The evolution of higher education: 2021 trends

5 min read

Benjamin Boivin

shutterstock_1856823748-1They say necessity is the mother of invention. One year in the span of a person's life may feel like nothing, but one year feels like an eternity during a global pandemic. What has the higher education industry learned over the past year? How will colleges and universities improve, adapt, and stay relevant in 2021? What trends are industry professionals already seeing as we near the end of the Spring 2021 semester?

Remote and micro student internships

One year before COVID-19 made headlines, Forbes was already predicting micro-internships being the next big thing. As industries around the world were forced to socially distance and employees pivoted to working from home, in-person student internships also took a hit. Traditional college seniors with an intended graduation date of May 2020 missed a lot of the “college experience,” but the most significant disadvantage was graduating without real-world experience. Now that so many high school and college students have adapted to virtual learning, it is time for more companies and organizations to boost their micro-internship programs and deliver a pandemic-proof training program for future professionals.

See Virtual Student Internships Explained

Virtual Professional Development Conferences

Similar to college fairs and recruitment events, popular higher education conferences are still virtual in 2021. Enrollment marketing and recruitment professionals look forward to gathering face-to-face, collaborating with colleagues, and networking with peers, but there are advantages to virtual conferences.

Between the event ticket price, travel, and hotel accommodations, it can cost thousands of dollars to send just one representative from your institution (usually a senior member). The shift to a virtual delivery model results in savings for attendees with no additional travel costs. If your institution allocates a professional development budget, the funds can now be evenly distributed among the entire staff — encouraging more employees to develop best-practice recruitment strategies.

Another benefit of virtual professional development is the ability for attendees to absorb and retain more information. Unlike a heavily scheduled, session-lunch-session-dinner event, attendees now can sit in front of a laptop at their own pace, take notes, and replay information delivered by the speaker. While networking skills are vital in college recruitment, keeping up with best practices is equally important.

PRO TIP: Assign one conference to each member of the admissions office and review the entire staff’s key findings. Keystone Academic Solution developed a list of upcoming conferences here: Your 2021 Higher Ed Conference Calendar

International student delays

As of March 2021, travel disruptions are still prohibiting international students from studying in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Updates are so frequent, Times Higher Education is running a tracker resource to keep international students and university administration informed. International travel regulations include:

  • (UK) proof of negative COVID-19 test regardless of departure country
  • (Canada) attending a designated learning institution (DLI) with a COVID-19 readiness plan approved by the province or territory
  • (US) travel ban on foreign nationals who have been in certain high-risk countries

As more of the worldwide population gets vaccinated, we will likely see a sharp increase in international enrollment. Many institutions are now preparing to be ready for students once this is a reality.

Push for international enrollment in the United States

Changes in US leadership and governing bodies result in shifting trends in higher education. The new Secretary of Education under the Biden Administration, Miguel Cardona is a graduated from the public college system and conveys a focus on on education for all, regardless of socio-economic status. As President Biden said, "Dr. Cardona has a proven track record as an innovative leader who will fight for all students, and for a better, fairer, more successful education system."

The push for increased inclusivity in the classroom means the push for more diversity in colleges and universities. While international student recruiters felt the pressure of 2020, they will likely hit the ground running for Fall 2021 recruitment, but do so in a smarter, more cost-effective way. Prospective international students have had an entire year of Zoom training and have adapted to virtual college fairs. While nothing will ever replace the power of face-to-face communication, recruiters can take advantage of a Zoom-savvy international population as the world transitions back to pre-COVID life.

See The Initial Impact of the Biden Administration on Higher Education

Reimagining student support

Institutions cannot expect to return to normalcy, even with the majority of students vaccinated. Reintroducing college students to campus events, in-person learning, and residential living will be more challenging than ever. After a year of hybrid or exclusively remote education, student isolation has led to many social-emotional issues. Universities offering on-campus counselors and advisors will need to ramp up staffing to meet demand. Beyond the routine anxiety-producing college testing and career preparation, reintroducing students back into the wild will require tact and observation like never before.

Utilizing new technology

The tech-savvy Generation Z proved they have what it takes to adapt to virtual learning over the past year. Companies like Google, Zoom, and Apple have made the pivot possible throughout the pandemic, but the impact of hybrid learning has only just begun. With more students and professors able to use technology, the possibilities are endless for collaboration, global networking, and curricula planning.  

See 5 ways to make virtual learning more interactive

Technology will also help institutions combat COVID. The Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services have awarded $230 million to Australian biotech firm Ellume to produce a 15-minute COVID test that sends results directly to your phone. The company plans to ship 100,000 kits per month to the US through the first half of 2021, and likely more just in time for fall classes. In addition, more and more colleges are developing school-branded apps to track and monitor COVID transmission, testing, and vaccinations. Developing a universal smartphone app and making it a campus-wide requirement will create a more confident population of administrators, professors, and the students they serve.

The seven trends highlighted above only scratch the surface of what’s to come in 2021. Questions about social justice, student athletics, test-optional admissions procedures, Ph.D. application freezes, and on-campus residence life are still up in the air. It appears the return to campus in the Fall 2021 semester will be a transformative experience for more than just the students.  

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