Higher Education Considerations for 2024: The Individual Student Picture
The current challenges higher education faces as a result of demographic, social, political and other types of trends have been enumerated and examined frequently—and in many cases with keen insight—over recent years. Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt’s The Great Upheaval (2021) is but one example. While theirs is a fairly recent examination that does address technology trends including artificial intelligence, in only a short time beyond 2021, an explosion in AI’s impact on higher education has created a massively disruptive trend that continues to spawn numerous seemingly insoluble, ill-formed problems involving many interdependent variables (i.e., wicked problems).
My discussion here of trends higher education should recognize and plan for as 2024 fast approaches, however, will focus on trends at the individual student level that demand colleges’ and universities’ attention. Ignoring them not only puts our students at greater risk but also threatens our ability to meet a prime function of postsecondary education’s mission: successfully educating students and successfully preparing them students for life and employment.
All college students, whether first time/full time, part time, returning adults, seeking certificates—all categories of student—are trying to learn in an era in which their bandwidth is increasingly taxed (bandwidth: cognitive and emotional resources needed for learning, making good decisions, contributing and creating, etc.; see Verschelden, 2017). Traditional college-aged incoming freshmen in particular come to our campuses having necessarily trained for mass shooting events at their schools and may have experienced such terror personally or know someone who has.
In addition, students starting college in 2024 right out of high school will be the first cohort whose entire high school experience was situated within the pandemic, which itself was/is a bandwidth-straining (or even bandwidth-breaking) life event. Research shows that high school learning during the pandemic often results in lessened academic preparedness for college, which has occurred in tandem with these students having missed out on very important socialization and maturation opportunities among teenaged peers (e.g., Knox, 2023).
The responsibility and the opportunity of teaching such students should be viewed within the context of what our students bring to our institutions. A consideration higher education must take into account now and in the near future therefore concerns a clear understanding of our learners’ unique needs. Helping faculty know their students’ needs and how to best help students succeed within that context should be an approach all colleges and universities must have in place in 2024.
Teaching centers have been doing remarkable work in this area for decades, but higher education leadership should examine its teaching center support mechanisms and beef them up. There is no greater impact area regarding student success than the interaction students have with faculty trained in the art and science of teaching who know how to implement evidence-based instructional strategies that help students succeed.
And it goes without saying that student success translates to improved retention, academic performance, graduation rates, job placement and earnings, and many other things that keep the doors open at institutions by helping more students persist to graduation.
Now I want to get specific about a particular consideration faculty and administration should know about and plan for: helping students pay attention. It falls squarely within what affects individual student success. It also applies to all categories of students.
“You can’t learn what you don’t pay attention to.” That’s a phrase from a text I used when teaching college success/freshman orientation classes beginning in 1990. There are some specific—and pernicious—reasons that phrase crystallizes a huge consideration for succeeding in the mission to which higher education holds itself accountable.
Consider the business model for vendors displaying information and material on the screens we all so ubiquitously use, our students included: the more clicks, the greater the potential to increase profits. Therefore, minimizing screen time when that requires focused attention on an idea or a text or a video, for instance, is good for business.
Distractibility is a wonderful thing for vendors wanting to increase shareholder value. It’s a terrible thing for developing the skill of paying attention, and that translates to decreased capacity to learn.
As years of Dr. Amishi Jha’s research have shown (Jha, 2021), stress and threat are kryptonite for attention. They are bandwidth-depleting aspects of students’ lives and degrade the ability to learn. Further, artificial intelligence is already being put to use to improve technology’s efficiency at stealing our attention.
Students of all ages now come to us having lived years, decades of their lives in environments literally designed to interrupt focused attention. The resulting decline in practice time for developing the ability to pay attention has created teaching and learning challenges for higher education.
Poll your faculty to find what percentage of those with ten or more years of teaching experience say students’ attention spans are shorter than they used to be. Your intuitive guess would most likely be correct, but the issue is more nuanced than what seems apparent. There is research, for instance, tying students’ ability to pay attention to material with how well organized it is, further emphasizing the role teaching centers can play in helping faculty minimize distractibility and other student challenges.
While the discussion above aims to identify a few considerations and trends higher education must address in 2024, I’m eager to close with two specific recommendations to navigate the wicked problem waters through which colleges and universities are now sailing.
One recommendation reiterates the above point about increasing support for teaching centers. Faculty are better equipped when they’re aware of bandwidth and attention challenges among students, and they can implement instructional strategies to address those challenges, keeping more students in college and graduating more students who are better prepared to improve the common good.
The second recommendation is to consider implementing a transformative learning (TL) approach in classrooms. A defining aspect of TL is developing learners’ critical self-reflection ability, which naturally helps improve attention and deep learning while at the same time alerting students to their own biases. TL is possible at institutional scale, as our university has been doing for years.
A discussion of TL is beyond the scope of this article, but Baumgartner’s 2019 article at is a brief-read overview.
When I consider the ways in which higher education can successfully address student-level challenges, I understand no single solution will tame the wicked-problem beast. However, a combination of increased teaching center support and trained faculty employing TL-focused instructional practice seems a good start.
Baumgartner, L. M. (2019). Fostering transformative learning in educational settings. Adult Literacy Education. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1246050.pdf
Jha, A. P. (2021). Peak mind: Find your focus, own your attention, invest 12 minutes a day. New York: Harper One.
Knox, L. (2023, October 23). Is ‘Gen P’ ready for college? Inside Higher Education. Available at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/admissions/traditional-age/2023/10/23/assessing-college-readiness-pandemic-generation
Levine, A., & Van Pelt, S. (2021). The great upheaval: Higher education’s past, present, and uncertain future. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization. Sterling, VA: Stylus.