Today our blog author, Todd Zipper with Wiley University Services, highlights trends that are impacting higher education and shares research insights to help illuminate how the ecosystem of teaching, learning, students, and employers are evolving and responding. Thank you Todd.

The evolving landscape of higher education is increasingly dynamic, especially with technology accelerating, talent deficits, and the lingering pandemic. Education is being changed instead of remaining the mechanism for changing the world. Wiley University Services has been observing and analyzing these trends and Todd Zipper, Executive Vice President and General Manager, shares findings below to help inform and examine higher education’s place in society and where it is headed.

It Starts with Career-Connected Education

One part of education is trend-proof — it transforms lives. However, the results that learners want are different today than before the pandemic.

More than ever, learners demand career-connected education. It’s a way to increase your university’s role in getting learners job-ready and equipping them with the skills employers genuinely need.

Providing a career-connected education comes down to outcomes. From the learner’s perspective, outcomes often center on vocational goals, such as securing a job, earning a promotion, or switching careers.

The word "skills" written on a black chalkboard in white chalk.

What lays the foundation for helping learners achieve these goals? Research and partnerships with employers. Institutions must consistently monitor the current and future skills employers need and communicate with employers to understand what they need today while planning for what they’ll need tomorrow. When you do, what students learn in your classes will always be relevant to their careers and the institution can develop upskilling programs in emerging fields.

Of course, the skills that learners need aren’t the only things changing. The ways they seek those skills are also in flux, and the pandemic is a primary catalyst.

The Pandemic is Transforming Online Learning

When we conducted our Voice of the Online Learner study in 2021, one statistic stood out from the rest. Of the 3,000 learners we surveyed, 33% hadn’t considered studying online before the pandemic.

Is this a bubble that will pop when the pandemic recedes? Or did it accelerate an existing trend? Answers to those questions remain to be seen, but newcomers to online education have different traits than the “old school” population. The research shows that new learners are:

  • often younger,
  • more interested in undergrad programs,
  • looking to start careers, not make a change, and,
  • less likely to work full time.

How can you entice this emerging student population to your online learning programs? Accepting transfer credits remains a draw; however, these newcomers often prefer synchronous classes to asynchronous formats. They also ask for more assistance and services than older online learners.

When you look at the entire online student population, you’ll see something positive: most are lifelong learners. For instance, 79% would take classes online again, and 63% would seek another degree online.

These statistics are excellent indicators of online learning’s longevity, but what do they mean for academic programs? Here are some considerations:

Motivations vary by industry

Learners interested in online nursing programs have different motivations and needs than business professionals joining an online MBA. By conducting ongoing market research, you can understand — and design programs for — learners in various industries.

Meet expectations for affordability

Our research shows that 55% of students feel affordability is the most important part of choosing an online program. Even so, only 33% pick the program with the lowest tuition. This contrast sheds light on how learners define affordability. This means that your prospective students don’t want a “cheap” degree. They want a good value.

Tap into tuition benefits

Partnering with employers helps identify skill needs and it is also a way to find and enroll students for your academic programs. More employers are offering a tuition assistance program (TAP) to retain talented workers. Working with organizations to make their TAP successful can help close skill gaps while making education more affordable for learners.

These ideas scratch just the surface of the opportunities available. New enrollment opportunities continue to emerge so it’s vital to monitor trends in higher ed, along with the industries influencing education.

Institutions don’t need to follow the trends; they can set them. Understanding where the education market stands is key to leading and setting trends. Here are four developments to consider:

Trend 1. Meet the hire-train-deploy partners

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Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com.

Employers aren’t sitting on the sidelines when it comes to workforce training. Many are partnering with mthree and other hire-train-deploy companies specializing in closing their skills gaps. This process works like it sounds, as these partners:

  • Hire college graduates with degrees in in-demand fields like STEM and finance.
  • Train the college graduate in skills that employers need, such as data science, cyber security, and DevOps.
  • Deploy the college graduate to take on open roles at a company.

This model is one part education, one part staffing. Combined, you get a frictionless experience for the employer and the college graduate.

Hire-train-deploy partners don’t just benefit employers. Partnering with them provides graduates access to internships and jobs after graduating from the institution.

Trend 2. Education as a benefit 2.0

As companies work to hire and retain talent, they’re grappling with four workplace dynamics:

" "
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com.
  • Technology adoption
    While cloud computing, big data, and e-commerce remain high priorities for business leaders, many are also prioritizing encryption and artificial intelligence. Developing a workforce with these high-tech skills is becoming increasingly valuable.
  • Double disruption — automation and the pandemic
    As automation allows machines to complete tasks handled by people, the pandemic has caused pockets of higher unemployment in hospitality and other sectors. At the same time, automation and the rise of remote work are creating jobs for people with the advanced — and often rare — skills required to keep systems running smoothly.
  • The skills gap
    Although there were more than 10 million job openings in September 2021, nearly  8.4 million Americans remained unemployed. This disconnect suggests that workers’ skills do not match employer needs or that there is a disconnect in how skills are communicated.
  • The war for talent
    As the skills gap widens, the war for talent will escalate. Companies are seeking ways to gain an edge to attract highly skilled workers and retain the ones they already have on staff.

These dynamics have raised the profile of education as a benefit. Once treated as an afterthought, tuition assistance programs are gaining ground as an HR recruitment and retention tool. Employers are more strategic about these benefits, focusing less on degrees as they emphasize skills-based education, such as certificate programs and bootcamps.

This trend doesn’t mean online programs don’t apply to TAPs. To connect with TAPs, make sure courses and degrees align with the prevailing corporate learning and development strategies. Update curricula around skill needs and/or consider offering stackable credits that let employees build toward a degree through a series of short-term coursework.

Trend 3. Direct to learner (D2L) platforms are filling education gaps

Millions of learners have gravitated to D2L platforms. Some of these platforms have ties to higher ed, such as Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn, but there are others without school ties, like Udacity, Udemy, and MasterClass.

Many D2Ls got started to fill needs not being met by traditional higher ed programs. Those needs often stem from changing learner preferences and behavior, such as demand for lower-cost programs with a proven ROI that learners can start now and finish soon.

As learning preferences and behavior change, institutions that develop outcomes-driven programs that are accessible and affordable, will be attractive to this population of learners.

Trend 4. The rise of mega-nonprofits

IPEDS data shows dwindling enrollment numbers for the University of Phoenix, Strayer University, and other mega-for-profits since 2010 — and mega-nonprofits are racing to take their place.

Who are the mega-nonprofits? Consider Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State University, and other nonprofits that have multiplied their investments in online learning programs in recent years. These institutions are taking market share from mega-for-profits by offering inexpensive, career-focused programs. Observing their progress and strategies is important to identifying how institutions can position themselves in an increasingly competitive market.

You’ve likely heard the motto “may you live in interesting times.” If the last two years are an indicator, 2022 is sure to be interesting. Let us turn that saying on its head. May we all thrive in these interesting times.

Todd Zipper

Executive Vice President and General Manager, Wiley University Services and Talent Development

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