As the world seems to grow smaller but ever more complex, higher education too is changing. A happy trust in “the system” and blithe trip to college for a life-changing experience has long been more myth than reality for many, especially for low income, women, and minorities. Increasingly, students have to be savvy consumers, knowing that higher education is part of a myriad of complex living and learning situations competing for their attention and requiring cost-benefit analysis.

Higher education has become high stakes, and this is not likely to decrease any time soon. Yes, it is still a good deal for most, though the average person takes two decades to pay off school loans. The unemployment rate for college graduates is about half that for people who did not go beyond high school. If a baccalaureate cost $100,000 it would still provide a better than 5 to 1 return on investment over a lifetime of earning.

However, a college education has proportionally increased significantly in cost. If we reduce the services offered by residential colleges, the consequences imperil the enriching social and educational aspects of the college experience and the very people who could benefit the most-low income, women, and people who are Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

Yet we are likely to see a reduction of services in part to make college more affordable, but also in part because students in a pandemic have been much less likely to take advantage of non-instructional services such as those provided by their activity fees, social clubs, and special interest groups. Post-pandemic learners may continue this reduced participation, focusing more on what happens in the classroom, real or virtual. In compensation, higher education will have to make an even greater effort for inclusiveness.

We might see an increase in the community connections of colleges—particularly public institutions for whom it is clearly a dominant part of their “social contract,” with greater internships, partnerships, part-time instructors and other involvement in the community.  A new model of engagement does not mean that the fundamentals of learning will be lost in a sea of pragmatism.

The community is interested in basic skills and the ability to learn, because it enriches the community and is good for the local economy. Area businesses have been some of the biggest champions of basic skills in writing and mathematics because they recognize these as building blocks for skills and abilities (“soft skills” and technical skills). Theoretical knowledge is an important part of applied knowledge, and higher education knows how to impart both. The liberal and fine arts are also pathways to critical thinking recognized as valuable for a nation of employable life-long learners.

The pandemic leads to greater exploration and use of hybrid and other learning modalities; we can expect to retain and employ a larger palette of learning tools going forward. Already zoom-like applications allow greater access to one’s academic advisors, especially for students who are working and/or have parental responsibilities. These applications will continue to improve collaborations among students on group projects, especially those who would otherwise have competing schedules for face-to-face meetings. As the community of on-campus presence shrinks, we will seek to supplant this by growing community virtually and in the neighborhoods where colleges exist and students live. Adding this work to course instruction by faculty will decrease the time faculty have for research in general but will encourage applied research that involves students.

The physical changes – smaller campuses and less physical and carbon “footprints” because colleges and universities have less on-site facilities, faculty, staff, and students – will be one reflection of the many changes likely to occur in this opportunity to rethink what services we provide, who we provide them to, and how we provide them.

The pain of doing this work is the healthy ache of exercise and growth as academia confronts itself in consequence to COVID-19.

— Special to the Press Herald


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