New Year’s Eve was once a carefree celebration of ringing in the new. For many, it has now become a sigh of good riddance to the passing year, twinged with an apprehension for what lies ahead – another reflection of the shared societal trauma of the pandemic. As our relationship with even our most coveted traditions changes, we are seeing a dominant theme for the year ahead being “the need to respond to changes in all relationships” – colleagues, employers, society, institutions, places, and the environment at large, as outlined in Accenture Fjord Trends 2022 report: The new fabric of life, an annual survey and analysis of global trends across consumer behavior.

In reviewing the report, I found myself reflecting: How is this playing out in higher education?

A shift in priorities: One of the five trends in the cross-industry Fjord Trends report, “Handle with Care”, struck a chord. It outlines the rising importance of self-care, the increased time needed to care for others, and the shifting focus to empathy, kindness, and compassion in interactions with others. As they experience increasing demands and rethink what is most important, certain student segments are showing increased sensitivity to dropping out or not embarking on their college journey at all. The recently released benchmark report and preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows a 13.1% decrease from 2019 to 2021 in enrollment of high school students in college – particularly those from minority and low-income schools.

  • What is the opportunity for higher education institutions? Focus on the compassionate experience. Friction from the institution itself can sometimes be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for students. Institutions can take a careful look at the end-to-end experience for the various segments they serve, reducing overall friction and being intentional about inserting opportunities to show compassion, empathy, and kindness.

Along the Handle with Care theme, I found more synergy in our recent survey of students aged 16-65, Serving all students. Students expect higher education to serve the “whole student”: While the concept of serving the whole person is not new in education or social services more generally, it has often been of secondary focus for many institutions. This is impacting students, their satisfaction, and potentially their success. In our 2021 US survey, we identified six segments of students.  The survey found that students across all of these segments had less satisfaction in 2021 with the level of support they received in at least one critical non-academic area, such as financial counseling, mental health and wellness, and disability support. Given the strain of the pandemic, many institutions may not have the resources or capacity to fully address these needs. 

  • How can higher ed respond? Leverage technology and expertise. Higher education often makes the mistake of trying to do everything itself. The pandemic has elicited an explosion in technology and service offerings that institutions can leverage to more easily scale their services to students in areas that are perhaps not a core institutional competency. At the same time, institutions need to take a hard look at where they are putting their resources and undertake the (sometimes seemingly insurmountable) task of sunsetting programs and services that are no longer of greatest priority to their students. 

Meeting higher expectations of higher ed’s employees : “Handle with Care” doesn’t just apply to higher ed’s students, but also to its employees. 78% of workers strongly believe that their employer is responsible for helping them become “Net Better Off,” in other words helping them meet fundamental human needs through work. Staff and faculty want financial rewards, but also want to see their institutions contributing to their professional development, their physical and mental well-being, and they want to get a sense of belonging and purpose from their work. Here are a few ways to rethink talent strategies in higher ed human resources. 

  • Focus on retaining top talent in higher ed. The workforce has already fallen by 4%, particularly at community colleges and among part-time workers. Institutions can evaluate where they are doing well and where they can improve in their ability to make their top talent “net better off” 
  • Help reshufflers be prepared for what’s next. The mismatch between employee expectations and reality is driving the “Great Reshuffle”. Higher education could have a meaningful role to play in helping these resigned workers identify the job/career they want and guiding them to and through degrees and credentials that will help them get there. 

As we often see, higher education can be a victim of current trends, while simultaneously acting as a driving force behind many of the most promising opportunities. In the New Year, let’s all resolve to give each other some empathy and grace as we navigate this new world together. 

In short, #handlewithcare. 

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Samantha Fisher

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Service, Education