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Colleges will survive the fall. The bigger question is how we help students thrive

How can we renew higher education as the surest path to opportunity? How can we make sure that its promise is widely and equitably accessible?

Mishka Palmer waves to the crowd at the Western Governors University summer commencement ceremony at the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 12, 2014.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

We are on the cusp of a reckoning in higher education. As the summer heat reaches its peak, questions about the fall are pressing in, whether regarding safely reopening campuses, the rapid shift to online models, or the COVID-exposed cracks in the economic models of many institutions. Understandably, there is much focus on the back-to-school fall — from kindergartens to graduate programs, there are thorny decisions to balance learning and tradition with the constraints and challenges of the moment. But students also need us to look well beyond the question of how we survive the fall and address the long-term, strategic questions of how students can thrive in American higher education.

America’s colleges and universities have long been the surest pathway to opportunity. At the end of last year, workers with only a high school degree made 60 cents for every dollar earned by a worker with a college degree. College graduates are also more likely to have work: their labor-force participation is 27% higher and their post-pandemic unemployment rate is 25% lower than their high-school-only peers.

But that promising pathway has become increasingly difficult to access. The cost of college has escalated, resulting in a tripling of the nation’s student loan balance over the past 12 years. Completion rates — even over six years — hover near 60%, meaning the odds of progressing from enrollment to the graduation stage are little better than a coin flip, and for low-income and minority students, they are decidedly worse. Black students have a 40% completion rate over six years and only 1 in 4 students from low-income high schools will complete a college degree within six years.

Higher education has been in need of reinvention for some time. COVID-19 will accelerate a future that is student-centered, technology-first and skills-based.

Six months ago, about a third of higher education students were enrolled in one or more online courses. In the spring, nearly every institution in the country was delivering its classes online. This represents a rapid shift in adoption for a sector that traces back to the 11th century and has a slow-and-steady-or-perhaps-never approach to innovation and change. COVID-19 may force institutions to jettison traditional constructs that may no longer serve students well, or worse, create barriers to access and student success. COVID-19 makes it impossible to do things “the way we’ve always done them,” and should push us to think about how we can draw in solutions, including technology, to address the challenges that students face.

Indeed, COVID-19 may catalyze higher education’s shift to a student-centered approach. Many elements of higher education — from tenure to credit hours to lectures on set schedules and even textbooks — are arguably faculty-centered and designed around institutional needs and constraints. In a technology-first approach, the delivery of teaching and learning becomes more adaptable and personalized to individual student needs: Students can progress through material at their own pace, drawing in instructional support when they need it, and engaging with course content at the time and place that fits in their schedule. Such an approach increases the potential for access and increases the probability that every student successfully completes.

COVID-19 is changing the way we learn — and how we work. The labor market has not seen change and displacement at this scale since the Great Depression, and even then, not at this speed. Many of the jobs that have been lost will be lost forever — and new types of jobs will replace them. This creates an unprecedented need for upskilling and retraining. Our educational experiences are currently defined by time: a commodity in short supply for displaced workers and irrelevant to employers. Employers need candidates who have the skills to be successful, regardless of whether acquiring those skills took three months or four years — or where those skills were acquired.

Higher education must begin to speak the language of skills and embed skills within the credentials and degrees that they currently offer — not simply by teaching them within the curriculum, but by enabling graduates to transparently share what they are capable of. We must ensure that students graduate in possession not merely of a diploma that validates time spent, but a clear signal that they have the skills to reason critically, deal with ambiguity, solve problems collaboratively and individually, communicate effectively and engage with the technical challenges of the fields they are entering.

Questions about the fall are hard. But the real questions for higher education that have emerged from COVID-19 are even harder. How can we renew higher education as the surest path to opportunity? How can we make sure that its promise is widely and equitably accessible? How must higher education adapt to meet the needs of learners in this moment? The mission of higher education is unchanged, but the way we deliver it must be modernized. Institution-centric thinking must give way to student-centered design and marking time must be replaced by measuring and signaling learning and skills.

Scott D. Pulsipher is president of Western Governors University.