Follow the latest trends. Then set your own.

Last updated on: February 25, 2022

clock icon 9 minute read
clock icon 9 minute read

Keeping up with higher ed trends is one thing. Creating your own is a different story. Explore how your university can thrive in an evolving education landscape in this article from Todd Zipper, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Wiley University Services and Talent Development.

Many changes in education start with events taking place away from university campuses. Accelerating technology, talent deficits, the lingering pandemic — it often seems like education is being changed instead of remaining the mechanism for changing the world.

But there are opportunities for your university to take control. We’re helping universities do just that by focusing on what I call the iron triangle — affordability, accessibility, and outcomes. And our motivation is simple: These factors help our university partners offer learning experiences that empower more learners to achieve their goals.

Our transparency and outcomes report shows what I mean. As of 2021, our flexible services have helped our partners achieve nearly 2x higher graduation rates than similar nonprofit schools. While I’m proud of that achievement, boasting isn’t my goal. Instead, I believe transparency is critical as higher ed examines its place in society and where it’s headed next.

That means more than following trends. You also need to set your own.

It starts with career-connected education

One part of education is trend-proof — it transforms lives. But the results that learners want are different today than before the pandemic.

More than ever, learners demand career-connected education. It’s a way to increase your university’s role in getting learners job-ready, equipping them with the skills employers genuinely need.

Providing a career-connected education comes down to outcomes. From the learner’s perspective, that often centers on vocational goals — securing a job, earning a promotion, or switching careers.

What lays the foundation for helping learners achieve these goals? Research. Your university must consistently monitor the skills employers need today while planning for what they’ll need tomorrow. When you do, what students learn in your classes will always be relevant to their careers.

While conducting surveys will help you identify skill gaps, the most impactful way to understand employer needs is by partnering with them. These relationships can help your university be among the first to develop upskilling programs in emerging fields.

Of course, the skills that learners need aren’t the only things changing. The ways they seek those skills are also in flux, and the pandemic is a primary catalyst.

The pandemic is transforming online learning

One stat jumped out when we conducted our Voice of the Online Learner study in 2021. Of the 3,000 learners we surveyed, 33% hadn’t considered studying online before the pandemic.

Is this a bubble that will pop when the pandemic recedes? Or did it accelerate an existing trend? Answers to those questions remain to be seen, but I can assure you that these newcomers to online education have different traits than the “old school” population. Our research shows they are:

  • often younger
  • more interested in undergrad programs
  • looking to start careers, not make a change
  • less likely to work full time

How can you entice this emerging student population to your distance learning programs? Accepting transfer credits remains a draw; however, these newcomers often prefer synchronous classes to asynchronous formats. They also ask for more assistance and services than older online learners.

When you zoom out to look at the entire online student population, you’ll see something positive: most are lifelong learners. For instance, 79% would take classes online again, and 63% would seek another degree online.

These stats are excellent indicators of online learning’s longevity, but what do they mean for your academic programs? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Motivations vary by industry

Learners interested in online nursing programs have different motivations and needs than business professionals joining an online MBA. Conducting ongoing market research will help you understand — and design programs for — learners in various industries.

Meet expectations for affordability

Our research shows that 55% of students feel affordability is the most important part of choosing an online program. Even so, only 33% pick the program with the lowest tuition. This contrast sheds light on how learners define affordability. Your prospective students don’t want a “cheap” degree. They want a good value.

Tap into tuition benefits

Earlier, I pointed out how partnering with employers helps you identify skill needs. It’s also a way to find and enroll ideal students for your academic programs. After all, more employers are offering a tuition assistance program (TAP) to retain talented workers. Working with organizations to make their TAP successful can help close skill gaps while making education more affordable for learners.

These ideas scratch the surface of the opportunities available. What’s more, new enrollment opportunities continue emerging. As such, it’s vital for your university to monitor trends in higher ed, along with the industries influencing it.

I want your university to set trends, not just follow them. But first, you must understand where the education market stands. Here are four developments to consider as you plan your next move:

Trend 1. Say hello to the hire-train-deploy partners

Employers aren’t sitting on the sidelines when it comes to workforce training. Many are partnering with mthree and other hire-train-deploy companies specializing in closing their skills gaps. This process works like it sounds, as these partners:

  • hire college grads with degrees in in-demand fields like STEM and finance
  • train the college grad in skills that employers need, such as data science, cyber security, and DevOps
  • deploy the college grad to take on open roles at a company

This model is one part education, one part staffing. When you put the two together, you get a frictionless experience for the employer and the college graduate.

Hire-train-deploy partners don’t just benefit employers. When your university partners with them, you could help your graduates find internships and jobs after graduation.

Trend 2. Education as a benefit 2.0

As companies work to hire and retain talent, they’re grappling with four workplace dynamics:

  • Technology adoption
    While cloud computing, big data, and e-commerce remain high priorities for business leaders, many are also prioritizing encryption and artificial intelligence. As such, developing a workforce with these high-tech skills is becoming a bigger focus.

  • Double disruption — automation and the pandemic
    As automation allows machines to complete tasks handled by people, the pandemic has caused pockets of higher unemployment in hospitality and other sectors. At the same time, automation and the rise of remote work are creating jobs for people with the advanced — and often rare — skills required to keep systems running smoothly.

  • The skills gap
    Although there were more than 10 million job openings in September 2021, about 8.4 million Americans remained unemployed. This disconnect suggests that workers’ skills do not match employer needs.

  • The war for talent
    As the skills gap widens, the war for talent will escalate. Companies are seeking ways to gain an edge to attract highly skilled workers and retain the ones they already have.

These dynamics have raised the profile of education as a benefit. Once treated as an afterthought, it’s gaining ground as an HR recruitment and retention tool.

We’re helping lead the transition to education as a benefit 2.0 through our Wiley Beyond platform. It seems employers are more strategic about these benefits, focusing less on degrees as they emphasize skill-based education, such as certificate programs and bootcamps. Employers also lean more heavily on tech and business skills relevant to their missions.

This trend doesn’t mean your online programs don’t apply to TAPs. But it’s wise to make sure your degrees align with the prevailing corporate L&D strategies. That could involve updating curricula around the latest skill needs or offering stackable credits that let employees build toward a degree through a series of short-term coursework.

Trend 3. Direct to learner (D2L) platforms are filling education gaps

Millions of learners have gravitated to D2L platforms. Some of these platforms have ties to higher ed, such as Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn. But there are others without school ties, like Udacity, Udemy, and MasterClass.

Many D2Ls got started for a simple reason — to fill needs that traditional higher ed programs were not. Those needs often stem from changing learner preferences and behavior, such as demand for lower-cost programs with a proven ROI that learners can start now and finish soon.

As learning preferences and behavior change, universities may face more competition from D2Ls. That heightens the need for universities to beat D2Ls at their own game, developing outcomes-driven programs that are accessible and affordable.

Trend 4. The rise of mega-nonprofits

IPEDS data shows dwindling enrollment numbers for the University of Phoenix, Strayer University, and other mega-for-profits since 2010 — and mega-nonprofits are racing to take their place.

Who are the mega-nonprofits? Think Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State University, and other nonprofits that have multiplied their investments in distance learning programs in recent years. These schools are taking market share from mega-for-profits by offering inexpensive, career-focused programs. Keep an eye on their progress as you plan the opportunities your school pursues in 2022 and beyond.

You’ve likely heard the motto “may you live in interesting times.” If the last two years are an indicator, 2022 is sure to be interesting. But I would like to turn that saying on its head: May you thrive in interesting times.

By offering career-connected education that aligns with learner and employer needs, your university can begin setting positive trends. If you want help getting started, consider our university support services. We offer flexible support to help you develop and manage online programs that are affordable, accessible, and outcomes-driven.

About Todd Zipper

For more than two decades, Todd has been motivated to become the best version of himself and empowers others to do the same. His drive and penchant for lifelong learning led him to a career in education while also motivating him to grow an organizational culture based on highly motivated individuals.

As Executive Vice President and General Manager of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, Todd is focused on enabling university growth by delivering education that accelerates career success through our university services and employer partnerships. He leads the organization as a mission-driven business to help universities, students, employees, shareholders, and society — unlock their potential. He is also the host of An Educated Guest podcast, which covers trends that are changing education and the workplace.

Prior to joining Wiley, Todd served as President and CEO of The Learning House, Inc., which he sold in November 2018. He previously served as Managing Director of Marketing and Media Services at Weld North, where he pursued investments in the marketing, media, and education sectors. Before joining Weld North, Todd co-founded and served as COO of Education Connection and previously worked for Kaplan, Inc.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Business Administration from Columbia University, and earned a chartered financial analyst (CFA) designation.

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