Students and parents have varied expectations of higher education. Some are brand new, others haven’t changed.
Debt: There will continue to be increased emphasis on student indebtedness and over-borrowing for higher education. When combined, 44 million students are on the hook for federal student loans owing more than $1.6 trillion according to USA Today. When private loans are added in that number jumps to $1.7 trillion. The age group of 35 to 49 are the most heavily encumbered with a tab over $535 billion. Of all of the borrowing of the American consumer only home mortgages, at well over $10 trillion, exceed student debt. The Council on Foreign Relations expressed concerns over rising student debt. This indebtedness splits nearly down the middle for undergraduate borrowers at two and four-year institutions and graduate borrowers. Education debt has been, is, and will continue to be an important consideration for all: students, families, and thoughtful institutions alike.
Value: People with a bachelor’s degree earn more than those with a high school diploma. Master’s degree holders earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees. Graduates who possess a professional degree, earn even more than people with a PhD. Education pays to be sure. But at what cost? What value? The question will not go away and answers and responses will vary greatly. At West Texas A&M University we intend to do everything we can to reduce costs of attendance while maintaining or increasing quality. Keep your eyes peeled in 2024.
Information technology: Increasingly digital integration in the learning environment will grow. It was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and while that is the root cause it will continue to grow for the personalization, flexibility, and alternative pricing circumstances that it allows according to McKinzey. Indeed, even the integration of digital tools in traditional classroom settings is exploding. And it will continue. Flexibility and personalization, aligning aspirations with workforce opportunities, and the potential for stacking credentials, certifications, and traditional educational experiences into a degree-conferring set of experiences allow for a more responsive assembly of educational experiences. At West Texas A&M University we will work diligently to tailor educational offerings and possibilities to meet the needs of individual students.
Demographics: Our student population is changing dramatically. A wide array of students are interested in university studies with increasingly divergent preparation and experience. Our non-traditional age population is growing and now the average age of students is over 26. All predictions regarding the future of higher education increasingly show the homogeneity once the norm on college campuses is being transformed into a heterogeneous population. Business Insider says these shifts require institutions to see students as individuals, with different needs, aspirations, and lifelong pursuits. The importance of flexibility in nurturing future students will grow especially quickly. And, 2024 will not be an exception. Upskilling, promotional degrees, and the concept of lifelong learning will be increasingly important to universities, especially those like West Texas A&M University, that are seeking ways to serve students one-at-a-time.
Artificial Intelligence: AI will continue to gain momentum in the coming year, and it will impact every aspect of the university environment. Personalized learning situations and opportunities will be expected in response to a student’s learning style and pace as well as life circumstances. Automated grading will grow in utilization, it is already a fact of life face-to-face instructional settings for four-option multiple-choice tests. Test scores are received immediately following the test. The concept of virtual teaching assistants, basically AI-fueled chatbots will increasingly assist students in working through various aspects of different subject matter. AI presents many challenges in determining work authenticity, otherwise known as cheating, and at the same time can help detect academic dishonesty, otherwise known as cheating. The impacts of AI will be as pervasive as the impacts of handheld digital devices, I-pads, and personal computers. Technology of every imaginable sort has transformed higher education. The transformation accelerates with artificial intelligence.
Student Mental Health: A growing concern of universities across the full spectrum of institutions regardless of size, public or private status, religiously affiliated or secular, research-focused or baccalaureate is student mental health. Expectations are growing regarding the university’s responsibility to address student mental health. Stress, anxiety, and a series of other issues challenge students and diminish their learning potential. Active engagement in campus life may not solve every problem but it creates associations with people in various settings that stimulate healthy human interaction. Clubs and student organizations will become increasingly valuable to students and institutions. Likewise, student employment on campus provides a network for students that makes them part of the larger university environment. This can be both rewarding for the student and beneficial for the institution.
These issues and others reinforce the changing nature of the higher education landscape as we approach 2024. Each will impact WT in different ways. Universities must adapt to changing expectations of those they serve. We at WT are working to do just that.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at https://walterwendler.com/.