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The Future of Postsecondary Learning and the Digital Landscape

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed higher education into the digital learning space, its success within it depends on institutions creating programs and partnerships that engage students early on and make their education relevant and applicable. 

The Coronavirus pandemic’s disruptive impact on postsecondary education has been comprehensive and ongoing.  Last spring, at the beginning of the outbreak, institutions across the academic and professional spectrum were significantly challenged to respond to the disruption in a short amount of time. Institutions that already heavily relied on online learning had an easier time adjusting.  My own institution, Pacific Lutheran University (PLU)–a small, private, liberal arts institution offering mostly in-person undergraduate, graduate and continuing education programs– pivoted to remote learning within a week’s time. Needless to say, it was a dizzying affair for all involved–faculty, students, and staff.  Our community responded at a high level by providing resources to faculty and students to handle the shift, including access to equipment, customized online tutorials, instructional technology, and information and training on best practices in online pedagogy and inclusive learning.  Yet, as expected for such a rapid turn of events, there were many pitfalls and shortcomings, and as a result, participants experienced frustration, complaints, and feelings of despair.  Over the summer months, there was more remote faculty training, more institutional planning and execution related to compliance with federal, state, and local public health mandates, and a rising level of anxiety among university community members in terms of how the fall term would transpire.  

I can report that PLU is performing well this fall with respect to the staged return of students to the campus residential life (around half capacity by design), the number of positive COVID-19 tests (well below 1% of total tested), the ongoing prevention and mitigation of infections, and the continued reliance on remote learning (most classes are online with some select classes using a blended modality).  

All said, the entire experience has placed a glaring spotlight on postsecondary education and its future in the digital landscape.  What has long been considered as secondary in value to student learning in traditional vocational and liberal arts institutions, remote learning with all of its manifestations, are front and center.  The reality is that the future of postsecondary learning and its intersection with the digital world is already active and will increase in influence as universities, colleges, and institutes emerge from the pandemic.  Here are three examples to cite in support of this claim.

Postsecondary education begins at the secondary level 

With the impending demographic changes higher education stands to face in the coming years (Grawe, 2018), universities, colleges, and institutes will have to increase their efforts to engage prospective first-year students earlier in their schooling, specifically during their secondary years.  Established pathways to earn college credit, such as advanced placement courses, College in the High School programs, and Running Start, will experience growth in the near future in order to introduce young students to the college experience and incentivize their connection to a university.  

In addition to these pathways, PLU piloted two familiar avenues last summer for secondary students to earn credit.  The first involved offering online general education classes to incoming first-year students at a reduced tuition rate.  Although the number of students taking up the offer was low (around 2%), the experience opened the door to another way for PLU to engage this population earlier in their educational life cycle. 

The second pilot program also took place over the summer and involved a partnership with a local non-profit organization serving low-income, first-generation families.  The collaboration produced a college preparatory course for a group 80+ high school students who received guidance from two PLU faculty in a variety of skills development, such as essay writing, public speaking, and teamwork.  The students received continuing education credits, an official transcript from PLU, and a glimpse of what it means to study at PLU.  

Credential transparency

A principal goal here is to make it easier for prospective students to understand the connection between academic credentials, specific jobs and career paths.  The State of Washington’s Workforce Training and Coordinating Board, for example, has invited public and private higher education institutions within the state to participate in a national initiative with a non-profit organization to standardize the lexicon and usage of various credentials as a way to achieve this goal. One of the potential outgrowths of this effort would be the use of more mobile compatible, digital credits to make it easier for employees to take on-demand classes, record their credential, and meet an employer need.  The Department of Education, Department of Labor, and regional and national accreditation bodies will all have a stake in this initiative.

Increased internationalization of remote learning 

The pandemic’s negative impact on international student enrollment in the U.S. has been significant, with the National Student Clearinghouse reporting a 13.6% drop this fall in undergraduate international (i.e., non-resident alien) student enrollment and a 7.6% drop on the graduate side (2020).  Unfortunately, this current downturn is part of slow downward trend in international student enrollment in the U.S. over the last few years (Institute of International Education, 2019). Online learning, unresolved trade disputes, and restrictive non-immigrant student visa policies are contributing factors to this downturn (USA Today, 2020).  International students are looking for online options to earn a U.S. degree or professional development credential while remaining in their home country.   

In response to this changing environment, PLU is exploring opportunities to partner with private educational companies to increase their outreach to prospective international students in their home countries for both credit and non-credit programs.  Regarding the former, PLU is developing a partnership with a private, non-profit educational company in China to offer an online degree completion program to their students at partner Chinese universities across sixteen campuses in eight cities.  The model is a 3+1 undergraduate pathway, with the initial three years of identified coursework and credits coming from the Chinese partner institutions and the last year of courses and credits offered online by PLU.  The degree is conferred by PLU and provides the institution with an avenue to reverse the drop in international student enrollment, specifically from China, which tops the list of 23 countries sending students to PLU.  

In the non-credit arena, PLU is forging a relationship with a private global technology training company based in India with offices in several countries to offer a suite of online certificate courses that incorporates both synchronous and asynchronous learning with a qualified mentor in the areas of computer science, information technology, and business management.  The audience for these non-credit, skills training courses is broad, ranging from low-level to mid-level blue- and white-collar employees who want to acquire skills and credentials that advance their employment opportunities in a very short period time and don’t require a significant in-person commitment.  As mentioned in Thomas Friedman’s recent conversation with Ravi Kumar, President of Infosys, employers are looking for skilled employees–with or without traditional degrees (2020).  PLU’s ability to partner with outside education companies to expand its reach and curricular offerings to these employers and employees will contribute to the institution’s long-term sustainability.

These three examples advance the argument that the future of postsecondary education is intertwined with digital learning on multiple levels and over the life cycle of human learning.  The universities and colleges that engage students early in this life cycle and make education and training relevant, accessible and affordable will be the institutions that not only survive the current pandemic and its subsequent effects, they will also be the educational providers that advance and continue to innovate as education faces the next array of unforeseen challenges. 


Friedman, Thomas L. (2020, October 20).  After the Pandemic, a Revolution in Education and Work Awaits. New York Times.

Grawe, Nathan D. (2018). Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Institute of International Education. (2019, November 18).  Open Doors: Fast Facts 2019file:///Users/foyge/Downloads/Fast-Facts-2019.pdf

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2020, October 15).  Monthly Update on Higher Education Enrollment

Zhang, D. and Stucka, M.  (2020, August 19).  COVID-19, visas, Trump: International students turning away from U.S. colleges for lots of reasons. USA Today.

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