 people, conducted in August 2020, revealed that three, out of every four, global learners believe that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed higher education as we know it and it is unlikely that there will be a return to a pre-COVID world.

The consensus was reached that the world of education is forever changed.

That may not be such a bad thing. COVID-19 ‘s most enduring residual may turn out to be accelerating already existing trends and creating an appetite for change.

The disrupt ability index for higher education is off the charts.

  Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing, NYU Stern School of Business

Since the outbreak of the pandemic over a year ago, higher education executives, administrators, and faculty have had the opportunity to examine the inefficiencies in higher education and because of the disruptions caused by the virus, carefully examine the residuals left in its wake.

After the final chapter is written about the impact of the virus on higher education, the benefits may eventually outweigh the negatives.

COVID-19 has shed a bright light on the following:

Administrative bloat

Rigid enrollment procedures

The two semester academic year

Poor retention rates

Outdated financing models

Competition, not collaboration, between colleges and universities

Lack of alignment between academic credentials and employable skills

Lack of coordination between academic institutions and alternative providers

Technology capabilities

Unbundled functions

Mental health needs of students

Space utilization

Relationship with students before and after graduation

Let’s examine how COVID-19 helped to address and change many of these inefficiencies.

Over the past year students have attended classes both in person and online. They know they can do this. In a March 2021 survey of colleges and universities in the U. S., conducted by Academic Impressions, 39% of respondents stated that their school or department will be increasing their hybrid and/or online programs in the coming semester.

In another survey, conducted in March 2021, by the educational technology and textbook rental firm in the U.S., Chegg , 50% of all students surveyed in 21 countries described their college’s online learning offerings during the pandemic as good and 76% in the U.S. and 65% worldwide said they would prefer their schools offer more online courses if it meant they would pay less in tuition.

The expanded use of technology and a willingness to embrace online learning allowed many schools to teach virtually because that was the only option available. It’s too soon to tell if the hybrid model will increase access to higher education and impact current social and economic inequalities or if the ability to study year round, anywhere and anytime, will improve progression, retention, and graduation rates. But the potential for improvement is real.

Prior to COVID-19, and with few exceptions, colleges and universities were reluctant to acknowledge and award credit to alternative educational providers. 65% of the Pearson survey responders believe that in the future fewer people will seek traditional degrees and will enroll in short courses and self-directed learning in order to obtain employable skills.

Professor Scott Galloway predicts that technology firms will increasingly partner with world-class universities to offer 80% of traditional four-year degrees at 50% of the price.

Richard Garrett, chief research officer for the higher education research firm Eduventures, predicts that certificate programs will continue to grow in the future and coding boot camps will outdo master’s degrees in computer science.

In March 2021, Google announced that its five career certificates will be available through Guild Education, a company that connects employers with education options for their employees.

Google’s career certificates are also available through Coursera, a company that increased the number of people registered on its platform from 46 million in 2019 to 77 million in 2020.

Last year students realized they wanted and needed faster, affordable and flexible higher education options. Colleges and universities realized they could grow their enrollment pie and increase their bottom line by partnering with alternative educational providers and employers.

The pandemic also created a climate for change in the way students are recruited.

Virtual colleges fairs and tours became the new normal. The shift to remote recruitment activities reduced both national and international travel and exposed the inefficiencies of in-person recruiting. Technology has played, and will continue to play, a bigger role in college recruitment and admission. Processes will be streamlined in the future to create a faster and friendlier student-centric experience.

In March 2021, the nonprofit arm of Chegg, surveyed 17,000 students from 21 countries about their mental health. More than half of students worldwide, and three-quarters of U.S. students, reported their mental health suffered during the past year. The pandemic has shown that a re-designed health office, addressing the mental health and wellbeing needs of students will be central in a reimagined university.

Post Corona more positive higher education trends will become apparent. One thing is certain: the pandemic helped to create an environment and an appetite to fixing parts of the higher education system that were broken.

What we experience is change, not time.

Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing, NYU Stern School of Business