Joe Garcia is experiencing the pain of falling college enrollment rates first-hand. “It’s challenging here on the ground because it’s a confluence of events that we’ve never seen before,” he said during an Inside Higher Ed podcast.
Throughout the segment, Garcia (chancellor of the Colorado Community College System) emphasized that higher education leaders face a complex problem with no quick fix in sight.
Between 2019 and 2021, enrollment plummeted 7.8 percent across all undergraduate educational sectors. Over the two years, community colleges lost 15 percent of their students.
The downward trend started before the pandemic; the health crisis prompted a big drop. This was followed by further backsliding (particularly at community colleges) due to the Great Resignation and the improved job market.
As Garcia explained, more people who would otherwise be good candidates for community college were lured away by wage increases for low-skilled jobs. Why invest in a college education that might not pay off longer term when an $18-an-hour job is available right away?
This is an issue that higher learning leaders will be facing longer term. The leaders from the 13 community colleges Garcia oversees are projecting flat or falling enrollment. On top of that, higher education is swimming against a strong demographic current: due to declining birth rates, the pool of traditional-aged college students is shrinking.
Part of the solution lies in targeting a significant factor behind declining enrollment: cost. “More than half of all unenrolled adults report the cost of a college degree is a very important reason they have not continued their education,” states a 2022 report based on a survey of 11,000 students conducted by Gallup and Lumina.
Indeed, when the cost barrier is removed, enrollment trends up. For example, new student enrollment at Maine’s Community Colleges increased by more than 13 percent after the government launched a free tuition program.
Lowering costs for students is critical, and so is boosting the returns: Cleveland Community College experienced a 20 percent jump in enrollment between 2021 and 2022 using a multi-faceted approach that included a data-driven focus on student demand.
When the value of a college education goes up, and the financial burden goes down, college becomes more attractive to many more potential students.
However, higher learning leaders don’t have to wait for a free college program to kick in to start addressing the cost barriers. Forward-thinking leaders are taking a proactive approach and delivering what many students are asking for: fully-remote degree and certificate programs.
While tuition for these types of programs is typically the same as in-person learning, students save thousands on meal plans and commuting costs when they learn from home.
Non-traditional students, such as those already in the workforce, also seek the flexibility of remote learning.
From an institutional perspective, having the capacity to serve students anytime, anywhere also helps uncover new enrollment sources in different geographic areas. Hilbert College, for example, decided to offer online degrees based on the need to reach a diverse and more extensive student population due to a dwindling population of young people locally.
There are pitfalls to avoid, such as tacking remote learning onto a live in-person course as an afterthought. Research firm Gartner cautions against overinvesting in classroom video and audio technology, enabling institutions to teach in-person and remote students simultaneously during the same session. This model impacts the student experience and places a heavy burden on instructors.
Online learning has its fair share of naysayers, and the criticism isn’t unfounded. Done poorly, online learning programs are merely a PowerPoint repackage.
This is where edtech can help provide more dynamic learning experiences. In this blog post, Valerie Wood and Laura Shannon (two instructional and curriculum designers from Queen’s University) take aim at online learning’s critics. They argue that online programs can promote higher-order thinking skills with the right tools and quality online course design that reflects active learning principles.
They also emphasize that tech can take higher education to new heights: “In fact, we argue that in some cases online learning activities can be more engaging and sophisticated relative to their in-person counterparts due to innovative edtech.”
There are many types of tools on the market. With BibliU Universal Learning, for example, institutions can quickly provide students learning remotely with digital textbooks at a lower cost than traditional textbooks. At the same time, instructors can use features to increase student engagement through content interactivity.
Designing remote learning programs that are attractive and cost-effective from a student perspective might seem intimidating at first. Thankfully, trailblazers are already using edtech strategically to deliver the kind of remote learning experience students need and want. Here are three examples for inspiration:
Assessing students as they attend to patient needs or teach a class full of children is challenging in remote learning environments. At the same time, instructors can’t remove these critical evaluations from the course curriculum because they’re often required to prepare students for valuable certifications.
Overcoming the remote assessment hurdle is no longer an issue at the University of Alabama. The university’s instructors use video assessment software from GoReact to assess student-teacher classroom performance. When viewing videos of students teaching, the tool enables instructors to give text, audio, or video feedback synced to precise moments in the recordings.
This way, the university can avoid travel costs associated with remote assessments while delivering the level of personalized service students demand from a solid post-secondary program.
Microsoft Teams and Zoom were the go-to web conferencing platforms for live online instruction during the pandemic. Many institutions still use these tools to connect instructors with students online.
Utah State, however, is going one step further and using Class Technologies as a specialist web conferencing platform. With the platform, instructors can add teaching and learning tools to Zoom. They can take attendance, conduct polls, see non-verbal reactions of students, launch breakout rooms, and facilitate discussion opportunities.
As the above example shows, online learning can be dynamic when instructors are equipped with the right tools. More positive student experiences can lead to reputation-building that boosts enrollment over time.
Virtual reality does more than simply help institutions replicate what students learn in person. In many ways, it can provide students with hands-on learning experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have in the real world.
The University of Northumbria, for example, uses virtual labs from Labster to give students more hands-on time with representations of equipment that are hard to access due to supply and cost constraints. The Labster catalog is vast and features over 250 interactive lab simulations. Students used the simulations as direct replacements for biomedical and biotechnology labs during the pandemic-induced shift to remote learning.
As simulations become more broadly distributed within the higher education system, subjects once thought impossible to teach online are becoming increasingly accessible in the virtual world.
Edtech and college enrollment increases can go hand-in-hand. The right tech helps instructors deliver personalized assessments, conduct dynamic lectures, and provide interactive virtual experiences that build critical skills. At the same time, students learn from a remote location that suits them best. By taking this approach within a broader strategy focusing on student employability, colleges can give students more bang for their tuition buck.
The college enrollment crisis won’t go away overnight, but solutions are within reach.
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