Conference Spotlights Future Higher Education Challenges

Due to its resource offerings, a college campus is a “homogenizing” factor for undergraduate students, according to Georgetown University Provost Dr. Robert M. Groves.

However, that access to internet, technology, study spaces and housing were lost as institutions shut down in-person courses, events and meetings last spring due to COVID-19.

“The pandemic was a shock to everything,” said Groves, who is also the Gerard Campbell SJ Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and Department of Sociology at Georgetown. “All of us had to invent ways to do our work with a completely dispersed constituency of faculty, staff and students.”

Dr. Robert M. Groves

Hosted by Georgetown University, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities’ 2021 Conference on Information Technology Management examined the lessons learned from the pandemic and the current state of higher education.

With the pivot to online learning, many students faced time-zone challenges while others lacked access to laptops and broadband.

In many cases, the pandemic also created social isolation and reduced engagement levels.

In an attempt to create a sense of community, Georgetown plans to host a month-long immersion experience for rising sophomores next week to take courses on campus and engage in social bonding as a class.

Due to fatigue, engagement levels for students dropped near the end of the fall 2020 semester at Georgetown. While graduate students had higher engagement with their online coursework, first generation students demonstrated lower levels, according to a university survey.

“The students in their response sent us messages that the role of the instructor as a key motivator for their engagement is even more important with remote learning than it is with face-to-face learning,” said Groves.

As for faculty experiences at Georgetown, there has been an increase in comfort with teaching remote due to professional development workshops. Additionally, online courses resulted in increased flexibility and learning opportunities. For example, instructors are now able to invite authors of their required readings to speak during their classes online.

Despite this, some faculty members have found it difficult to gauge student reactions and have experienced a greater workload per course to prepare both asynchronous and synchronous content.

Though opinions vary, Groves predicts mental health services, group fitness classes, faculty office hours, advising, research library and financial aid consultations will continue to be offered virtually post-pandemic.

Spencer Endicott

However, clubs social events, religious services, mentoring, certain mental health services as well as faculty and staff team building should remain in-person, he added.

Beyond online learning, higher education faces other challenges including demographic changes, student debt and competition.

By 2025, the number of high school graduates is expected to plateau at around four million. For 12 years after, research indicates a continuous decline.

“As we forecast ahead, most schools probably think that our pool of candidates will continue to increase,” said Spencer Endicott, audit managing director at KPMG LLP. “But unfortunately, that’s just not the case. That’s something that schools are going to be faced with as far as not only recruiting new students but retention.”

Over the past year, COVID-19 has significantly impacted enrollment. In fall 2020, higher education lost around 400,000 students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Additionally, due to border closures and visa issues, institutions have experienced a decrease in international student enrollment.

Student debt also contributes to enrollment declines as individuals have begun to question the value of a post-secondary degree. Currently, there is around 1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt for 44.7 million Americans. Additionally, 75% of graduates from private non-profit schools have student loan debt, Endicott reported.

As institutions compete to recruit students, there is an “arms-race” for the construction of living complexes and innovative sporting arenas.

“We are seeing more and more as far as schools willing to spend money and take out debt to subsidize some of these expenditures,” said Endicott.

As competition within the sector grows, Groves holds “deep fears” around the ongoing financial pressures on small liberal arts colleges—who face closures and merges.

“Those colleges are part of the same infrastructure that we survive in and Georgetown can’t serve the student that was served by those colleges,” he said. “I do have much deeper concerns about a country level viewpoint of higher education.”

To combat the challenges, there is a renewed focus on innovation, increased reliance on partnerships, embracement of online education, expansion of the student population to reach life-long learners, shortened course and degree offerings as well as a focus on experiential learning opportunities.

“Really the industry faces the choice of leaning into the future,” said Endicott. “That includes online teaching and rethinking your model to be more strategic. Or hoping we get back to the past in the traditional higher education model.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected]

Janelle B. Smith

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