Higher education re-imagined: goals, societal impacts, and pandemic effects

Higher education will never be the same again post-pandemic, as hybrid learning is likely here to stay. In this post, Adriana invites us to review and implement today the changes needed in higher education to ensure sustainable training environments for the next generation.

5 min read
Higher education re-imagined: goals, societal impacts, and pandemic effects

How do we define higher education? Higher education seeks to help students build the skills and gain knowledge needed to both develop their identity and excel in their careers. Institutions of higher education therefore have a broad purpose and a variety of goals for students, leading to several types of potential gains. One of the most common reasons for students to engage in higher education and obtain a degree seems to be getting a job (1), which is relevant as many careers require these types of degrees.

Higher education therefore holds much promise for the next generation of innovators in society, but also has several limitations. Some of these include: the high cost and variation in educational quality, as well as the potential to exacerbate societal inequalities already existing within institutions (1). In addition, since public service is one of the primary goals for institutions, responding to societal needs should be a priority (2). These elements reinforce the notion that the purpose of higher education is to foster collective, societal benefits.

Job preparation as a goal of higher education

Collectively, therefore, the purposes of higher education are to foster public service, teach skills and ensure job market success for students, in addition to preparing them for global impact through study abroad (2) and fostering a philosophy of life-long learning. When surveyed on their views of higher education, students in Europe agreed that job preparation as well as personal growth and enrichment are primary motivations for them to get a degree, in addition to the desire to drive societal progress. Given these important topics, policy makers should invest more attention into shaping the higher education landscape of the future.

Public policy provides a mechanism for societal impact

One issue that stands in the way of progress at the level of policy makers for the higher education landscape is their lack of a scientific background. This fact makes it more apparent now more than ever that higher education should prioritize the development of careers at the interface between science and public policy. Our institutions need to develop training programs that will prepare students for these careers, and teach them how their skills can be useful in the government space.

Public policy training therefore is fundamental to developing the next generation of thinkers and doers, whose scientific background is invaluable in public policy regardless of sector. A few such programs exist in universities, such as the Science Policy & Advocacy for STEM Scientists (UC Irvine), Science to Policy (UC Riverside), and Public Engagement and Impact Program (U Michigan). Public policy degrees may also provide strong training in public policy skills, such as the Master of Public Policy (MPP) (Ford School of Public Policy, U. Michigan), Master of Public Policy (American University) or Master of Public Policy (Arizona State University).

However, this type of training needs to be uniform across the board in universities in order to train students for careers that will allow them to address the most important societal issues of our time using their own individual interests and passions. In addition to lack of access to this type of training, another barrier to moving forward is the lack of knowledge from faculty in pointing their students in the right direction, thereby requiring some faculty training in broader impacts and career diversity.

Pandemic impacts on higher education

In a broader sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated barriers to higher education for some students, due to virtual campus interviews (eliminating travel costs) and increased accessibility for students with chronic illnesses, transportation or other issues. One critical aspect of the pandemic is the digital divide meaning some students may not be able to learn from home due to lack of Internet access or ability to have a computer. This may also affect their ability to self-isolate, thereby having to work in public spaces where they are more likely to get COVID-19.

In addition, the pandemic has exacerbated already existing inequities as related to education and the labor market. According to Strada's Public Viewpoint poll, which focuses on COVID-19 and its impact on education and work, a higher percentage of Black and Latino workers lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic compared to other groups. They may also be less able to cope with the loss of a job due to the compounding effects of higher risks for contracting COVID-19, and may be less likely to return to work in a timely fashion.

According to a recent poll from Education Trust and the Global Strategy Group, undergraduate students were also worried about being able to stay on track and graduate, and this percentage is higher among Black and Latino students. These studies show that it is possible to improve higher education and provide opportunities for students from different backgrounds, thereby we should re-imagine the higher education landscape of the future with these ideas in mind.

Changes in higher education require many stakeholders

In order to truly achieve change in higher education, universities should focus on underserved populations, as well as build up their online learning and resiliency mechanisms, while focusing on "the whole student" which is a principle that should be abided by regardless of the pandemic. In some cases, this may require changes in the curriculum or degree requirements, as well as providing alternatives to traditional courses.

At the university level, changes in higher education need to be made at all levels and from all angles, including both top-down and bottom-up, and this involves peers, mentors, advisors and department chairs. More broadly, many stakeholders need to be involved in re-imaging higher education by addressing existing disparities. This includes students, teachers, community members, university faculty and staff, as well as policy makers and other decision makers, including funding agencies who can provide funding flexibility.

The higher education industry post-pandemic

This shift to fully online learning has made some students question the value of education without a practical experience or real-world outcome, in addition to other issues related to social deprivation and social mobility and the lack of a collective educational experience. Implementing changes to higher education during the pandemic has begun to occur out of necessity, but could signify a higher acceptance of online coursework post pandemic, in addition to potential changes to educational costs that may benefit underserved groups in the long-term.

Higher education will never be the same again post-pandemic, as hybrid learning is likely here to stay. While some students may have taken full advantage of this environment and been able to obtain a degree, they also worry about whether their "pandemic degree" will be deemed as equally valuable as an in-person degree when going on the job market. This may in the long-term lead to a less educated U.S. population, if current or prospective students decide to drop out before getting their degree. This fact may be even more true for underrepresented groups that are already faced with hardships.

From an economic standpoint, this will also lead to major losses for universities in terms of funding and enrollment, therefore we need to act today on implementing changes in higher education to ensure the sustainability of the system itself to train the next generation.


  1. Blumenstyk, Goldie. 2015. American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Thompson, Robert J., Jr. 2014. Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education. New York: Oxford University Press.

This post represents the writer’s personal views.

About the author: Adriana Bankston is a principal legislative analyst at UC Office of Federal Governmental Relations. She is also the CEO & Managing Publisher for the Journal of Science Policy & Governance. Follow Adriana on Twitter.

We welcome comments, questions and feedback. Please contact us at ecrlife [dot] editors [at] gmail [dot] com.

Would you like to share your own story, insight or opinion? Pitch us here.

Follow us on Twitter to stay up to speed with our latest blog post releases.


🎉 You've successfully subscribed to ecrLife!