The following is an excerpt from my new book Modern College, which is available on Amazon.
Philosopher George Santayana once said “To know your future you must know your past.” For students and colleges across the country, this quote rings true now more than ever.
For the past few decades, the 4-year college degree has been a staple of the American life. From a young age we are sold on the promise that we can land our dream job if we simply enroll in college. For many college graduates, this framework has worked well. However, in recent years, the traditional model of college has begun to erode.
Take for instance the $1.6 trillion dollar student debt crisis, which now makes it the 2nd highest debt category in the United States behind only Mortgage loans. Or consider the fact that 50% of millennial college grads are forced to move back in with their parents after graduation. These stats point to a common theme, which is that college may be hurting some people more than it’s helping them.
Despite these negative trends, U.S. colleges seemed poised to carry on without major disruption for at least another decade. With a world-class marketing engine behind them, positive affirmation from corporations through hiring, and the promise of economic mobility, the thought of colleges losing their foothold seemed unthinkable. And then the unthinkable happened.
COVID-19 aka the coronavirus has caught the world completely flat-footed and in its wake is leaving staggering death tolls and damage to the fabric of our society. Certain aspects of our society will be more affected by the coronavirus than others. On the more impacted end of the spectrum will be the world of higher education.
Below are 3 key trends that I believe will emerge around colleges and students as a result.
Alternative paths will become more common
As crazy as it may seem, the 4 year college degree wasn’t always the norm. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1940s, with the introduction of the American G.I. bill, that college started to hit the mainstream.
I predict that over the next decade we will actually see a decrease in bachelor’s degrees awarded in comparison to the previous decade, something that hasn’t occurred in over 2 centuries.
What will young adults be doing instead? Pursuing the paths that were once overlooked. I devote an entire section of my book to covering alternative paths, but here is a high level breakdown.
I expect to see a spike in demand in online education such as coding boot camps, technical schools and remote community colleges. We also might see a shift to other career paths such as the Trades which almost always have a positive return on investment.
At the very least, we will likely see an increase in the number of high school grads that take a gap year. I’ve talked to a number of high school students and they all unanimously agree that the prospect of having their first semester of college be online is a nightmare. I don’t think this trend will be temporary either. Once younger students see their older friends/classmates take a gap year and still successfully enroll in a 4-year program, they will be compelled to try the same.
Capital reallocations will change the business of higher education
The decrease in demand for 4-year colleges will have a ripple effect. Many middle-tier Universities were already hanging on by a thread and are unlikely to survive if colleges don’t open in the fall. Parents and students are understandably questioning what gives colleges the right to charge $50K a year for subpar lectures over Zoom. The reality is that many of these colleges don’t have a choice. They simply do not have healthy enough balance sheets to reduce tuition or see a drop in attendance. One major factor that will drive these financial woes will be the drop in international student enrollment, which has helped pad over the losses many of these universities were otherwise taking on.
Assuming we see a culling of the herd with many universities shutting down the question is where the freed up students and capital will go. We’ve already discussed how many students will turn to alternative paths. Other students may choose to stick with the 4-year degree, at which point we can expect traffic to 4-year colleges to bifurcate. Some students will double down in their pursuit of an elite university on their resume, as these select colleges will essentially act as luxury brands and can still get away with charging high prices. Other students will find public colleges a much more appealing path, as they realize the payoff is more likely to be positive. Some public schools may address this increased demand by offering online degrees. In the past, this might have been seen as too damaging to the brand, but with the requirement to move to remote teaching, it would be a sound business decision.
What happens with the leftover capital is interesting. I think it’s safe to assume that net capital won’t flow out of education. It’s just too crucial of an aspect to the human race, up there with healthcare and agriculture. Instead, I think capital will be reallocated to disruptive companies and technologies in the higher ed and skill development spaces. The first company that can nail a truly solid remote learning experience at scale will be a billion dollar company. Look for capital to also flow to different technologies such as AR, cloud storage/collaboration and interactive hardware which can help support the move to remote learning.
Young adults will need to lean into their digital presence
Traditionally speaking, a 4-year college degree has been a strong signal of employability. As more young adults shift away from pursuing college degrees, employers will need to look for alternative signals. Furthermore, the push towards remote recruiting as a result of covid will mean that something needs to fill the void of on-campus career fairs.
There’s already been a push to online job fairs, which changes the recruiter-to-student dynamic. Students and young professionals who do not have a strong digital presence will be putting themselves at a severe disadvantage. When I say digital presence, what I mean is investing in digital real estate such as a LinkedIn profile, personal website and a newsletter/blog of some sort. I focus on these areas a lot in Modern College since they are crucial to having success as a college student. Having these digital assets will allow young adults to be discovered by more recruiters that are increasingly focused on online channels.
It’s important to note that there is more to an online presence than just having a landing page and dropping your resume into a company’s career site portal. You also need to reach out to professionals in your desired career field and form a connection. This can feel awkward and intimidating at times, but with the rise of video conferencing tools like Zoom, it is definitely achievable.
The next metamorphosis of college
It’s still too early to tell exactly how college will look like in the future and anyone who acts like they know is lying to you. However, what is clear is that college is undergoing another metamorphosis. While this is the first one that some younger generations have experienced, it is only one of many since the introduction of Harvard as the first University in 1636.
How the college system looks at the end of this metamorphosis, will be dependent on how universities and students react. These changes will influence the way our country looks for decades to come.