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In the summer of 1995, I was on a Pulliam Fellowship at The Arizona Republic covering personal technology for the business section. It was the summer when the World Wide Web really took off. In fact, I wrote an entire story explaining what the letters “WWW” meant.

It was also the summer when many newspapers launched their web sites. The Arizona Republic was among them and I recall a lunch some of the fellows and others in the newsroom had with the head of the online effort. When someone asked him whether the web site would end up putting the print paper out of business, he shrugged his shoulders. 

We’re a public trust, I recall him saying. And this part I’ll never forget: Readers will always want a newspaper landing on their porch or at the end of their driveway. 

It was hubris, plain and simple. Within a decade, Craigslist killed the classifieds. Facebook and Google followed by swallowing up the local ad market. A few years later, the smart phone put news in our pockets.

I was thinking about the summer of 1995 when talking with Arthur Levine recently about his new book with Scott Van Pelt, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future. Levine is president emeritus of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Teachers College, Columbia University.

I told him my experience from Arizona and asked him if the pandemic is for higher ed what the summer of 1995 was for newspapers?

“Absolutely,” he told me. “It’s a turning point. Talking to presidents in 2020 they viewed the pandemic as a forest fire. They think as soon as it’s over they’ll clean it up and go back to 2019. It’s a lack of awareness. You’re doing something well, so you don’t see the future happening behind your back.”

? Good morning, and thanks for reading NEXT. Sorry for the delay in sending this issue out—we had some technical difficulties with the email platform to sort out over the last week.

?Special Giveaway! The new hardcover edition of my book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, just arrived. It includes a new Preface and Appendix for 2022. We’re on our 6th printing of the book. It’s not yet on store shelves, so head over to Instagram to see how you can win a signed copy of this edition. 

  • Bonus 1: Everyone who enters the contest can join me on an Ask Me Anything Zoom call next month, so be sure to enter.
  • Bonus 2: I’ll also be holding a drawing for a free virtual talk to your high school, book group, or even just a group of your family friends interested in college admissions.
  • Hurry…the contest ends this Friday night.

The Hollywood version of college always has students living on campus.

Value After the Pandemic

While the delta variant dimmed hopes of a more typical fall for many colleges, higher ed leaders still say they’re looking forward to a “post-pandemic future” that could come as early as this coming spring semester. 

Exactly what schools are preparing for, however, isn’t clear. Some expect, as Arthur Levine put it, a return to 2019. Others are beginning to lay the plans for a radically different model that imagines more online learning and remote work by the end of this decade.  

What’s happening: Nearly every college president I talk with these days tells me their students couldn’t wait to get back on campus this fall—not for classes, but for everything else that epitomizes the student experience (at least in our Hollywood version of college). 

  • According to Hollywood, everyone goes to college full-time and lives on campus. The latest example: The Chair on Netflix.
  • But in the real world, the full-time residential learning experience is a “rare resource,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. He made the remark during a panel I moderated last week at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference in Los Angeles. 

—Just how rare? Only 13% of first-year undergraduates live on campus nationwide.

  • At UCLA, the campus-based experience is indeed a scarce commodity for those who want it. Last year, nearly 140,000 students applied to UCLA—making it the most applied-to university in the nation—for just 6,400 seats in the freshman class.

—That’s why UCLA, like some other schools where seats are few and demand is high, are asking after their experience during the pandemic whether a hybrid learning model can provide relief to on-campus facilities and allow them to take more students. 

 “We’re beginning to recognize there is tremendous strength in hybrid education,” Block said.

Why it matters: The initial take from the pandemic was that it wasn’t good for student learning or their mental health and wellbeing. And while it might take years to figure out what really happened to students over the last 19 months, at UCLA students “did a little bit better” academically in the remote setting, Block said.

  • Students of color and low-income students at UCLA performed even better academically in the online environment than the rest of the student body, Block said.
  • “Maybe there is something about the classroom that is not empowering for all students,” Block added, acknowledging there is a “a lot more work needs to be done on this topic.”

Yes, but: Online and hybrid approaches don’t work for all institutions. Sitting on the other side of the stage from Block at the Milken conference was Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College

  • Pomona’s entire undergraduate enrollment is less than a quarter of UCLA’s freshman class. 
  • Small liberal-arts colleges like Pomona sell themselves on the in-person experience, and Pomona, like many small colleges, are ready to return to that model. “We’re leaning more into residential education because of the learning that happens out of the classroom,” Starr said. 

The big picture: While many (including me) have argued that highly selective colleges should grow their incoming classes, Starr maintained that their small size allows for the intimacy necessary to build “deep knowledge” and “create trust” among students and faculty.

  • Rather than make small colleges bigger, she said, larger schools should scale some of the practices that work at smaller institutions.
  • Case in point: learning in cohorts. Students in biology at Pomona who take courses together in the same sequence perform better than those who don’t. 
  • “The persistence of relationships across time can enable students to flourish,” she said. “You can take that practice and scale it at a larger institution.” 

The bottom line: Just like Hollywood shouldn’t paint the nation’s 4,600 with a broad brush, neither should we as institutions figure out what they might do next.

  • “Not everyone needs to move in a homogenous direction,” Greg Fowler, president of the University of Maryland, Global Campus said on a recent episode of the Future U. podcast. “But they do need to reflect on their job and mission.” In other words, colleges can go back to 2019 if they do it in a deliberative fashion and know why they’re adopting such an approach. 
  • After the pandemic, colleges need to figure out what is “core” to who they are as institutions and what differentiates their campuses in a crowded marketplace. Everything else is “context,” which can either be discarded, reimagined, or provided by another entity.

Read more: Imagining the Hybrid Campus in Harvard Business Review.

It’s often hard for colleges to see which trees matter through their forest.

What’s Core, What’s Context?

As colleges evaluate what to reimagine after the pandemic, one thing likely to go is the large in-person lecture class—at least in its current form. In recent years, many faculty members have revamped the lecture to include more online elements that students could view on their own rather than using precious in-person class time talking at students. 

“Going to a lecture hall on campus, you can’t pause or rewind,” said Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, during the Milken panel. “Lecture halls will turn into online even for students on campuses.”

What’s next: Hybrid education isn’t a term only used to describe the medium in which student learn. It can also be used to define how academic programs or credentials are put together.

  • Colleges need to provide a better mix of expertise in a discipline as well as the practical skills to do a job. 
  • UCLA’s Block said students no longer have the “luxury of time to explore” in college because of rising tuition costs. 
  • “They’re thinking from the day they enter where this is going to get me,” Block said. That’s particularly true for low-income students. 

—Colleges need to be more creative in building hybrid programs, such as music + music technology or biology + biotechnology, Block said, with “certificates and masters degrees combined with a bachelor’s degree in four or five years.”

Bottom Line: When we think about context vs. core, not all the halves of hybrid degree programs need to be provided by the institutions alone. Colleges can partner with outside entities, such as Coursera.

  • Coursera offers a Google IT Support Professional Certificate, Maggioncalda said, which can either put students into a job within six months (without a college degree) or give them a head start with 12 credits toward a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of London. 

? Watch the full, 60-minute Milken panel.


The Workforce and Higher Ed
The Workforce and Higher Ed

New York Times economics writer Ben Casselman and Guild CEO and co-founder Rachel Romer Carlson joined me and Michael Horn on the latest episode of Future U. to talk about why there are so many Help Wanted signs and how higher ed might fill the void for giving workers needed skills.

Enrollments Continue to Fall
Enrollments Continue to

Undergraduate enrollment across the board fell by 3.2 percent this fall, according to preliminary estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse. Following on last fall’s 3.4 percent decline, undergraduate enrollments have dropped by 6.5 percent since 2019.

More Enrollment Numbers
More Enrollment Numbers

Higher ed enrollment peaked in 2012 and has been falling ever since, writes higher ed futurist Bryan Alexander as he takes a look inside recently released U.S. Census data. 

Education Equivalent of Energy Star
Education Equivalent of Energy

All the current talk about alternatives to college and the potential infusion of billions of federal dollars creates urgency to see which programs are worth attending, writes Goldie Blumenstyk. In her newsletter, The Edge, she takes a closer look at an effort to establish a uniform and useful student-centered system to measure the value of programs.

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...