COVID-19 Is Making it Clear that College Students Are, In Fact, Customers
By Ruth Veloria, Chief Strategy and Customer Officer, University of Phoenix
The higher education industry is in turmoil. Brick-and-mortar colleges across the country are going entirely online as COVID-19 cases continue to rise; dozens of lawsuits have been filed against colleges by students seeking tuition refunds after sub-par online experiences this past spring; 20% of Harvard’s incoming first-year class have deferred attending; and experts worry that COVID-19 might dramatically reduce college applications for the 2021-2022 school year. All the while, frustrations with the rising costs of college are coming to a boil amidst one of the worst unemployment crises in history.
There’s no getting around it—higher education has to adapt to these changing circumstances if it wants to survive. Traditional four-year colleges and universities will have their hands full just trying to provide online learning solutions that are effective enough to keep students engaged and optimistic about the degrees they’re working toward. To do so, they will have to learn from the institutions that have been in the trenches, innovating and improving online education for decades.
But while they’re at it, there’s another lesson they can use well beyond the end of the pandemic: start prioritizing transparency with students. It’s time to make a straightforward case for how postsecondary education translates to the employability that millions of students are increasingly anxious about.
College administrators have recognized these concerns for years, albeit mostly in private. But rather than focusing on how higher education prepares students for professional success, many have been content to market the opaque bundle of expensive campus services they provide with catch-all terms like the “college experience.” As tuition costs continue to rise to ever more dizzying heights, this rose-tinted vision is increasingly at odds with how students and families feel about the value of higher education. With the coronavirus forcing schools to provide instruction remotely, the various benefits of the college experience are going to be stripped away. For the first time in quite a while, the effectiveness, value, and post-graduation outcomes of the education schools are selling will have to stand on its own.
In today’s world of light-speed information transfer, knowledge is a commodity, even at the university level. The most successful institutions will increasingly come to be defined not by the knowledge they’re sharing, but by how effectively they deliver it. This is what makes the pandemic-induced online transition in traditional higher education such a pivotal moment. The millions of students who will soon graduate into a historic economic recession will need to feel confident that they can translate what they have learned into career success, as well as an “expanded mind.”
In this vein, colleges and universities need to step up their transparency about what skills their programs offer and how they translate to the workforce. As businesses hire, they increasingly look for employees who can hit the ground running and immediately provide value. This period of uncertainty has offered schools the opportunity to grow, to help teach students how to market themselves, and to evolve the curriculum. All of this should lead toward creating graduates who are more workforce-ready, particular when it comes to the practical realities of today’s jobs. Many graduates today get a rude awakening when it comes to how prepared they are to enter the workforce. This is a complex issue with more than one cause, but lack of investment in relevancy from schools is playing a role here.
This is a tectonic shift in how most schools do business. But it’s far from uncharted territory. There are schools that have shown what successful approaches can look like when it comes to career-relevant skills education and online learning. A select few, like my institution, include making “skills tagging” fundamental to the education journey for students, rather than just an afterthought for LinkedIn. We should soon expect to see more career services departments use AI-powered resources that help match students and graduates with potential careers or entire career pathways. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the yet-to-be-realized potential at the nexus of higher education, employment, and big data.
This sea change can’t come fast enough. The days of working in one field until retirement are long gone. Most adults now go through several career changes in their lifetime, and the need to provide lifelong learning opportunities for working adults will increasingly be the new normal.
For schools looking to improve in this regard, it should all be evident in the classroom. Explore ways to integrate the practice of skills required in the modern workplace into authentic assessment protocols. Revisit whether the old academic transcript alone is still cutting it for graduates, or whether they’d be better served by also having a “skills transcript” to speak for them as they navigate the job market. From there, reevaluate your resource allocation: are you focusing as much on expanding students’ potential career outcomes as you are on prestige-conferring research, funded in part by those same students’ tuition checks? This may be a question that most higher education administrators have long been hesitant to ask, but our nationwide online transition is as good a time as any to finally take the leap.
Ruth Veloria is University of Phoenix’s Chief Strategy and Customer Officer. She leads the strategy, product and customer innovations for the university, driving the continuous evolution of engagement to create the optimal experience for students.