5 trends for higher education in 2012

In looking ahead through 2012, one thing’s for sure: There are a lot of exciting things happening in the world of higher education. The events, issues, and trends of this year will play out in new and innovative ways.

One area in particular to watch is technology. Inside Higher Ed’s Audrey Watters recently wrote about her predictions for technology in higher education, which are worth a look. As I summed up in my comment for her, though, there are several other trends we think you should be watching in 2012. They are:

1. The rise in adult learners will accelerate. Many studies continue to show the increase in working adults going back to school, a trend that will pick up speed in 2012. The ongoing need to become lifelong learners, and the increase in high-quality online delivery models will drive this, giving adult learners greater ability to balance work, school, and life’s other responsibilities. All of the adult learners we’ve featured on our blog are living proof of this, and more will join them in 2012.

2. There will be greater awareness of the need for new ways to track graduation rates. More people in the industry are recognizing that the way the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) calculates college graduation rates has not kept pace with today’s college student demographics. If you’re unfamiliar with the issue, here’s the explanation: When the NCES calculates rates, it includes only students that are enrolling for the first time and attending school on a full-time basis. However, most adult learners have attended college at some point in the past and/or are enrolled part-time. They are excluded from the calculations. Given the substantial increase in the number of adults going back to school, it stands to reason that the way the industry calculates graduation rates needs to change. When students transfer from one school to another, the first school is penalized because those students are not counted as graduates. Those same students are excluded from the subsequent school’s (or schools’) graduation rates because they are not first-time college students. The same is true for students who go to school part time. So, when transfer or part-time students graduate, they are not counted at all. It’s as if they never attended a university, leading to skewed graduation data that favors schools that enroll traditional, full-time college students who are just coming out of high school. To accurately reflect the reality of the paths students take to complete their degrees, the NCES needs to rethink its approach to calculating graduation rates. At a school like Post University, where more than 90 percent of our online accelerated degree program students have attended college before or are enrolled part-time, the NCES method of calculating graduation rates makes no sense. We believe that all Post University graduates should be counted. Whether they come to our campus as first-time, full-time freshmen or enroll part time as accelerated degree program transfer students, their achievements should be counted.

3. The breadth and depth of online learning models will increase. 2011 marked the introduction of several new online learning delivery models and programs, and we’ll see more innovations in this arena in 2012. As you’ve probably read about, MIT announced the launch of its MITx online learning initiative last month, which is scheduled to go live this spring. At Post University, we’re continuing to build our Online Education Institute by developing strong online teaching models, helping our instructors adapt their traditional courseware to the online realm and develop their “e-personality,” and growing the effective use of our online discussion boards. Collectively, the industry’s focus on online education innovation will become increasingly important as the number of online learners rises this year. More than 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, according to The Sloan Consortium. That’s an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year.

4. Technology in the classroom will better meet student needs. Greater use of technology in the classroom is a given. However, what will be interesting to watch in 2012 is how and which technology is used. Educators will be focused on integrating technology not for technology’s sake, but rather, to better meet student needs. 2011 saw the introduction of Google+, for instance, but the jury’s still out on whether it can bring value to the classroom. While some technologies might work well for certain educational activities, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for most learning needs. Educators will be closely analyzing new technologies to determine which they should embrace to increase student engagement and interaction, help students improve their digital literacy, and enrich their learning experience. Interactive digital textbooks, for example, will likely become more commonplace for this reason.

5. Educators will emphasize development of soft skills. In particular, this includes the four Cs — collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. One factor driving this trend is employer requirements. The ability to work in a team and strong verbal communication skills are the top soft skills employers are seeking, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Another is America’s need to stay competitive in the global marketplace. It’s been well-reported that there’s a widening skills gap in our workforce. And STEM education is not enough to close it. More educators will recognize that soft skills are actually the hard skills they must help their students develop so that they are better qualified to land solid jobs and can help America strengthen its global leadership position.

How do you think these trends will play out in 2012? What trends are you watching this year, and why?


  1. Each of these trends has implications for reinventing higher education. Part of that reinvention will be figuring out how to credential and certify people throughout a lifetime of learning. The notion of a "terminal degree" is rapidly becoming outmoded as knowledge explodes in this information age. Fun times ahead for higher ed!

  2. Jane, you are so right! My previous experience in adult education has taught me that there are a lot of 'as needed' courses adults will enroll in, a lot of in class/out of class cycles as demands and life needs change. But to reply to Don as well, I totally agree that the four Cs — collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity as correlated to employer requirements must be deeply embedded into online learning. In one course, I had a student ask me why we were learning things such as critical thinking, learning how and the ways in which to learn (metacognition, thinking about thinking), when all he wanted to learn was how to write a letter to his boss. Now clearly this goals-based desire to learn a specific skill has its place, but without a bigger picture, this student may not learn the broader skills base employers are looking for. The more we emphasize communication, especially online, through developing networks in the classroom as well as challenging students to develop critical thinking, the better both thinking and writing (communication) skills will become. The 'soft' skills are in fact 'harder' to teach and to learn.

  3. I agree, Don and Jane. The development of "soft skills" are equally important in the field of education. The "ability to work with people" is not a lost art even in our current epic age of technology.

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