It used to be a given that demand for higher education would keep surging ahead, but that assumption has come face-to-face with a harsh reality: enrollment in higher education has been on the downswing for a decade. Over the past eight years, college enrollment nationwide has fallen about 11%, with every sector taking a hit.
Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, predicts that this is just the first edge of a demographic cliff that will be arriving in 2025 and 2026 when the country will have fewer high school students. As student needs and economic, demographic and cultural realities evolve, public universities, private liberal arts schools, community colleges and for-profit universities alike are going to be dealing with a host of new issues and obstacles.
In the meantime, more would-be students are leaving or bypassing college altogether for the job market. Rising tuition costs are putting college out of reach for many families, while many who can afford it are questioning whether it’s really worth it — and whether that expensive education will prepare them for changing workforce needs. With community colleges seeing the biggest drop-off in enrollment, existing racial and socioeconomic gaps in higher education could widen even further as more students opt out of two-year colleges, and revenues for programming decline even more as a result.
Administrators are exploring a variety of strategies to help turn the tide on enrollment and meet diverse student populations where they are. Technology will play a big role in these efforts. From the application and enrollment process onward, technology has become more integral to the college experience than ever before.
But unfortunately, access to technology is far from equitably distributed.
Let’s take a closer look at how this access gap is affecting college enrollment and what can be done to bridge the digital divide and more effectively meet the needs of today’s learners.
The Challenge of Equitable Access to Technology
Experts have been urging colleges and universities to reimagine the learning journey to appeal to a broader base of students and modernize the educational experience. This often means thinking outside the traditional classroom and the lecture hall to incorporate online courseware, blended learning experiences and online learning communities. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this movement by making remote learning a necessity.
Of course, technology in higher ed isn’t new. Many institutions have been innovating the classroom experience and transforming learning opportunities through the use of technology for years now. But for prospective students who don’t have a reliable computer, consistent Internet access or the necessary digital skills, all of this is out of reach.
In fact, lack of technology access can make the enrollment process itself a barrier to entry. When Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona examined why students get stuck in the “enrollment funnel,” they found that, in some cases, there might only be one computer available for the entire family. Others might not have enough bandwidth or consistent WiFi.
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A recent Strada Education Network survey highlights the equity gaps with technology: Urban residents and Latinx adults were most likely to say access to a computer or the internet would be a significant barrier in pursuing further education, followed by Black adults and rural residents.
It’s exciting to think about how we can deploy technology to make application processes more efficient and reinvent the educational journey, but without addressing the digital divide, colleges are going to continue to fail to attract and retain a huge segment of today’s students.
The Promise of Hybrid Learning
Dealing with this gap can also help higher ed adapt to changing economic and demographic realities. Both traditional and nontraditional students are juggling more today and looking for more flexibility in how they learn. Colleges and universities shouldn’t count out those who’ve opted directly into the job market — or even those who’ve been in the workforce for years. Many would still be interested in pursuing degrees if colleges would meet them halfway.
Hybrid learning models that allow students to live at home or work full-time and have greater control over their schedules can bring more students back into the higher education experience. These models can also be deployed as part of work-study internships and to address the real-world skills gaps many adults are now facing in the workplace. By being responsive to the needs of a broad base of students, colleges can expand their reach and capture more of an untapped market.
Hybrid learning models that allow students to live at home or work full-time and have greater control over their schedules can bring more students back into the higher education experience.
That brings us back to the question of access, for faculty as well as for students. Where do you begin? Here are some key considerations for addressing technology access and opportunity:
Make digital equity a part of the onboarding process.
Even if your college is not prepared to offer off-campus Internet connectivity to all students, include these conversations in informational and onboarding sessions so that students understand what level of WiFi connectivity they will need to engage with their coursework and what options are available to them (public WiFi zones, campus libraries, discounted or free WiFi hotspot rentals, etc). Assessments of digital need among prospective and/or incoming students can also provide insight into the scope of the inequity among your institution’s student body, in turn guiding your next steps toward resolving it.
Eventually, postsecondary schools may begin adding a technology/connectivity fee to incoming students as a line item on tuition bills — it might not be necessary for all students, but it could allow the college or university to provide the means for all students to remain connected.
Roll out a student connectivity program.
The most effective way to address the needs of a fraction of your students is to onboard with a WiFi connectivity solution that is tailor-made for education. Between WiFi hotspots, LTE-embedded devices and WiFi-equipped vehicles, there are a number of ways you can bring connectivity to your students who need it.
For example, a wireless solutions provider like Kajeet can make it easy and fast for you to equip your students with high-speed WiFi connectivity without administration headaches or costly monthly overage charges. Many postsecondary institutions loan devices like the Kajeet SmartSpot™ to students in need. These are personal WiFi hotpots that run on any of the major North American wireless carriers, making them ideal for the lifestyle of busy college students. WiFi-equipped vehicles, such as those powered by the Kajeet SmartBus™ solution, can be used for Maker Buses, rolling libraries, classrooms and other locations to provided targeted access.
Related: Tackling the Digital Divide in Higher Education
Minimize the digital demand of coursework.
When it comes to how you deliver educational materials to students, there are a few simple ways to lessen the load on those with limited data or no internet, regardless of whether you are supporting them with connectivity solutions. Here are a few actionable tips:
- Pre-record lectures: There’s a valuable interactive element to holding virtual classes synchronously, but streaming videos consumes a lot of data. And if a student is attempting to watch live via a subpar WiFi connection, buffering and technical issues are inevitable. Consider having your staff record lectures ahead of time and posting the video recordings for students to download while connected to WiFi and access on their own time.
- Post-lecture notes: If a student is unable to access a live or pre-recorded lecture, the simple act of posting the slide deck used during class and/or any accompanying notes or materials referenced can help catch these students up. Ensuring at least bare minimum class content is readily accessible to internet-challenged students can have huge impacts in keeping them engaged and on track.
- Keep file sizes small: Virtual learning relies heavily on robust content and file sharing. One way to make coursework accessible to students with limited internet connectivity is to keep file sizes small whenever possible. Instead of saving videos at HD and 4K quality, save them as MP4 files for easier sharing. Make it a standard to share class materials at no more than 1280 x 720 (720p) resolution. These tweaks are simple and don’t affect the student’s experience with the material, but they can make a marked difference for those with limited data and/or connectivity.
- Use tools with offline features: While not ideal, but it can be helpful to provide students with tools they can use in the case that they’re unable to access any WiFi connection. Google tools, like Chromebooks and the G-Suite, enable students to download materials they need while connected to WiFi and then resume their work offline once they return home.
- Shift data allocations: If you have supported your students with fully managed WiFi hotspot devices from Kajeet, you have the option to share all program data across devices through the Sentinel® Monitoring student usage allows you identify low data users and shift some of that extra data to students who use their hotspots heavily.
Now more than ever, colleges must be creative, not only about how they’re recruiting new students but also about what kind of experience and support they’re providing to attract and retain a changing student population. By expanding digital opportunities, supporting hybrid learning and leveling the playing field with equitable access to technology, you can remove a significant barrier for many students who would otherwise opt out of the higher education experience.
Kajeet is your trusted partner in managed wireless student connectivity. If you are interested in learning more about how our affordable, reliable, easy solutions can support your higher ed students, simply contact us here and we will be happy to speak with you.