College and university administrators are increasingly looking to digital technology to serve students with high-quality, equitable STEM education at scale.
Yet, their decision to invest in digital tools is complicated by the growing operating costs, declining enrollment, and low STEM student retention facing higher ed. The closure of 289 degree-granting postsecondary institutions between 2018-2020 is a sobering demonstration of the financial reality facing U.S. colleges and universities.
Administrators must carefully weigh the benefits and risks of digital technology before deciding whether it can help their institutions to improve STEM program outcomes at a lower cost. Let’s review the primary areas to consider in the following ebook, starting with an overview of the challenges.
8 Institutional Challenges Facing Higher Ed Administrators
1. Low Enrollment
As of the fall of 2022, approximately 90% of institutions were reporting empty dorm rooms. Total enrollment had declined 4.2% from the fall of 2020 while transfer enrollment was down by 13.5%, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. These data confirm a continuation of the downward trend we’ve seen since 2011.
What’s causing this trend? In addition to a declining population of 18-22 year-old students, there is also a decline in college intention among high school students. A study by the ECMC Group found that the percentage of high school students considering attending a four-year college declined from 71% in 2020 to just 48% in 2021.
2. Low Retention
Given the demographic decline in first-time students, now is the time to focus on improving retention over the national six-year rate of 62.2%. The strategy gaining traction is to focus retention efforts on historically underrepresented students.
According to the National Science Board (2020), academic institutions will need to dramatically increase the proportion of students in STEM, or the United States will lose its STEM-driven economic prominence.
Today, just 43% of white students, 29% of Hispanic and Latino students, and 22% of Black and African American students who enroll in STEM majors go on to graduate with STEM degrees (Eagan et al, 2015).
Given the 13% increase in demand for workers with STEM competencies (National Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014), the National Science Board projects that colleges and universities will need to maintain a higher composition of underrepresented students in STEM majors. This will mean tripling the number of Hispanic or Latino students and doubling the number of women and Black or African-American students in STEM by the year 2030 (National Science Board, 2020).
3. Higher Demand for Flexible Course Modalities
The needs of nontraditional learners are causing colleges and universities to offer additional course delivery formats. Traditional class meeting times and spaces don’t meet the needs of the 40% of college students who work full-time and are over the age of 25. This significant group of students has obligations at work and home that make it impractical to always get to synchronous class meetings on campus. That’s why over 99% of chief online officers say that there will be an online learning element to the student experience at their institutions by 2025, according to the CHLOE 7 report.
4. Higher Demand for Career Preparation
Pursuing higher education is a serious investment and stakeholders expect a return from it. In the U.S., employability ranks as students’ third most important decision factor, only behind academic strength and affordability, in selecting a college. Students entering college have a career-focused purpose in mind and surveys show that the ROI of a degree program is now a key priority for students.
However, only 11% of business leaders and 14% of the American public agree that higher education institutions are effective at preparing students for work. This statistic dovetails with a 2021 study by the ECMC Group that found that 58% of high school students believe pursuing a skill-based education (e.g., trade skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes more sense in today’s world.
5. Higher Operating Costs
Upward pressure on wages and benefits, coupled with the higher costs of energy, meal service, and housing programs fueled by inflation and supply chain inefficiencies, are causing institutions to raise tuition rates (Marcus, 2022). In fact, STEM course delivery is particularly impacted by inflation due to the rising costs of chemicals, metals, and laboratory reagents.
6. Flat Tuition Revenue
While the cost of full-time attendance at a four-year college has risen more than 180% since 1980, a National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) analysis shows that nonprofit colleges and universities reportedly discounted tuition by 49% for all undergraduate students in 2021-2022, a record high. Squeezed by higher costs and flat revenues, institutions must now do more with less.
7. Greater Reliance on Part-Time Instructional Staff
Part-time instructional staff are the workhorses of post-secondary education. Over 70% of all instructional staff in higher education hold contingent positions, representing a solid cost-savings for universities. These instructors often work at multiple teaching jobs, sometimes at multiple institutions, where they are typically paid based only on the hours they spend in the classroom. As a result, they frequently lack sufficient time to plan classes and evaluate student work, diminishing the quality of the overall student experience.
8. Increase in technology interoperability challenges for ICT Staff
In 2021 alone, the average instructor used 86 different edtech tools, while their students accessed an average of 74 tools. As institutions begin to rely more on digital tools, it becomes mission critical to evaluate whether new tools integrate well with Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Student Information Systems (SIS). Without a guarantee of interoperability and direct support from technology providers, institutions risk investing in tools that overwhelm instructors and students and leave ICT staff to deal with hours of technical burdens.
Scaling STEM with Digital Learning
SWOT Analysis is a useful tool for assessing an organization's position before selecting a new strategy. You may find this SWOT helps you to identify what your institution has and what you lack as you evaluate how to minimize risk and leverage the opportunity to scale STEM offerings.
8 Ways to Solve Institutional Challenges by Scaling STEM
To be competitive, institutions need to deliver digital education opportunities that meet today’s students where they are. Labster’s digital STEM learning platform gives students access to self-paced, high-quality science learning content 24 hours a day.
The good news is that 25% of high school seniors are interested in STEM majors and careers, a 20% increase since 2004. This encouraging finding indicates the potential increase in retention colleges can realize if they can plug the leaky STEM pipeline.
Here’s how Labster enables institutions to serve students better at a lower cost:
1. Strengthening Reputation with Brand Differentiation
Identifying and prioritizing what makes an institution distinctive can be a competitive advantage and source of resilience during times of crisis. While national ranking systems emphasize admissions selectivity, small class sizes, per-student spending, and standardized test scores, there are other ways to differentiate, including student mix and outcomes (Dua et al, 2020).
Defining the delivery of high-quality STEM education as an area of distinction and carefully stewarding financial resources to support STEM retention and learning outcomes represents a growth opportunity, especially given the transforming economy.
2. Reducing lab costs
Using Labster saves direct costs on practical labs. For example, using a virtual lab in place of a traditional spectrophotometry lab in a chemistry course results in a 12% savings in lab operating costs, including estates savings on lab downtime and greater productivity to accommodate multiple lab sessions. Students who learn science with Labster virtual labs understand how to use expensive lab equipment and reagents and are able to operate equipment safely when entering a practical lab in the real world.
3. Reducing demands on instructional staff
Labster reduces time demands on instructional staff. Labster science simulations have clear learning objectives that align with course learning goals, so instructors are able to spend less time focused on delivering science content. With less pressure to prepare lectures and lab demonstrations, teaching staff are free to spend more instructional time guiding, answering questions, and coaching students.
Universities planning to scale instruction with Labster will find they can do more with fewer staff. Labster reduces administrative burdens on instructors by automatically grading quiz questions and posting grades directly to an LMS grade book. It’s easy for instructors to view student performance data in the Labster dashboard and identify any areas where students might need reinforcement.
4. Interoperability: Reducing demands on ICT staff
Interoperability among Labster, LMS, and SIS systems is a necessary precondition of delivering learning content. Labster provides technical support and training for both faculty and students, relieving the burden on campus ICT teams (Naim et al, 2020). Labster runs on its own servers, with local regional servers for GDPR and data privacy compliance, and integrates fully with LMS systems via LTI 1.3. It is accessed via web browser and requires no additional computing resources or maintenance.
5. Raising Grades in STEM Courses
Students who don’t participate don’t learn. By increasing engagement with course content, Labster’s immersive virtual lab simulations help students retain and consolidate their learning. Instructors have found that exam and course grades increase while course standards remain high.
- University College London students who completed Labster as a pre-lab scored 19.3% higher on exams.
- Thomas Jefferson University students who studied with Labster scored 19% higher than their peers who used traditional study materials.
- San José State University students’ average final exam grades increased from a D+ to B-, a 16% improvement, after studying with Labster.
6. Raising Retention Rates Among STEM Students
High STEM course attrition rates (“DFW rates”) reduce the total number of STEM majors and the overall number of students who graduate with STEM degrees (Ralph, et al., 2022) Unfortunately, attrition among traditionally underrepresented students is disproportionately high, with STEM drop-out rates that surpass well-represented peers.
Research shows that students who drop out of STEM majors show an early warning sign: lower average course grades (Whitcomb & Singh, 2021). In fact, underrepresented students who receive a C- or below in introductory, so-called “gateway” courses are more likely than their well-represented peers to leave their major or leave college altogether (Harris, et al, 2020).
The good news is that underrepresented students who earn a C or better in introductory STEM courses are likely to persist in STEM majors. How can this be done while minimizing department budgets and staffing?
Labster is an effective, affordable, and scalable way to ensure that underrepresented students receive the support they need to succeed. For example, at Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, average final course grades increased from a C- to a B when Labster
was used in an introductory chemistry course.
7. Adding Capacity for STEM Career Offerings at Low Cost
Expanding STEM course offerings typically strains institutional budgets, facilities, and timeframes. Yet, without adding a square foot of lab space or a single additional member of the instructional staff, institutions are able to increase their STEM offerings with virtual science simulations.
Labster simulations provide skills training that helps institutions prepare students for careers in STEM fields like healthcare, biotechnology, and even wastewater management. From introductory physics to advanced analytical chemistry courses, Labster digital courseware can fill the gaps in your institution’s STEM offering.
8. Adding Capacity for Course Delivery in all Modalities at Low Cost
Today’s students possess more buying power. They love the high-touch, on-campus experience that enrollment marketers promote with imagery of green quadrangles and stately buildings. But they also love the flexibility and convenience of online learning, and they are not willing to make any trade-offs. Students have come to expect both quality and convenience from their college experience.
One reason for Labster’s popularity among students and faculty is Labster’s suitability for all course delivery modalities. For example, instructors can:
- Teach with Labster in a live in-person course, encouraging students to work together in small groups and collaborate to navigate each immersive simulation
- Teach with Labster in an asynchronous Hyflex course, assigning students to complete a Labster simulation individually before they arrive on campus for a practical lab activity
- Assign each student in an online course to complete a Labster simulation in place of a practical lab activity.
Campus leaders who are responding to the digital transformation of higher education are restructuring institutional priorities to provide a more flexible, student-centric college experience. It has become well known that digital coursework meets students’ preferred way of learning and helps to increase retention and other learning outcomes while reducing costs. However, every institution has unique priorities and challenges and must evaluate its own readiness to adopt even the most transformative digital STEM teaching tool.
Labster educational consultants are available to discuss costs, benefits, and provide more information about how to use Labster to scale STEM education at your institution. To start the conversation, and access a free trial of Labster virtual science simulations, contact us here.