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Did COVID-19 make any positive contributions to higher education?

There has been no shortage of dire predictions and lamentations over the negative impact the pandemic has had on higher education.

There is no denying that student enrollment, graduation, and mobility were disrupted last year.

A Pearson Global Learner Survey of 7,000 people, conducted in August 2020, revealed that three out of every four global learners believe that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed higher education as we know it and it is unlikely that there will be a return to a pre-COVID world.

The consensus was reached that the world of education is forever changed. That may not be such a bad thing. COVID-19’s most enduring residual may turn out to be accelerating already existing trends and creating an appetite for change.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic more than a year ago, higher education executives, administrators, and faculty have had the opportunity to examine the inefficiencies in higher education and, because of the disruptions caused by the virus, carefully examine the residuals left in its wake.

When the final chapter is written about the impact of the virus on higher education, the benefits may eventually outweigh the negatives.

Let’s examine how COVID-19 helped to address and change five areas of higher education:

1 Online learning. Over the past year, students have attended classes both in person and online. They know they can do this.

In a March 2021 survey of colleges and universities in the U.S., conducted by Academic Impressions, 39% of respondents stated that their school or department will be increasing their hybrid and/or online programs in the coming semester.

In another survey, conducted in March 2021 by the U.S.-based educational technology and textbook rental firm Chegg, 50% of all students surveyed in 21 countries described their college’s online learning offerings during the pandemic as good and 76% in the U.S. and 65% worldwide said they would prefer their schools offer more online courses if it meant they would pay less in tuition.

The expanded use of technology and a willingness to embrace online learning allowed many schools to teach virtually because that was the only option available.

It’s too soon to tell if the hybrid model will increase access to higher education and impact current social and economic inequalities or if the ability to study year round, anywhere and anytime, will improve progression, retention, and graduation rates. But the potential for improvement is real.

2 Alternative providers. Over the past year, students realized they wanted and needed faster, affordable, and flexible higher education options. Colleges and universities realized they could grow their enrollment pie and increase their bottom line by partnering with alternative educational providers and employers.

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