3 College Trends the Class of 2021 Should Expect, by Brian Witte

More than ever before, students have the opportunity to pursue specialized degrees and personalized learning tools in college.


140804-natunivrnk-graphicFor students who are about to begin applying to college, such as the class of 2021, there are several emerging trends that may have a significant impact on the application process and the overall college experience. These developments mirror shifts in the larger world that emphasize personal expression and individuality. Here are three to watch out for:

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1. Specialized degrees: A growing number of colleges are offering more and more  majors and degrees. The University of North Texas, for example, advertises 99 bachelor’s degrees, several of which are highly specialized. Take, for instance, converged broadcast media and decision sciences.​ The Ohio State University has more than 200 majors, including hospitality management.

Once a rare sight, design your own major programs, like that of Swarthmore College, allow students to explore and combine disparate disciplines, like biology and music.

While the value of such specialized degrees is occasionally debated, there is a clear trend toward increased diversity in majors. If your career interests can be narrowly defined, it may be worthwhile to research schools that can provide you with a tailored program.

However, if you suspect that a specialized degree may be too limiting for you, you can still pursue a standard major, with ample room for exploration and personalization via electives, independent study courses, internships and undergraduate research. Whichever path you choose, do not ignore the unfolding possibilities.

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2. Personalized learning:​ Both colleges and high schools are trending toward more open and participatory styles of learning. In some ways, individualized instruction has always been the ideal form of teaching – hence the emphasis on student-teacher ratio and office hours – but improved technology has truly made it possible to deliver a more customized experience.

Personalized learning is the logical extension of this shift, where tools like apps deliver individualized content to each student. If, for example, you are struggling with the math needed for modeling population dynamics in ecology, a personalized learning tool could supply you with a wealth of practice problems and additional resources, like supplemental material from the textbook publisher.

As a student, your role here is two-fold. First, remember that this trend is new to your instructors too. Do not be shy about asking for help or clarification​, as your questions and comments can help your professors improve their classes for everyone.

The second important element is you and your engagement with learning. In personalized learning, students are active participants in directing their own education. It is up to you to pursue the extra help available when a topic is unclear. So, be engaged and proactive.

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3. The changing role of social media in the admissions process:​ Technology is also having a profound effect on how students interact with college admissions departments. Where students were once able to present a highly curated portfolio of grades, personal essays and test scores, schools now have the opportunity to view applicants more candidly.

Social media tools like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter make it possible for admissions staff to both speak with and quietly observe prospective students via informal channels.

You may, for example, write a personal essay extolling the virtues of hard work and diligent study. If your Facebook page contains picture of you at the beach during school hours, however, colleges may not take your words seriously.

Conversely, social media offers students the chance to engage directly with admissions staff. You have the opportunity to humanize yourself in a way that essays simply cannot match, and you have the opportunity to explore campuses and student life in detailed and creative ways.

There is no arguing that social media is only increasing in significance, both generally and in the college admissions realm. Be aware of its risks and possibilities as you interact with prospective schools.