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Who are the Students of Today and Tomorrow? All of Us

The EvoLLLution | Who are the Students of Today and Tomorrow? All of Us
As the student demographic transforms, higher education institutions must evolve their practices to change with it.

Over the past few months, a number of colleges/universities and private employers have forged partnerships, shining a spotlight on these unique relationships. These arrangements are designed to create win-wins: enrollments go up at institutions of higher education (much needed in today’s marketplace) and employers can offer an added benefit to their employees and improve the quality of their workforce. And, because educational attainment is a long process, employees will tend to stay put longer.

On the surface, these partnerships seem at once business smart and education wise. In many respects they are. They offer opportunities to the many non-traditional students who have stopped out or dropped out or never dropped in to access post-secondary education. Creating paid-for benefits eliminates the financial burden many “non-trads” face in returning to or entering post-secondary education.

An open question, though, is what will be the level of uptake of these offerings and will the taking of courses by employees actually lead to degree completion and over what period of time. In other words, are they more than a gimmick? Another set of questions surrounds quality at the institutional level: the quality of the courses offered, relevance of the courses to the workplace, level of engagement of the students to maximize learning. A third set of questions surrounds whether employers will give paid time off to employees who want to pursue educational options. And, will employers enable hybrid learning where the employee has to be onsite at its educational institution of choice for two weeks a year or something similar? Will they facilitate changes in shifts or whole days off to meet education scheduling?

The jury is out, I think, on all these issues.

While these employer/university partnerships are well worth pursuing, they are part of a much larger conversation about the students of today and tomorrow. As such, broader concerns are implicated. First, I suspect that the term “non-trad” needs to change. Many students of the future will not be within the 18 to 24 age bracket. Indeed, with changing demographics in some regions of the country, the student populations will necessarily become older. Second, this new population will require re-thinking in terms of teaching strategies and approaches; andragogy and pedagogy have similarities but they are not identical. Role of faculty, course content and classroom/online engagement must be adapted if these added educational opportunities are to succeed for adults.

Third, I think there is an under-tapped prospective population of students who do not fit within the employer/employee model. These are individuals (most with one or more degrees) who are “retiring” or retooling at 50+. With medical advances, these individuals have many years of productivity ahead of them. These boomers may well want to continue their learning and then give back through a new career.

The question is what types of programs will appeal to this group. I suspect the usual approaches to “senior education” will not work, like art history courses, garden design workshops, or how to use a computer to send emails to grandkids. I could be wrong but I see this as a group who want to continue to be engaged, to share their wisdom to insure that their children and grandchildren inherit a better world. And, these programs can tap into students with sizable resources. Look at the Harvard program for retired or retiring accomplished executives, offered to them with a sizable price tag and considerable perks.

Here are two programs worth looking at as examples. There is the Ada Comstock program at Smith where older non-trad students move to Northampton, MA and attend classes in person (not online) and obtain degrees. Different? Yes. Worth seeing what makes it work? Yes. Look at the Lasell College program where part of its campus is dedicated to residential living for aging individuals who are required to take courses at the College in exchange for this housing. Again, there is in person learning. Different? Yes. Worth considering? Yes.

As we re-think the needs of our new students, here is one suggestion that is a variant of the educational institution/employer partnership. What if employers considered the debt loads of their employees? Then, knowing those amounts, the employers could agree that these amounts would be reduced through repayments made by the employer based on these employees reaching certain prescribed benchmarks.

These benchmarks could involve employees’ commitment to continuing or completing their education or pursuit of graduate education, employees performing exceptionally well based on overt matrices, or employees staying with their employer for at least three years (or some other suitable number).

With the overt concern over the debt loads with which graduates are emerging from college and post-collegiate education, a debt reduction model in exchange for certain incentives has potential. I also think, if well publicized, that it might encourage greater employment with employers in certain sectors with these programs. This approach is not without precedent. Law schools, seeking to encourage their law students to enter the public interest, have loan repayment assistance programs currently in place.

All this leads me to this conclusion: Post-secondary education over the next two decades needs to change. Higher education tends to move slowly—glacially. But, if change does not happen, there will be dissatisfaction among students and employers and harm within our economy. We can avoid that if we start taking steps right now.

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