What Does the Future of College Look Like?

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 6/6/2020 5:43:57 PM

Large lecture halls with 500 students. Buffet lunches in noisy cafeterias. Triple beds in tight dorm rooms. 

Gone, gone, gone.

In place of these now defunct images are campus reopenings with parameters for social distancing and new teaching models that build on lessons from this past semester’s remote learning exercise, while preserving the emotional growth opportunity that college presents, particularly for young-adult students. 

To be fair, the pandemic is not the only thing compelling higher ed institutions to dramatically alter the campus experience. Even before the era of COVID-19, the region’s small, private colleges were struggling to survive amid declining numbers of high school graduates, lower enrollments and shrinking tuition revenues.

Many analysts refer to the sudden pivot to online learning as a pandemic-induced experiment. Vijay Govindarajan, the Coxe Distinguished Professor of management at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, says the months-long trial of distance learning helped differentiate the courses that engage lively discourse from those that easily transfer knowledge in pre-recorded videos. The latter, he says, are deployed at scale, and have few additional costs once they’re established. 

In March, professors were pushing their face-to-face instruction to Zoom. That tactic bears little resemblance to online education, said Govindarajan: “When you put lipstick on a pig, it still looks like a pig. You’re not really leveraging technologies to transform the learning experience.”

Govindarajan says artificial intelligence-led instruction has the potential to diagnose a student’s learning needs in a way a live professor in a 90-minute lecture hall can’t. For example, a student watches a five-minute video on her own time and takes a quiz. If she gets the answers wrong, a chat bot pops up to feed her more materials to master the subject.

These predictive analytics don’t replace the professor’s lecture, but AI technology can enhance it. 

Wayne Lesperance, vice president of academic affairs at New England College (NEC) in Henniker, worries about the over-reliance on digital tools. 

“The number one concern that comes from traditional age students is the lack of a more sustained human to human interaction,” he said. 

NEC sent out a survey to its students and found that 85% were comfortable returning to campus. Lesperance says NEC’s rate of registrations is the highest it’s been in seven years, although freshmen registrations are not meeting the school’s target. 

“All this talk about students taking a gap year obviously has made small private, tuition-driven institutions nervous,” Lesperance said. 

To hedge against low enrollments, NEC is enacting a three-semester term, with the first semester over by Thanksgiving and the last semester launching in February. In between is a seven-week session that allows students to take online courses. 

“We want to make sure we have multiple points for onboarding,” he said.

Colby-Sawyer College in New London hasn’t firmed up its academic calendar for next fall, but is considering options, according to Laura Sykes, vice president of academic affairs. The college caters to four-year residential students and is planning to welcome them back in late August. However, some twice-a-week classes may follow a hybrid model aimed at keeping students in smaller groups: students are split into two groups, with the groups alternating between in-person and remote learning for each class session. 

Sykes says in this zoom-weary, anxious environment, students appreciate when faculty members spend the first few minutes of class checking in on everybody’s well-being. That’s at least one protocol, she says, that will carry over into the next semester. 

“People are really stressed about a lot of other things, and they're stressed about online learning.” 

Dislocation and isolation affected many students, says clinical psychologist Marc Wilson, who also runs the online counseling program at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and teaches face-to-face as an adjunct professor. Freshmen, experiencing autonomy for the first time, had to regress living back home with their parents. 

“If large numbers of students are going to have to learn remotely, we need to find some way to account for the psychological aspect of that,” he said. “For me, the lessons [from the spring] have more to do with the psychology of learning than the pedagogy.”

With so much uncertainty for the fall semester, Govindarajan recommends colleges plan for an entire year of hybrid online and in-person classes while developing expectations for both instructors and students. “They can prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Dartmouth Provost Joseph Helble said on June 3 that the college will utilize a hybrid approach beginning in the fall, although details of the plan will not be announced until later in the month. 

SNHU officials are doing more than that. College leaders accelerated their 2023 plans to revamp the campus environment after they were forced to empty out college dorms and classrooms to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Incoming freshmen will take all their general education credits online with a one-time full scholarship, paying only for room and board if they choose to live on campus. In subsequent years, college students will be charged $10K in tuition fees, more than 60 percent less than the current rate. 

Several low-cost pilot projects influenced SNHU’s rollout, including its associate degree program at a satellite campus in Salem, an online associate program in partnership with a Boston charter school and Project Atlas, where a cohort of about 20 traditional aged students lived on the Manchester campus, participated in clubs and activities, connected with academic coaches but took their courses in the online College For America program designed for working adults. 

“They [SNHU] got on this journey earlier than others,” said Govindarajan, by starting with small experiments and scaling up. 

In addition to its multi-story dorms and cafeterias on a rural campus, SNHU hosts 130,000 online students. 

Incoming 18- and 19-year-olds will expand that online population, but spokesperson Lauren Keane says officials hope to retain some elements of face-to-face learning. How that will evolve is yet to be determined, due to the threat of COVID-19. Traditional-age college students, she says, still need the coming-of-age experience and social emotional supports to thrive. 

Moving to an all-online format is not a strategy Colby-Sawyer can afford. For one thing, says Sykes, many students don’t have a good internet connection at home, and need to drive to library or campus parking lots just to get Wifi. 

In the college’s general education classes, students make strong connections with their faculty and with each other. “If we don't do that,” said Sykes, “some of our students get lost and end up transferring someplace else.”

Colby-Sawyer lost a million dollars in summer revenue from the cancellation of events, research conferences and childcare. “The prospect of not having any room and board [revenue] in the fall if we have to be remote is pretty scary,” Sykes said. 

Disclosure: In addition to being a freelancer journalist, Sheryl Rich-Kern is an adjunct instructor at SNHU.These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 


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