21st Century Higher Education Trends

21st Century Higher Education Trends

The 21st century definition of higher education goes far beyond hallowed halls and ivory towers. It encompasses students studying traditional subjects like history and English as well as vocational skills and earning credentials ranging from degrees to digital badges.

These trends challenge the assumptions that have long guided higher education. They also demand that educators reevaluate their standards of how, why and when students learn.

Blending the Lines

As technology and society shift, higher education needs to adapt. It’s time to stop thinking of traditional and nontraditional education as two separate categories. Instead, let’s focus on a few key attributes that both experience types share.

One such attribute is critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In a world where jobs change frequently, it’s important to be able to quickly and accurately assess a situation. This requires collaboration, communication, and creativity.

Another attribute is the ability to work independently. As technology continues to advance, it’s becoming easier and more efficient to do certain tasks without the help of a teacher. This allows students to learn and practice their skills without having to go to class. It also teaches students to be self-sufficient and to take initiative.

Finally, a third attribute is a strong work ethic. In the future, it will be more important than ever to work hard and to develop strong leadership skills. It will also be necessary to develop a good work-life balance and to make decisions that benefit your own wellbeing and those around you.

Lastly, sustainability is becoming more of an issue in higher education. This is because studies show that a thriving city depends on a well-educated population. In response to this trend, the Lumina Foundation has launched a project that aims to create sustainable communities through higher education.

Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional students are more likely to be women, belong to a racial-ethnic minority group and come from families with less education than traditional students. They also tend to attend community colleges and for-profit institutions. Their reasons for not attending college straight out of high school are varied, and may include financial pressures, career aspirations, parenting responsibilities or the need to gain work experience before returning to study.

Regardless of their reason, many struggle to find the right educational path for them. Many of these students struggle to fit studying into their busy schedules and are not able to attend classes during the day, leading them to consider more flexible options such as evening or online courses. Others may seek out schools with a clear pathway to graduation, including stacked credits and shorter programs that will allow them to move on to the workplace faster.

Institutions that focus on student support services for nontraditional students are able to build trust with them, which helps them feel at home in their new learning environment. As a result, they will be more engaged in their studies and are likely to have better outcomes. For example, some universities offer subsidized child care for single parents or faculty mentors for students early in their college career who are unable to attend class due to work or family obligations.

Online Learning

Many of the most traditional colleges now offer online programs for their students. These virtual learning environments are transforming education from the inside out. This means that curricula are shifting to hone student soft skills such as creativity, collaboration, empathy and cultural awareness. In addition, immersive technologies such as augmented/virtual reality and AI are enabling transformative learning methods that were not possible earlier.

The traditional Carnegie model of classroom learning is being replaced by a paradigm shift in teaching and learning. Students are becoming more responsible for discovery and self-learning while teachers become facilitators and mentors. In addition, students are able to access the vast resources of higher education from anywhere in the world, including remote and rural locations.

This new way of learning is also making it easier for students to collaborate with classmates around the world. Many universities now offer live classes online and use virtual meeting software like Zoom to allow students from all over the world to join and work together. In addition, students are being exposed to more project-based learning which helps them develop their organizational and time management skills.

In the 21st century, it is increasingly common for graduates to take jobs that are not directly related to their college majors. This trend will necessitate that students have the ability to quickly adapt and learn new skills in their careers.


The need for students to acquire a wide variety of competencies that can be flexibly deployed across work environments and throughout a lifetime (National Leadership Council for Liberal Education, 2008). The need to develop capacities for reflection and engagement with questions of public import that intersect with disciplines and the demands of citizenship (Stanford University, 2007).

The recognition that the world’s problems require creative solutions and collaboration beyond traditional boundaries. The need to leverage technologies that can provide a range of learning opportunities and experiences, including simulations, virtual reality, gamification and mobile applications (Blended Learning Initiative, 2013).

Finally, the need to shift away from an institutional focus—the idea that decisions, funding, policies and practices should respond to the needs of colleges and universities—to a student-centric approach that ensures graduates leave with the knowledge, skills and credentials to prosper economically and contribute civically and personally as citizens (Lumina Foundation, 2014).

In a time when content knowledge is ostensibly accessible on our smartphones, what’s increasingly valuable are critical thinking and communication skills. What’s also important is learning how to find information, critically evaluate it for its validity and understand its application in different circumstances—and the interpersonal and organizational skills that help a student manage their time and workload. These skills are as important for jobs in the highly technical fields as they are for those in sales or human resources.

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