Colleges and universities are in trouble. Enrollment is declining; demographics show fewer traditional-age students in the pipeline, and changing attitudes about higher education threaten to derail the idea that college is needed for a good career.
What to do? Build, apparently. This trend has been unfolding for decades, but for some reason, schools seem to be responding with new dorms and gyms. This even though fewer future students may be coming to campus in person.
Maybe the new buildings are needed, but after three decades of silent partnership with higher education, in which I work with my career-transitioning clients to identify whether more training is needed and what it might be, I have to ask:
Schools, what are you thinking?
You’ve had time to figure this out, and for the most part, you’re still acting as if any student who isn’t coming straight from high school is a nuisance.
Following are five stories of real people, all from just this past month of my work:
Story 1 – Sandra completed all but two classes for her masters at a private nonprofit university 10 years ago, stopped to raise her children, and now wants to finish the degree. She didn’t expect all the classes to count, despite a 4.0 GPA, but was shocked to be told that none of them could be used. Worse, the school discontinued this masters program during COVID but didn’t tell her. Sandra’s only option at this school is to earn a certificate by spending $ 9,000 more to re-take four of the classes she’s already completed. A certificate which they won’t award her now, although she’s completed nearly four times as many classes in the discipline.
Story 2 – John’s hands-on training at a state technical college was converted to online instruction during the pandemic, erasing the option for internships before he graduated last year. Now he’s competing with this year’s graduates, all of whom took internships, and the program director isn’t returning calls or emails to help arrange the hands-on training he needs.
Story 3 – When she graduated with her online masters from a state university three years ago, Tabitha was encouraged to continue on for a doctorate and was told some of her earned credits would apply. Now she’s being told she can only earn the doctorate with daily, on-site presence at the rural campus two hours from her home – although dozens of other schools nationally offer this program online.
Story 4 – Anna has inquired multiple times over four years at a nonprofit university about purchasing or auditing one masters course but has been told she must commit to the entire masters before she can do this. Committing means first being accepted into the program – requiring a test, an essay, three recommendations, an application fee, and a student financial aid form – a process she must complete before identifying if she can keep up with the coursework while working full-time .
Story 5 – Finally, a hopeful story. To his delight, a state university reviewed Kelly’s 10-year-old credits, and he’ll be able to complete the final two courses and earn his masters degree this summer. He was told, “We want to do this work for you.”
So you see, universities and colleges, it can be done. As a matter of survival, it’s time for all of higher education to follow suit, making it possible for students to continue their training and gain value from investments they’ve already made. These steps would help:
• Put admissions people on the phones evenings and weekends, when working adults (and the parents of traditional-age students) are most available.
• Improve web pages so each degree clearly displays: Number of classes for completion; cost per class; description of each class; total program cost and time to completion, and which classes can be accessed online.
• Recognize we’ve been in a pandemic and that training programs have been interrupted, stopped or only partially delivered. What accommodations are you making for this extraordinary situation?
• Most importantly, create a review department to help students salvage past credits they’ve earned while showing them the pathway to complete a certificate or degree.
This isn’t meant to be a threat, but I feel comfortable in predicting that schools that don’t provide at least this much value and customer service will complete the journey toward becoming irrelevant.
And even if I’m wrong, I really don’t want to see another derrick on a local campus, putting up another dormitory with funds that could be used instead to reach the full range of students trying to learn there.
Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at email@example.com.