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Next-Generation Higher Education
As colleges and universities prepare for the new semester, they are navigating non-traditional learning models, younger generations’ hyper-awareness of the student debt crisis, and ongoing national and regional developments.

by Carly Murray

The Covid pandemic was devastating for its unexpected impact, essentially placing the world on an unforeseeable hiatus during lockdown. Students were forced to put their education on hold, and then they were required to learn virtually, creating an entirely new definition of what a classroom can look like. These new implementations pushed learning into the future, unlocking potentials for education with modern technological resources. Of course, adapting to an entirely different model late in one’s educational career inevitably poses some challenges as well.

Virtual learning—and its evolution into hybrid learning as in-person options became safer—provides more flexibility and efficiency. Students do not have to worry about transportation with Zoom or Webex classes, and there is rarely an excuse for tardiness or non-illness-related absences. On the other hand, not everyone can afford smartphones or laptops with video conferencing capabilities. It’s a complex solution to an unexpected disruption, but the benefits of hybrid learning have made it a preference for students and professors alike. Incorporating hybrid learning models either for the entirety of the class or for emergency situations like the all-too-common Covid resurgences, allows for students to learn both hands-on when necessary and from the comfort of their residences during lectures. 

“We have the best of both worlds now. Remote teaching allows for flexibility and farther accessibility. Offering remote courses, however, requires a significant investment in technology and a commitment from faculty teaching in that model. Not all universities are prepared to meet the needs of the students and deliver courses in a manner that ensures quality is not diminished, but rather enhanced. Not all remote courses are the same. Students need to find institutions who have really invested in the technology and whose faculty do well teaching on this platform. Rowan started investing in the technology needed well before the pandemic. Today, Rowan Global serves students globally,” says Dr. Ali A. Houshmand, president of Rowan University.

Anxieties are high among Generation Z with the constant access to rotating content of the horrors of the world on a tiny screen, making virtual learning a still-popular option, but also igniting young minds to make a difference. Dr. Frederick Keating, president of Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ), is seeing a trend in students who are eager to graduate and begin their careers, rather than to spend extra time in graduate school to make up for education lost during the pandemic. Therefore, colleges are implementing more career-based preparation and training, focusing on fields that are pertinent in a rapidly advancing society. Particularly, medical studies are gaining traction following the Covid epidemic.

“Rowan works very closely with industry [leaders] to create certificate programs that help employers train employees in industry-specific skills. Larger programs include the creation of our veterinary school and the expansion of the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine, and our nursing and health professions. The expansion of these programs address a dire need in health care, both for humans and animals. … Rowan has undergone a tremendous transformation over the past decade. We are now ranked in the Top 100 public research institutions in the nation and the fourth fastest-growing across the country,” says Houshmand.

A hot-button issue with a lot of national media coverage has been the proposed removal of student loan debt after a Covid deferment, which was ultimately struck down in the Supreme Court. Although some prospective college students may feel that higher education is not accessible if they cannot afford it, many local schools offer federal aid to relieve the immediate financial burden. With the growing programs and the plethora of opportunities at New Jersey school, obtaining a degree close to home could save students from extreme tuition costs. 

“I think that the students have to be thoughtful about what institutions they go to … the biggest advantage our students in the state of New Jersey have is the really high quality public institutions. I always say, get your undergraduate degree at the best cost and the best balance between cost and quality,” says Dr. Monica Adya, dean of the Rutgers School of Business-Camden. 

While affordability is certainly a large factor in considering the right school for an individual, the pandemic has also created a need for access to enhanced programs. With a large number of students dropping out of school during Covid or perhaps taking a temporary break, many of those students are now interested in getting back on track with their studies. Colleges are seeing an escalated amount of GED students, and some are even implementing programs to help prospective students obtain a GED. Fortunately, students with an unconventional path toward higher education have more accommodations than ever before.

“The GED enrollments have tripled. Rowan College of South Jersey is actually opening an academy for adult literacy, and it will contain ESL and GED because the demand is off the charts,” says Keating.

RCSJ is meeting this need with the approach of helping students obtain their GED and then having them take some college credits to get a feel for what it’s like and to see if pursuing a degree at the collegiate level entices them.

“We have what we call bridge scholarships where you go from the GED program, get your equivalency and then take six credits to test the water to see if we can get you to go on to at least the associate level. … That’s huge, and it’s only going to get bigger,” says Keating.

Increased mental health awareness also grew during the pandemic, and checking out a college’s resources to find the best fit for each individual can go a long way in a desired future—including seeking out campuses that offer more guidance and mentoring opportunities. 

“It’s rampant in our news about the need for mental health and behavioral health counseling and support. So, we’ve invested a lot of time and money in some private practice people to come in and be able to support [students] behaviorally, socially and emotionally,” Keating says.

Often, a student just needs to inquire about the services offered, and researching a college before deciding which to attend can be helpful in navigating a career-intensive degree program with all of the social and lifestyle factors that come with college life.

“We don’t wait. As with many institutions, we start preparing them for jobs right in the freshman year through some of the courses we provide. They’re highly encouraged to take on internships at the end of sophomore year so that they can be job ready. We’ve got career services that support both knowledge and information about career pathways, but also connecting with students to career fairs. Many institutions do that and we are no different … the effort toward job readiness begins as soon as they start with us in freshman year,” says Ayda.

Still, higher education may not be for everyone, and there are integral industry jobs that require certifications rather than degrees. In fact, the modern workplace environment will generally strive for a diversity of talent, as it is each team member’s individual skill set and background that strengthens a staff and brings new insight to projects, products and service. 

“Many in-demand jobs and emerging industry occupations do not require a college degree but a skilled and trained workforce. Again, this is where transferable skills come into play. … This shift to skills-based hiring has included institutions of higher education expanding their offerings in career and technical training. At Rowan College South Jersey, in partnership with the Workforce Development Board and Rowan University, we have recognized the trend and adapted to the needs of our business community by offering both academic programs and skill training in the form of industry-recognized credited and non-credited certifications courses. By providing both, it allows students of all ages and backgrounds access to the right program for their career goals. If this movement continues, it will open up a whole new market for workers who have accumulated in-demand skills but do not have a four-year degree,” says Michelle Shirey, executive director of the Gloucester County Workforce Development Board.

Now that institutions in New Jersey have been able to assess the needs of budding employees, they are using that knowledge to help young adults thrive in a workforce that is facing drastic changes in a post-lockdown world. While some jobs are upping their requirements to higher-level degrees, new graduates are interested in maintaining a hybrid style of work in which they do not have to go into an office every day. 

“This is the most diverse multigenerational workforce we have seen in a long time. This generation’s workforce is digital natives; they have grown up in the era of technology, which translates into some pretty impressive tech-savviness and greater adaptability to change. Gen Z are problem solvers and critical thinkers, which greatly benefits the workplace. .... These workers seek an open, inclusive work culture that fosters collaboration and provides ample feedback and growth opportunities. They bring fresh energy and an innovative mindset to workplaces that all generations of workers can benefit from,” says Shirey. “The challenge in this scenario is how quickly companies and businesses will adapt to the unique style and perspective of the Gen Z workforce. As a workforce professional, my greatest challenge working with the business community is managing the expectations of the company’s expectations. It is a constant balancing act; companies that are more flexible and open-minded to flexibility and work-life balance needed by this younger workforce are faring much better when attracting and retaining employees.”

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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 13, Issue 8 (September 2023).

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