Higher Ed Must Adapt to Meet the Needs of Learners Today

Higher Ed Must Adapt to Meet the Needs of Learners Today

There was a great opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed recently calling on Governor Gavin Newsom and the State of California to intentionally create small public liberal arts colleges alongside the many existing large ones.

The article states, “Today’s college students look different than their Boomer forebears, and public higher education should meet the needs of today’s students, not the students of fifty years ago. Small colleges are a good fit for many students, including first-generation students who benefit from smaller class sizes, closer relationships with faculty, a focus on teaching over research, and interdisciplinary, flexible curricula.” 

The line that stood out the most to me is the one about public education meeting the needs of today’s students. This topic is always on my mind and comes up regularly in my conversations with higher education leaders.

Students’ Needs Are Different Today

Creating small public colleges is just one way to meet the needs of today’s learners. Another is offering alternative pathways to a traditional education. 

Higher education in America has always been driven by the needs of society and the people who live and work in it. During the Industrial Age, manufacturing jobs dominated the workforce, so higher education was, in many ways, shaped around manufacturing. The most effective and successful manufacturing workers took their place in an assembly line, followed directions, and didn’t rock the boat. 

The traditional higher education pathway of obtaining a 4-year degree and entering the workforce made sense at the time: it provided a standardized educational experience that prepared people to thrive in a relatively homogenous workforce. 

As we’ve progressed into the Information Age, society has changed dramatically—and with it, the needs of the individual and the workforce. If homogeneity was a defining characteristic of the Industrial Age, individuality could be said to be a defining characteristic of the Information Age. 

When reviewing job applicants, hiring managers look for a person’s unique selling proposition. In today’s workforce, rocking the boat is often preferable to falling in line—a significant departure from the prevailing mentality 100 years ago. 

If our modern culture and workforce value and honor diverse experiences and perspectives, so should our colleges and universities. 

That means meeting students’ needs in different ways than before. It means acknowledging that everyone comes from a unique place and pursues a unique path. It means offering higher education pathways that reflect the personalized experiences young people have grown accustomed to as modern consumers. 

While it’s easy enough for higher education leaders to nod their heads in agreement with these statements, the fact is that many institutions haven’t yet adapted to walk the walk, so to speak. 

The Biggest Challenge for Higher Education 

Of course, meeting these needs is easier said than done. Schools that aim to do so face an interesting challenge: balancing personalization with a necessary amount of standardization. 

While empowering students to chart their unique and personalized paths to higher education is imperative, there must be clear benchmarks for achieving competence and mastery. Without such standards, the landscape becomes too ambiguous. In other words, a pathway that’s too personalized could lose its meaning as an indicator of certain skills. 

The good news is that schools will have more tools at their disposal than ever before to meet the needs of today’s learners. Innovative technologies like generative AI will make it easier to create personalized experiences at scale. 

Whether it’s creating small public colleges or offering alternative pathways to higher education, the only way for higher education to maintain its relevance in a changing world is to continue doing what it takes to meet students’ needs. 

At MindMax, we develop marketing and enrollment solutions for higher education that are designed to resonate with prospective students and meet them where they are. Contact us today to learn more