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The Future of Higher Education Is the Hybrid Campus

Blending the best of face-to-face instruction with the flexibility of online learning can enhance the higher ed experience for all types of learners, lower the cost of a degree and better prepare students for the workforce.

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From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, temporary changes were made across industries to adjust to our new, isolated reality. However, as we emerge from the pandemic, it is clear that many of these temporary changes will inevitably be the reality of the future. For higher ed, the wholesale shift to remote learning dramatically changed many of our institutions, including my own, almost overnight. While our industry is thrilled to see many elements of the traditional campus experience return to normal, online learning is likely to remain a facet of our models for the long term. If anything, the pandemic was merely the ember needed to change a model that was ripe for disruption.

Total undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.1% from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021, bringing the total decline since the fall of 2019 to 6.6% — or 1.2 million students. This decline begs the question: What steps are we taking to ensure that America's small liberal arts colleges capitalize on an opportunity to embrace change and innovative learning solutions to increase these numbers?

What Students Want

Students and families are increasingly rethinking whether a traditional college education is worth the investment, leaving higher ed leaders searching for innovative ways to showcase their school's value and entice students. When we think about what students really want, they want more than a degree — they want skills training that will ensure a well-paying, rewarding career. In fact, 62% of college students say they would be more likely to re-enroll if their institution offered "new programs and certificates tailored to the new economy" with high-demand majors and education that connects them to employability. This makes sense since employers are continuing to find value in students developing a "broad skill base that can be applied across a range of contexts."

Students are also still looking for the four-year quintessential college experience they've come to expect. They want to engage in on-campus and in-person social activities including sports, entertainment, Homecoming, convocation, commencement, late nights in the library, and midnight food runs. There's also no denying the effectiveness of in-person learning with the interpersonal attention and engagement between student and instructor. As hands-on learning becomes more important in today's job market, however, we may find experience-based learning is more suited for student-teacher interactions, while classroom material may be better delivered online.

It's this crossbreed of the two educational learning methods that will unlock the ability to give students what they want in a way that online-only or pure face-to-face does not allow on its own. Students are looking for new-age value when making their college decision. They are seeking a learning environment that builds a hybrid community that will allow them to share content and experiences, build more relationships and identify work opportunities.

Embracing the Hybrid Campus

I was initially skeptical of online learning. I equated it with faceless, impersonal experiences. I saw what happened in the for-profit space and worried it might be antithetical to the small private college. But over the last several years, and after seeing the success of it at Adrian College, I've become convinced that the future of residential colleges is not face-to-face or online, but an intelligent blend of both modalities.

This notion has been influenced by other forward thinkers like Jeff Selingo, and even as far back as Clayton Christensen's Innovative University. The idea is that effectively blending online and face-to-face instruction can enhance the quality and flexibility of degrees for all types of learners while decreasing the cost of attendance. It can also better prepare students for the real-world working environment they will face upon graduation. In essence, a hybrid campus model is a robust, faculty-supported, student-centered learning model that employs the best practices of traditional higher education enhanced by modern technology.

Hybrid Campus in Action

While the concept of hybrid education is somewhat new since the pandemic, it's been routine practice for the University of Central Florida for nearly 20 years. The university uses a blended format, which they call a "Mixed Mode," where students meet face-to-face once a week and the rest is handled remotely online. Today, 90% of their 59,000 students take Mixed Mode courses and report the highest marks in satisfaction surveys for this style of learning.

Another example is the nonprofit liberal arts college Southern New Hampshire University's "Duet" program, helping the working adult streamline the college experience in an expedited, cost-affordable way. Through a blend of online education with personal career coaching and academic space, the non-traditional student earns an accredited degree in a program designed to fit their busy lives. Duet partners with SNHU to offer ongoing coaching and flexible and affordable degree programs that let students set their own schedules and learn more of the desired skills employers are looking for in today's workplace.

Preserving What's Worked While Innovating for the Future

The hybrid campus is immersive and experiential. It breeds learning experiences designed to reach and engage today's modern learners. Students want value. They want career-oriented majors, and they want the flexibility to be on campus in conjunction with online learning. The future is not one or the other. The goal is to deliver students the best of both worlds — a desired college experience without compromising on cutting-edge academic programs.

The core DNA of our institutions has thrived on tradition and reputation for over a century. There are ways to preserve those values along with the best parts of the traditional college experience. Thinking constructively about how to re-engineer learning methods with skills that cross the boundaries of disciplines will serve students' best interests and ensure our ongoing economic vitality.

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