Higher ed…after the pandemic

For purposes of this essay, I’m stating that higher education will return to what looks like normal on Jan. 1, 2021. (Yes, let’s hope I’m wrong and the actual date is sometime in 2020.)

It’s an arbitrary date; I chose Jan. 1 simply because of the symbolism of a new year and the new opportunities it might bring. Of course, proposing any date is risky when it relates to coronavirus; as Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.”

In addition, “normal” in the context of this essay means face-to-face instruction will again be the main method of teaching on your campus and mine; residence halls soon will be occupied; and the typical anticipation that greets the beginning of a new term will be evident.

But notice I stated “what looks like normal” in the opening paragraph, because, in my scenario, what higher education looked like on Jan. 1, 2020, will not be what it resembles on Jan. 1, 2021.

If my date is accurate, then institutions would have been rocked by the challenges of almost nine consecutive months of online teaching. Even if there was an opportunity to do face-to-face instruction in the fall semester, the continued threat of coronavirus ensured a sizable chunk of the fall term was taught online. Colleges and universities would have lost millions of dollars in tuition and residential fees. Faculty research would have been stunted. Layoffs would have reduced the number of people throughout the campus. Infrastructure might need immediate attention after months of being mothballed or only sparingly used. With the economy almost certainly in recession, there will be a temptation to make quick-fix decisions; none of them might be wise.

Only a handful of schools will come through this period unscathed, and what follows might not apply to any of them.

With all of that as the backdrop, we now look at what the “new normal” could mean for higher education.

First, a smaller campus footprint. If the fears of unemployment reaching 10% in the U.S. are realized, millions of parents (and students) will be laid off in 2020; one of the ramifications of unemployment will be an inability to assist their children in paying for college. (Side note: Spare me the free higher education argument; that’s not going to happen because of the coronavirus pandemic.) A smaller student body in 2021 will increase pressures to close dormitories or to sell campus buildings to outside agencies in order to get rid of unused (or underused) facilities and to raise money. There could be a corresponding pressure to increase online-only programs and courses, with the potential to charge less for those classes versus their on ground counterparts. Understand that unemployed parents might not immediately return to work once coronavirus is no longer a pandemic, bolstering the likelihood of a smaller campus as a permanent condition.

Second, a reduction in academic programs. The news relating to academic restructuring and faculty layoffs that we read about in 2019 and 2020 is certain to ramp up. (My state, Pennsylvania, already knows the sting of impending faculty retrenchment.) There seems to be a story every week about humanities programs being eliminated somewhere across the country. Other programs in other disciplines won’t be immune to the same fate on a smaller campus; the notion of “all things to all people” now more than ever reads “fewer things for fewer people.” Austerity, a term that has grown over the past couple of years and which has its critics, could become even more pronounced. Faculty will be challenged to create interdisciplinary majors or minors in order to attract students. They also could be compelled to develop competency in online instruction; a corresponding need for instructional designers will follow. Frustration among faculty will be evident.

Third, budget cuts are sure to lead to changes in academic conferences. At conferences, current research agendas are shared and future projects are birthed. Nevertheless, administrators will face the serious challenge of determining where faculty development fits in the budget hierarchy, and how much money can be earmarked for it. Especially at smaller institutions, an adjustment in university priorities to faculty as teacher instead of faculty as researcher would further diminish an emphasis on scholarly productivity. These pressures could require academic gatherings to become virtual events. At the risk of sounding flippant, the online conference offers all the benefits for faculty without all the financial demands for administrators. Upper administration across the country must indicate full support for attendance and participation at a virtual conference as appropriate for tenure and promotion.

Fourth, a reduction in extracurricular programs. Fewer students in the classroom mean fewer students who join clubs and organizations. Student Life offices, including the one at Harvard, were trimmed after the Great Recession of 2008, and such cuts seem inevitable in 2021 and beyond. Robust extracurricular programs remain essential on the college campus; however, like everything else in the “new normal,” there will be fewer of them and fewer people to manage them.

Fifth, fundraising frustrations. University leaders will need to be even more strategic in order to find ways to bring in critically needed dollars. Will current campaigns be adjusted? Will planned campaigns be scrapped? Appeals to alumni will often be met by “I’m not working.”

Sixth, an increased commitment to student mental health. Chances are the counseling center on your campus already has been bombarded with students desperate for help because of returning home unexpectedly, being forced into an online learning environment seemingly overnight and understanding how to use the technology they need in order to complete the current coursework. Concerns about anxiety and depression are not new, but they are sure to increase. Staff positions trimmed in student life might be reconstituted in the counseling center.

Seventh, a fierce competition to attract students from rival institutions and from those that close. Consider this: Eight colleges in eastern Massachusetts have closed or merged with larger schools over the past decade. Get ready to see such news in all 50 U.S. states; the bitter reality is that more colleges and universities are certain to close because of coronavirus. The good news is those affected students will have options as they continue their education elsewhere; the bad news is the some universities will choose unethical practices in order to bring them in. A university admissions officer whom I know told a group of people on her campus not long ago that the proverbial gloves have come off when it comes to recruiting students. In the past, College X would move on from a particular student once he or she had committed to College Y. Those days are gone: College Y is prepared to continue efforts at getting College X’s student.

Eighth, an overall decline in the number of Top 100 universities located in the United States. For all of its shortcomings, the United States retains a dominant plurality of the world’s most prestigious universities. However, the apparent now permanent slashing of state funding for public institutions and the pressures on public and private institutions to use tuition money to fund their operations combine to reduce American hegemony in higher education. International students provide cache and money at any U.S. college; the elite students could be even more attracted to schools in Europe or Asia.

The well-documented demographic changes affirm that fewer teenagers will enter college in the near future. The economic fallout from coronavirus is certain to exacerbate this problem. The closure of more American colleges seems certain, as does the likelihood that others will inch closer to the cliff.

The new normal in higher education looks less than optimistic right now. And if that Jan. 1, 2021, date is wrong and the return to normal is sometime in that calendar year, then the new normal will be even more tenuous.

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