BestColleges Research: 2021 Year in Review

Our research reports and data studies illuminated topics ranging from campus COVID-19 vaccine mandates and college diversity efforts to student debt and employment concerns.

December 21, 2021 · Updated on December 20, 2021

BestColleges Research: 2021 Year in Review
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by BestColleges

As colleges around the world abruptly closed their campuses in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, it became obvious that the learning experience would be different.

The term remote learning emerged to describe classes that were not originally designed for online delivery, but made the shift in a short timeframe, typically relying heavily on live, online meetings (e.g., Zoom-based classes).

Amid this chaotic time in higher education, BestColleges' research initiative continued through a series of nationwide surveys. In 2021, we published five research reports and 13 data studies sharing our findings on a wide variety of topics from campus vaccine mandates and college diversity efforts to student debt and employment concerns.

Our seventh annual Online Education Trends Report launched in March 2021, followed by the second annual Trends in Online Student Demographics and Trends in College Career and Employment Planning reports. This year we also published new reports related to bootcamp training and alternative education pathways.

What did we learn through all of this research? Our overarching takeaways focus on the potential long-term impacts of the changes experienced this past year in higher education.

1. Opportunities to Improve Exist, Even in an Emergency Situation

Even though there were many challenges during the past year, students found a few silver linings. For example, because of COVID-19-related changes to their college experience, more than one-third of the remote learners surveyed shared that they will be more adaptable and flexible when unexpected events occur in the future.

School administrators also shared their wins with us. Nearly half said there is now an industry-wide call to invest in the resources needed to develop high-quality online learning experiences. Faculty development, enhanced online access to student support services, and new course format options were all identified as important moves going forward. Many faculty members and administrators also embraced the flexibility of remote work and predicted it would continue beyond pandemic-related campus closures.

2. Students Rely on Their Schools for More Than Just Academic Support

For both remote and online learners, the biggest concern about learning at a distance in 2021 was balancing education with work, family, and household obligations. In separate surveys, college students also shared their experiences with negative mental health symptoms, as well as concerns related to student loan debt and their schools' social justice efforts.

From academic tutoring to health and wellness, college students often turn to their schools for resources and support. But colleges and universities can do more to align their efforts with student needs. Increasing access to support services (e.g., providing on-campus and online options) helps support students who are completing academic programs while also fulfilling many other work and life roles.

3. A College Degree Isn't the Only Path to Career Success

We may be seeing more awareness and acceptance of other learning and training paths. This year we conducted multiple surveys of the general public and business leaders across the United States to find out more about their perceptions related to higher education and career training. A majority of both groups agreed that alternative education pathways (e.g., technical/vocational training, technical bootcamp programs, apprenticeships) will help meet future workforce training needs.

Earning a college degree is still recommended by most business leaders; however, they also shared that employers should consider removing college degree requirements for many jobs. Aspiring professionals can expect to complete a combination of training and education experiences throughout their career. Being open to a wider variety of learning opportunities can help you make better decisions about your future and also help you develop the skills needed to stay up-to-date in your current role or be more competitive in a future job search.

4. Working and Learning Are More Integrated Than Ever

Employers typically offer some level of on-the-job or formal skill development training to their employees. In our surveys this year, almost one-quarter of working Americans said their employer was the primary source of training for their current or most recent job. And more than a third of online college students said they were motivated to enroll not only to advance in their field, but also because their employer offered an incentive or had a partnership with a school or academic program.

As we move forward with lasting changes to not only the educational process but also work environments, we may see a closer connection between learning and working in many industries. This likely comes as no surprise to the majority of online students who enroll in their programs every year with career and employment goals in mind.

Looking Ahead to 2022

The BestColleges' research initiative continues to track long-term trends in higher education and career development. Our annual student and school administrator surveys are now underway to identify the current trends in online education for 2022. In addition to our annual reports, new studies are planned covering topics such as cost considerations in college decision-making, the future world of work, and career transition planning.

Watch for our latest research reports and data studies. We'll also be adding new resources and guides to our site to inform students and schools alike. Follow us here at BestCollege.com and on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for more information and updates.