Higher education is rapidly evolving. The mix of students in higher education institutions includes those who share little in common with the historic “traditional college student”. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that in 2021 almost eight percent of new, first year, full time students were over the age of 24. Online learning models, which already found footing in higher education prior to the pandemic, are now assumed by many to be a significant part of higher education’s future.  The traditional model of higher education – full-time continuous enrollment at a 4-year college – is also no longer standard for many students.

But the shift in enrollment and rapid progress of technological innovation, emerging education models, and diverse pathways are far ahead of the state of education research. Now that the spring higher education conference circuit is behind us, we can see more clearly the ways in which research is lagging behind the progress that higher ed as a sector has achieved.

At SXSW EDU, my Labs colleagues found a variety of conversations on the future educational ecosystem and learner-centered design, but saw little research on how students are faring in these models. At the ASU+GSV Summit, we listened to plenty of conversation about the technological innovations that will support the new education ecosystem, but with little focus on the research backing it. And most recently, at the American Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) Conference, which featured plenty of research on higher education, I noted that most of this research centered on the (historically) traditional 4-year and 2-year pathways.

The research team at Labs is studying a range of initiatives that are part of the new frontier for higher education that include studies of new models for financial aid, tools and strategies to provide social dimension to asynchronous, online learning, new community-based organizations that provide personalized, in-person support for students enrolled in on-line programs, and how to design and  integrate micro-credentials into the nation’s higher education institutions and the impact of these learning pathways on education and employment outcomes.

As higher education emerges and morphs into a new technology-enabled ecosystem of educational pathways serving a wider diversity of learners, we must align our research with this new landscape we now find ourselves in. Here are three research areas I’d like to see much more of at upcoming research conferences.

1 – Research Centered on the adult learner

The 18 year old college freshman embarking on a 4-year degree remains the dominant image of the college student journey. But, hundreds of thousands of students in 2-year and 4-year institutions don’t fit that profile. The average age of part-time undergraduate students across both 2- and 4-year institutions is 27. At WGU, an online institution designed for working learners, the average age is over 30. If we imagine a future in which we all periodically return to learning throughout our careers, adult learners will be ever more present in higher education institutions.  

These learners, however, are very different from the students most higher education institutions are designed to serve.  They are professionals, parents, caregivers, community leaders and more. These life experiences are more than explanatory variables in a statistical model of student outcomes. We need to more fully understand what these experiences imply for what these learners bring to the table, how to best incorporate that into their learning experience, and how to structure our institutions to engage and support these learners. One reason Labs was at AEFP this year was to present research with our WGU colleagues on how emergency aid during the pandemic supported adult, working learners, specifically.

2 – Research on Diverse Education Pathways

Now more than ever, we’re seeing a proliferation of new educational options for students. Higher education offers an increasing number of fully online programs, and programs that combine online and in person learning. The landscape is also seeing micro-degrees, certificate programs, and boot-camps that offer shorter learning experiences that can be combined over time into full degrees. Many pundits see these programs the future of adult career-focused learning but the field is growing rapidly with highly variable results.  

As the portfolio of pathways through learning grows, we need to understand students’ experiences in them, the outcomes achieved in them, who is well-served by them, and, critically, the institutional and financial models that will make them viable and scalable. At Labs, our Accelerator team works with a variety of companies taking different approaches to building new educational pathways, and our researchers are diligently working to evaluate these emerging programs. We need to elevate research on all education pathways as has been done at RAND and others to ensure that we are keeping up with this rapidly evolving marketplace of learning.

3 – Research on Policy Ecosystem to Support Diverse Learners and Diverse Pathways

The higher education policy infrastructure encompasses an expansive mix of public, private, 4-year, and 2-year institutions as well as a complex set of policies governing accreditation, credentialing, funding and financial aid and much more. If higher education is evolving toward supporting more diverse learners through more diverse models and pathways, policy will need to evolve too. The research community can lead the way exploring new models for financial aid, accreditation models that are tuned to the newer delivery models, and student-consumer protections as the portfolio of options proliferates.  

Higher education is a rapidly changing ecosystem that demands increasing attention to diverse problems, learner populations, and policy changes. As the education ecosystem continues to differentiate and proliferate, our research focus must evolve with it.

Our research team at Labs supports a variety of projects to understand EdTech, online learning, and the modern higher education ecosystem. Interested in collaborating with us? Let’s chat.