Online/hybrid learning

If 2020 brought anything, it was the normalization of online or hybrid learning. Previously something thought of as being more for non-traditional students, online learning, whereby students need not travel and need not be in the same room as others, rapidly became one of the best ways for students to safely continue their education. For students with obligations outside of a traditional college-aged student, or for students where traveling/commuting is an issue, online learning offers the chance for continued success. For those who needed or wanted to be on campus once it became safer to do so, hybrid learning created a blend of online and in-person classes. 

AI/digital learning

Prior to the shutdowns of 2020, many questioned the traditional models that propped up the higher education system. As Sean Gallagher and Jason Palmer point out in the Harvard Business Review, there was “a clear inflection point as students, educators, and government leaders alike scrutinize the price and value proposition of higher education through the new lens of traditional classroom versus multiple modes of digital delivery.” However, due to the sudden, urgent need for online learning, universities were forced to swiftly readjust their delivery models. In an effort to help meet the demand, many schools reallocated funds for digital learning, as well as deployed AI to help with the increased workload. Students could receive answers from chatbots, and various softwares were used to help with admissions, as well as learning management.

Policy changes

This year forced institutions to create more flexible policies when it comes to students and education. Many schools adjusted their expectations of how students earn their grades, including making a switch to pass/fail courses as opposed to issuing letter or numerical grades. Additionally, several universities are opting to lower their grade standards for admissions, in an effort to offer grace for the difficulties of the last year. For some schools, this has raised questions about how to assess the quality of education students are receiving. 


In addition to adding challenges about how to get students on campus, universities are also trying to figure out how to continue funding their institutions. In the United States, this uncertainty has led to layoffs and furloughs of some academic and higher education administration staff. However, with some ingenuity it seems as though schools can continue to work on fundraising opportunities outside of their traditional settings. Additionally, schools will need to reevaluate how they decide “on what needs more external and generous funding and resources, which in turn will impact on their own social commitment, institutional engagement and fundraising strategy,” according to the World Economic Forum. This may require schools to tap into a younger donor pool who wish to see more impactful choices being made with their financial contributions.


The pandemic brought to light a disparity in how leadership on college campuses continues to be primarily helmed by white males in their 60s. While this venerable tradition has continued for decades, the pandemic brought to light that a change in leadership might be needed to shepherd students and schools into the new challenges expected to continue for the education world. With college leadership predicted to diversify by 2020, according to, there’s hope the trend will turn towards hiring more women and professionals from minority groups for leadership roles. 

Best practices

Looking ahead, there's hope for positive changes in 2020. There are several things institutions can do to continue moving forward in a productive way that will account for the lessons learned in the past year, and continue to respect students’ desires for their educational experience. Amongst this list of best practices are suggestions to push back against resistance to change, understand the institution’s culture to begin seeing how you can facilitate change, and create opportunities for collective change and learning. 

Trends that will influence 2021

While we may want to leave 2020 behind in our collective memories, there are still many lessons to be learned and absorbed from the last year. Robert Zemsky, professor in UPenn GSE’s Higher Education Division offers his suggestions on what trends universities should be looking for in the upcoming year. In 2020, Zemsky suggests university leaders start “getting real” about the business model and begin understanding how schools function as a business in order to save them from shuttering their doors. Curricula continue to be adapted in order to meet student needs. And finally, the traditional four-year degree may become obsolete, as more schools look for ways to help students earn their degree in less time. 

What schools can do

At times, this work ahead may feel overwhelming or daunting. It’s true that 2020 wreaked a lot of havoc, but for those willing to look for a silver lining, there are many opportunities for students and schools to effect positive change. As a result, institutions are going to need to think about different ways to demonstrate the continued value of higher education. Rather than trying to force the continuation of a 'normal' that doesn’t currently exist, many schools are benefiting from the significant advantages of online and hybrid education -- and in doing so reaching not only traditional students but many non-traditional students too.