Writer: Joshua Andino
2 min read September 2021— Colleges and universities, some facing precarious futures in the face of dynamic demographic shifts across the United States, have had to pivot their educational delivery structures as a result of the pandemic. Some schools are prepared to fully adopt hybrid and blended learning models moving forward while others have doubled down on the hard-to-resist draw of campus life. Across higher education, serious questions are being asked as to what the future holds and how the sector is changing in its various forms, including in a region as competitive and well-served as Minnesota, with its near 200 educational institutions. Invest: spoke to the institutions on the frontlines of these challenges. These are the changes they see.
How did you handle the shift to remote learning and what does the future of this modality look like?
Angelia Millender, President, Century College
Century already had a growing online educational portfolio. Pre-pandemic, our online program encompassed about 25% of programs offered at the college. But when we had to shift to a forced online environment, it presented some challenges for our students who had not chosen this modality. Online education takes a different type of skill set and support structure that we must provide to faculty and students. We invested millions of dollars from the federal funding provided to higher education institutions to build upon and add capacity to our technology infrastructure. We also learned about disparities in access to online education. We can give students a laptop but if they don’t have access to Wi-Fi, they can’t achieve their goals. This informs where we need to shift as our students’ needs are not only programmatic but also about a broader access issue. During this important academic year’s enrollment cycle and beyond, we will see where our student demand is and assess how we can meet them where they are at various levels. Century is in the process of reengineering every classroom and conference room to create advanced technological environments where students and employees can attend classes or meetings in a hybrid or fully online environment. Century will be ready to deliver this type of flexibility in the 2021-2022 academic year and beyond.
Brian Friedrich, President, Concordia University-St. Paul
It’s business as usual for us. We were very familiar with the blended and online educational models before the pandemic struck. We are a nimble and agile university with a lot of experience deploying technology to deliver education. We know students are more interested in choices that make it easiest for them to succeed. We want to provide the platforms, the modalities, the curriculum in ways that convince students to choose, persist and graduate from Concordia.
Virginia Arthur, President, Metropolitan State University
We know that our students are enjoying the flexibility offered by online courses. However, up to the present, we’ve had different tuition rates for online, with online being charged a higher rate. To better align with our students’ expressed preferences and to maintain a competitive edge gained through years of incorporating hybrid and online delivery modes, we’re asking our board to approve a tuition structure so students can make their decision without worrying about the cost. As a nonresidential institution, with students who frequently have jobs and life circumstances that demand flexibility, we are actually well positioned, even if enrollments are a little bit softer, to emerge from this stronger and potentially serving a wider market.
How have you looked to grow your institution despite the challenges presented by COVID and changing demographics?
Millender: The pandemic escalated the projection of the decrease in overall enrollment for all populations and demographics. The high-school population is projected to decline. As a result, Century will need to attract other populations while demonstrating to them the value of education. We can’t sustain ourselves by competing for only one population. Instead, it is prudent to analyze where the opportunities are and reinvent how we operate to attract many different student populations, including a more intentional focus on the adult learner and those students who do not attend college immediately post-high school. We must make our value proposition clear and deliver that value to a multitude of student populations by changing us instead of asking our students to change. Demographics continue to change and have been regional in nature. At Century, our diverse population has grown to approximately 40% of our overall student full-time equivalent base since 2010. Our biggest challenge is not enrolling diverse students, instead it is more about helping them persist to a degree and ensure these students succeed at equitable levels. Our laser focus should be on getting students in and through our institutions at community colleges.
Friedrich: I think the No. 1 factor that demonstrates or encapsulates all the positives is our continued enrollment growth. We had the ninth consecutive year of enrollment growth this past year to become the second-largest private college or university in the state of Minnesota. We are one of the most diverse colleges and universities in the state. We’re excited about that combination of growth and expanded diversity during the year.
The keys to the success of our growth over the last decade have been our program additions. One of the ways that we seek to expand our academic offerings is just by listening to business and industry. We need to have our ears to the ground. That means understanding what the market needs and then translating that into what we’re offering to our students.
Arthur: We’ve started to work on a rebranding of the university. In September, we kicked off our 50th anniversary year and we thought this would be a great time to refresh the brand. This has been a positive experience for the university as we move to more closely align our brand and voice with our strategic plans and vision.
The chancellor and the Board of Trustees at the Minnesota State System of Colleges and Universities adopted an initiative called Equity 2030 to help close the educational opportunity gaps across our system by the year 2030. That’s something Metro State had already built into our strategic plan. Fifty-two percent of Metropolitan State students identify as American Indian or students of color. In addition, more than half of our student population are first-generation, and more than half are eligible for Pell grants. One interesting initiative was our student journey mapping project. We had a team of 30 staff plus more than 100 students who were involved in mapping the students’ experience from application to graduation. From that experience, we developed six initiatives that we believe will add substantially to the success rates for helping students stay enrolled and complete their degrees.
What long-term changes are expected either at your school or in the industry?
Millender: High education enrollments at community colleges can be highly dependent upon the fluctuations in the economies. Higher wages are being offered to attract and incentivize workers and competition for workers is a challenge now more than before. The market is fluid and will adjust. For higher education, our focus for key differences is being more flexible and agile as we navigate changes in student’s choice of instructional delivery and delivering those changes. The same holds true for the support services we offer students, including but not limited to addressing mental health concerns and food insecurity. We are more different than ever before in our approaches to meeting the needs of our employees and our students. Those who are successful at both and take all these factors into consideration would have a greater chance of remaining current and achieving all desired outcomes. This post-pandemic year will be pivotal and transformational and will add another level of responsiveness that will be required of all of us.
Friedrich: Our curriculum now includes everything from an associate’s degree to a Ph.D. We’ve launched new associate programs, sonography and echocardiography, that are hands-on. We’ve also added a Ph.D. and EDD in kinesiology. We also offer Master of Education programs and master’s degrees in business administration and technology. One exciting space that’s growing is criminal justice psychology and cybersecurity.
Arthur: Just about everywhere you look, you see more traditional institutions looking to attract adult learners. At Metropolitan State, that is what we were created to do. We already know how to serve adult learners in flexible ways and meet the needs of a diverse student community. Given our connections to the business community and our many community faculty working within it, we have many advocates who recognize the quality of our academic experience. Our dedicated and diverse student services staff are also there to provide the kind of support that our students need to be successful. We also remain current in the development of programs and curricula responsive to the workforce needs of our community. For example, in the past three years we’ve added an undergraduate degree and post-baccalaureate certificate in cybersecurity. We then added a graduate degree in cyber operations and created an accelerated B.S./M.S. program in the field. Using grant funding, we’re providing noncredit training to active-duty military and veterans in cybersecurity and cyber operations and to IT teams in corporations who need upskilling. Last January, there were an estimated 14 openings in Minnesota for every person with a cybersecurity qualification.
For more information, visit: