The ideas making the rounds last week at the virtual SXSW EDU conference — usually hosted in Austin, Texas — weren't anything new. Higher education experts and college officials spoke of the need for digital equity, unbundled degrees and better alignment between credentials and the skills employers are seeking.
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, however, these ideas have taken on more urgency. Without accessible and flexible credentials, experts suggested, the country will struggle to meet workforce needs during the economic recovery and well into the future.
"We're at the end of the beginning," said Mark Milliron, senior vice president and executive dean at Western Governors University's Teachers College, during a panel. "We can see now what a path forward is going to look like, but there is work between now and then."
Serving today's students
The pandemic has underscored the need to dispel notions that most of today's college students are fresh out of high school and living on campus. One-quarter of undergraduates are also parents, and a similar portion of those attending four-year colleges are going part-time. Large shares of both full-time and part-time college students also hold down a job.
"The (students) are certainly not who you see in movies," said Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a nonprofit aiming to improve student outcomes, during a panel. "They're not, by and large, playing Frisbee on the quad, going to frat parties on Friday nights and leaving in four years."
Many nontraditional students require assistance with childcare, transportation, and food and shelter to be academically successful, Peller continued. The three major federal coronavirus relief packages require colleges spend a portion of their funding on emergency student aid.
But policymakers should also focus on better connecting short-term training with degrees, a marriage Peller said allows students to "get back to work tomorrow and start a career further down the road."
Eastern Michigan University has taken steps to bridge that divide by building off the state's recently launched free community college program for frontline workers. It is offering participants scholarships to complete a bachelor's degree if they earn an associate degree at nearby Henry Ford College.
Anticipating the future of work
Colleges will need to find ways to serve the scores of workers thrust out of jobs by the pandemic. Yet economists have warned that millions of jobs aren't likely to return once the health crisis subsides. They are urging lawmakers to invest in retraining programs.
Meanwhile, colleges will be tasked with finding short-term programs that help workers land employment quickly and teach skills applicable to many jobs, said Mary Hawkins, president of Bellevue University, in Nebraska, during a panel. "I don't think any of us have a crystal ball around what jobs are coming back," she added.
Colleges can also do more to understand employers' needs. Paul Quinn College, an HBCU in Texas, requires full-time residential students to work between 10 and 20 hours a week.
This requirement enables the school to get employers' real-time feedback on students' performance, said Michael Sorrell, the institution's president, during a panel. "You cannot romanticize what you are accomplishing when each semester we sit down to evaluate the grades that the employers give students," Sorrell said, adding that the process allows the college to make curricular changes rapidly.
Tapping into corporate education is another way for colleges to meet employer needs. Paul Quinn also recently partnered with Guild Education, a tuition benefits platform for large companies, to offer its programs to working learners.
Corporate education appears to be gaining steam. 2U, a company that helps colleges launch and run online programs, also recently joined forces with Guild to allow employers to connect workers with online degree programs from some of its partner universities. Noodle, another online program manager, teamed up with Strategic Education, the parent company of two for-profit colleges, to create a tuition benefits platform. And Arizona State University helped launch a similar venture in 2019.
Continuing to lead through the pandemic
Although the total number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. is much lower than it was earlier this winter, the pandemic is not over. College leaders will need to continue to shepherd their students through the health crisis and its aftermath.
Bennett College, an all-women HBCU in North Carolina, will survey students and employees to learn how many are hesitant to get the vaccine. It is also planning to educate them about the shots.
"(We're) trying to bring that information forward to the community in a way that is, quite frankly, not another roundtable with experts," Bennett President Suzanne Walsh said during a panel. "They appreciate the expertise but they don't want to watch an hour of that." Instead, the college is exploring making the information more accessible, such as by using peer educators.
Some colleges are also focused on reversing recent enrollment declines. Nationwide, about 500,000 fewer students enrolled in college this fall than the year prior, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Texas' El Paso Community College saw a 10% dip in students this fall, William Serrata, its president, said during a panel. Overall, the state had particularly large declines among first-time students, he said.
"That's a real concern, that we have lost the class of 2020," Serrata said.
Officials there are hoping a mixture of more in-person classes and financial aid will help get students to return to campus. "We're moving forward with different initiatives ... to try and get them back for the spring and continue moving forward," Serrata said.