Conversations with higher education leaders about online learning, the future, and the pandemic’s lasting impact on higher education.
myFootpath’s mission is to help universities transform lives by engaging and graduating nontraditional students who may have stumbled along the path to degree completion. And not to understate the problem, but COVID-19 sure caused a lot of students to stumble. In summer 2022, we set out to examine why. Through a series of conversations with higher education leaders, we discovered how different universities approached online learning, career readiness, student success, and more.
These conversations were conducted by Dr. George Rohde, just as universities were getting ready for students to return in fall 2022. As Dr. Rohde set out on this endeavor, his first conversation was with myFootpath’s CEO and Founder, J.T. Allen. Read the edited excerpts from their conversation below.
Rohde: You’ve been leading myFootpath for over 20 years. How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the university market you serve and myFootpath?
J.T. Allen: Like so many industries, the university business model was up-ended virtually overnight. While overall enrollment was declining slightly among the traditional 18- to 24-year-old population, it plummeted with the pandemic. Schools who were dabbling in online learning were forced to adapt to 100% online or risk shutting down permanently. For an industry that has historically moved slowly, this was a pace of change that leaders rarely had to face before. I think leaders throughout the industry are still shell-shocked and wrestling with how to compete effectively in this new era.
For our business, we’ve always focused on online, adult students, and suddenly there were a whole lot more of them (editor’s note – almost double according to NC-SARA). As a result, we enhanced and expanded how we help our university clients.
Rohde: How well did universities adapt to delivering online learning?
J.T. Allen: Surprisingly well. We saw example after example of resilience. Not to say there weren’t hiccups, but I think the pandemic forced reluctant faculty to jump into online learning “with two feet.” I remember chatting with one online leader, and she mentioned that she had never had so many calls and meetings or such urgency around online courses as she did during the height of the pandemic. Everyone was “all in.” Most universities needed this to survive, and faculty recognized it and rose to the occasion.
Rohde: Ok, so now what? How will universities continue to deliver online courses and degrees? And, maybe more interestingly for our audience, given this new phase of the pandemic we are entering in fall 2022, how are colleges going to compete effectively in what feels like a very different world than fall 2019?
J.T. Allen: That’s a great question. What we are hearing in the marketplace from university leaders probably falls into a couple of categories. First, we are seeing many universities commit to delivering high-quality online courses and degree programs. These institutions have decided to invest in this area, recognizing that the demand for online degrees has drastically increased because of the pandemic. They expect students to continue demanding at least some online courses, and institutions are focused on meeting the students “where they are.” Second, we are seeing more and more schools consider alternative channels for attracting more students to plug enrollment gaps that are still lingering. For our business, that means a lot more institutions are interested in reengagement and bringing back stop-outs. But universities are also looking at community partnerships, the military, and other areas that may bring more students to the physical or virtual campus.
Rohde: How are higher education institutions attacking student reengagement, particularly for students who may have stopped out during the pandemic?
J.T. Allen: As I mentioned, we are seeing more and more interest in and evaluation of reengagement of stop-outs as a viable channel. Indeed, I think in this series, you will see this theme consistently. But what we are also seeing is university offices just decimated by the Great Resignation, and most of the folks we talk to are struggling to hire the talent they need to pursue the student opportunity around reengagement. As a result, we seem to be having many conversations with institutions about how we can potentially help.
Rohde: What do you hope readers will take away from the Perspectives column?
J.T. Allen: I think this column can highlight the deep higher education industry expertise that myFootpath encounters in conversations every day. The pandemic is entering a new phase, and so many leaders I talk to are trying to figure out how it will impact their institutions. From online learning to reengagement to the value of a degree to student success — I hope readers will use this column for insights and practical examples of tips, tools, and strategies that they can bring to their institution.
Rohde: Thank you, and we hope our readers enjoy the columns below. We’ll be releasing a new one for the next several weeks as part of this series.