A year after the COVID-19 pandemic first impacted the world of higher education, colleges and universities are finally navigating toward a more positive road ahead. As vaccinations become more widespread and virus transmission rates decline, an increasing number of institutions are planning for a fall semester that looks much more “normal” than these few semesters past, with re-opened campuses and the return of in-person learning. Yet as we look to the road ahead, it is impossible to do so without considering the past year that has led us here – a year that has undoubtedly changed the needs and expectations for the future of higher education.  

The question of value comes up often when discussing a college degree, and increasingly so in the midst of a global pandemic. In fact, in Barnes & Noble Education’s recent COLLEGE 2030™ research report, 44 percent of students responding believed that the value of education has declined this past year. As the pandemic closed campuses nationwide and upended the campus experience, students were forced to consider what exactly it is that makes a college education worthwhile.

Yet it is important to note that value is subjective — and the reasons that students do or don’t find education to be valuable is highly dependent on their personal journeys. Students who are obtaining a degree while working full time or raising a family have vastly different needs and preferences than a student without those obligations, for example. In those differences, though, lies the opportunity for colleges and universities, and for the faculty members that create curriculum. How can we drive value for students as we look to the future of higher education? By remembering that each student is different, and that today’s diverse body of students will succeed through a more customized approach to education.

This past year has made it very apparent that students have different responsibilities, resources and learning needs. In many cases these differences were exacerbated, hopefully not permanently, by the impacts of the pandemic (whether on financial situations or otherwise). Online learning, though not without its challenges, provided greater flexibility in accommodating such differences, and helped many students create academic journeys that were better suited for their lives and schedules. As they considered the experiences of this past year, nearly 70 percent of students said they needed greater flexibility for attending class and completing coursework going forward, according to the COLLEGE 2030 report. A third of faculty and administrators also agreed that schools should be focusing on personalized learning.

Though the in-person experience remains critical to student success, we must not forget the benefits online learning presents in allowing for a more customized academic experience. We can find ways to integrate those benefits — which allow for greater flexibility and, in turn, greater personalization — into new solutions and models of learning that blend physical and digital and offer more choice for students. We can create a situation that transcends the idea of “either/or” to embrace the idea of “both/and.”

Colleges, universities and faculty members have worked relentlessly this past year to maintain students’ learning in a tumultuous and uncertain time. And though it may be tempting to simply try and return to “normal” in the fall, these coming months will present a unique opportunity for higher education to reimagine what the student experience can look like through the next decade. Students have told us what they need for success — flexible solutions that they can tailor to their unique needs. Now, it is up to those of us who serve this industry to embrace this challenge as we move forward to create a brighter, more impactful future for higher education.

Michael Huseby is CEO and chairman of Barnes & Noble Education (BNED), a leading solutions provider for over 1,400 educational institutions nationwide.

Published on Apr 30, 2021