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The Four Trends That Will Build a “New Access” Movement in Higher Education

The conversation on access is incomplete. Learn what's missing.

Written By: Damon Vangelis, Founder & CEO

Access can come in many forms. In early life, it is toddlers being introduced to books.  It can be the availability of pre-schools. Later on, it can be having a library or community college (or satellite campus) near where you live. 

And when it comes to higher education, one way we — as a country — have tried to promote access over the past 50 years by expanding financial aid. This has led colleges to a focus on the “student’s ability to pay the cost”. And by extension, helping students get into (access) higher education

What’s Missing from the Conversation

However, the conversation has been incomplete. I have often felt the focus on costs has limited our ability to truly make higher education as accessible and valuable as it could be. 

We really need to look beyond how financial aid can make college affordable. We really need to step back and look at the overall model of education. Imagine for a moment you are the leader of a college. And ask yourself: “Are we setting up the students — and indeed ourselves as an institution, and our country for that matter — for success?”

Advising and Mentorship

I have long felt that the limited amounts of quality advising and mentorship pre-college and during college are a huge roadblock to student success. And are worthy of as much discussion as is making college affordable.

Too often students pursue an educational path that is needlessly expensive or not matched to their ultimate technical, vocational, or career path. All of this makes higher education less accessible than it can or should be.

Impact of COVID-19 / Opportunities Now Available

The COVID-19 pandemic — so deadly to our collective health and our economic well-being  — has ushered in dramatic change in higher education. And it gives us a chance (a good thing!) to reconsider the current college model.

Over the past several months, colleges have rapidly embraced new tools and technologies to support online learning and support. Certain corners of the faculty — long-resistant to virtual teaching — have embraced the change in short order. None of these changes would have been possible in the next few years without the urgency of the pandemic.

The sudden technological change has stimulated four themes that have the potential to expand access:


Colleges need to show their value more than ever. Lots of choices for students are emerging. Local delivery models are no longer the only option. There is new competition from online education and by the expansion of some colleges to new geographies. And colleges need to embrace technology to scale their services to meet the expectations of today’s students.


The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has colleges assessing which courses need physical in-person instruction and which one can be provided online and on-demand. I anticipate that colleges will rapidly embrace flexibility and multiple ways of delivering education. One college administrator summed up part of the problem when he asked me (rhetorically) recently, “Do you know how many times over the years a student has asked me, “Why did I have to travel nearly an hour to watch a powerpoint?”


A persistent theme I hear from college leaders is that there is insufficient student support and advising to meet student demand. The Guided Pathways model is proving to be a positive development. I anticipate that this is an area that will continue to receive renewed attention and focus in the coming years.


As colleges embrace flexibility and expand their advising capacity, more “skinny” and “focused” pathways for students should emerge. And opportunities to access education for a lower cost will likely be created.

Looking Ahead

There is considerable friction that can hinder a student’s success and perseverance in completing their educational path. The money / cost piece is a critical component. But it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

I do believe that we are on the verge of a broad reassessment of higher education access that will take place in the coming years. I anticipate the reassessment will be led primarily by colleges themselves. Why? 

Because the current higher education model is challenged externally by disruptive technology and from within due to its high cost and limited student advising. 

Colleges will need to lead. They will need to find opportunities within these challenges so that they can adapt to the new realities and thrive. The four trends of technology, flexibility, advising, and affordability can help facilitate a new higher education model that expands access.

If this happens, students will be the winners.

For best practices on scaling access download our whitepaper An Opportunity to Scale Access and Advising.

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