Early this year, we at Optimal Campus began thinking about posting a series of blogs focused on what many perceived as a crisis in higher education. Shifting demographics of potential students, rising costs, challenges to the value of higher education, and academic inertia placed higher education at a crossroads. Many were arguing, and we agreed, that, without fundamental changes, the current system of higher education in the United States would be unable to survive. And then COVID-19 happened! COVID-19 has not created a new crisis for higher education, but it has accentuated the cracks that already existed in the higher education system. Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose.
On March 27, we posted the first blog in the series, focused on understanding the implications of the COVID-19 crisis for higher education and developing operational and strategic responses for institutions. We have now posted nine blogs ranging from descriptions of the pain being felt by colleges and universities to prescriptions for actions that need to be taken now and in the future. What was not clear on March 27, but is clear today, is that the immediate crisis will not quickly fade away and that the changes in higher education currently underway to respond to the crisis will alter the face and nature of the Academy. Some of these changes respond directly to the demands created by COVID-19. Many, however, focus on the underlying cracks in the higher education model that have been ignored by many institutions for years.
As we approach our third month of staying at home, this “new normal” is getting old. While there are conflicting reports about the impact of work from home on productivity (probably explained, at least in part, by whether or not individuals are trying to work while supervising young children), we suspect that all of us are in need of the stimulation that comes from interacting with colleagues other than over a computer screen. Nevertheless, we were troubled recently to read the post of a former colleague in which she lamented that she was becoming irritated at discussions seeking to plan for the future of universities. She said she had quit participating in such discussions, was just going to deal with the immediate demands of her job, and would wait until university leadership told her what was going to happen next. That’s frightening! If universities are going to thrive on the other side of this crisis, it will be because the entire community (faculty members, staff members, administrators, trustees, students, alumni, and community constituents) have participated in understanding the implications of this “new normal” for their institution and in developing a response that will allow for short-term survival and a vibrant long-term.
The blogs we have posted over the last two-plus months cover many different topics, but several key themes run through them.
Theme 1: Higher education has been in a developing crisis for a number of years. COVID-19 has accelerated the problems.
In one of our earliest blogs (The Nature of the Crisis in Higher Education, April 3), we examined the cracks in the higher education model before COVID-19. These included declining demographics, increasing costs, a crisis in credibility, and academic inertia. Subsequently, we looked at the specific issues already in play for small colleges (What Happens if Students Cannot Return in September? — Defending the Value Proposition of Small Colleges, April 27) and for regional public universities (Maintaining the Relevance of Regional Public Universities in the Post-Coronavirus World, May 29). We argued that higher education has been slow to respond to these challenges (Coping with Our Current Crisis – More Change on the Horizon, March 27). The COVID-19 crisis has turned many fissures into chasms. While no doubt some of these chasms are unique to the COVIDS-19 crisis, the severity with which this crisis is hitting many institutions can, at least in part, be attributed to their failure to recognize storm clouds and “plan for the worst, hope for the best” (Coping with Catastrophes—Lessons Learned from Natural Human-Made Disasters, April 7).
The danger now is that institutions may become so focused on the immediate problems caused by COVID-19 that they will lose sight of the underlying challenges their institutions already faced. It is conceivable that an institution could do a wonderful job of responding to the immediate problems created by COVID-19 and move through the 2021 academic year smoothly, only to discover at this time next year, it is totally unprepared to survive in the post-COVID-19 academic world. Institutions need to use the experiences of AY 20 and 21 not only to meet immediate challenges but also to begin correcting broken elements of their academic and business models. If institutions respond appropriately and effectively, it may be that this spurs a change in the academic model that has been needed for 50 years or more. If institutions fail to respond effectively, large numbers of institutions, particularly small ones, will fail.
Theme 2: Surviving and thriving after COVID-19 will require thoughtful planning, grounded in a clear understanding of each institution’s unique value proposition.
In the majority of our blogs, we have talked about the importance of understanding your institution—its values; its goals; its value proposition (Planning in an Age of Uncertainty – Part 1: Scenario Planning, April 20; Too Many Buildings, Not Enough Bandwidth, April 24; What Happens if Students Cannot Return…; Planning and Budgeting Post COVID-19, May 20; Maintaining the Relevance….). Certainly, this has always been important. The COVID-19 crisis, however, accentuates its importance. The financial crunch of this crisis is going to be severe (Planning and Budgeting…) and that is going to force institutions to make unprecedented cuts in upcoming years. Institutions that try to balance their budgets by making “across the board” cuts will make their situations worse and put their survival at risk (Planning and Budgeting…; Maintaining the Relevance…). The institutions that will survive and thrive are those willing to take the risk of eliminating unprofitable and non-mission centric programs and investing in their core programs and programs that can grow. For many schools, this means finding/understanding their niche and emphasizing it. To do this, they must understand their unique value proposition.
Strategic planning, however, is different from crisis management (Coping with Catastrophes….; Planning in an Age of Uncertainty—Part 2: Tabletop exercises, April 22). It’s imperative that we learn from our response to past disasters to be more effective. In the upcoming months, planning for a wide range of crisis situations will be very important. Many institutions will try to bring students back to campus in the fall. There is no way these institutions can be certain that their pre-planning or the behavior of COVID-19 will follow their current expectations. Institutions can, however, conduct exercises to simulate how key players will respond when new crises arise. Procedures can be developed to address these situations, and individuals can be trained to be more effective in dealing with them.
Theme 3: This is no time for minor adjustments to plans and budgets. Major change will be necessary—”sacred cows” may have to die—and these changes must be based on facts, i.e., you need data!
It is impossible to make effective decisions without reliable data. To make decisions about programs, institutions need to understand the cost of instruction and to have accurate data on program revenue and return on investment. They also need to compare their cost and staffing structures to those of other similar institutions. Only with this kind of data can institutions conduct the kinds of budgeting and planning processes that are required to face this crisis (Planning in an Age of Uncertainty—Part 1; Planning and Budgeting…). The more uncertain the environment, the more important planning becomes. Unfortunately, institutions often respond to uncertainty by suggesting that they cannot plan. Institutions that follow this pathway risk their future viability.
We have offered several guidelines for planning and budgeting in this crisis. Budgeting must be strategic, not tactical, focusing on actions that will support the long-run health and viability of the institution. All programs and activities—curricular, co-curricular, and administrative—should be reviewed as part of the process (there can be no “sacred cows”) and the process must be informed by an understanding of the role played by each program and activity as well as the market for your programs and your brand. Decision making must be made on the basis of reliable data and forecasts.
Theme 4: The planning process must be open and transparent. Everyone must be in the game.
Clear coordinated communication is the glue that will keep everyone positive and working toward the same ends. This is particularly important at times of great uncertainty when the stress level among community members is high. Participation in data analysis and decision making must include a broad range of constituent groups, from faculty members to students to individuals who may seem to be external to the institution—business organizations and politicians. The early announcement in Vermont that several regional university campuses would be closed was quickly rescinded and resulted in the resignation of the chancellor of the system. Obviously, this bold and conceivably appropriate response had not been made as part of an open and transparent process. There are clear conflicts of perspective among the various constituent groups at any institution. Managing those conflicts into a cohesive decision-making process is critical.
Both the short-term and long-term adjustments in university business models that we see as being necessary and appropriate will require bold action. Unless all constituents are involved in the planning and decision-making process, the culture of the institution will not change. As management guru Peter Drucker observed, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Thus, institutions planning for the long-term will institute processes that involve broad constituencies in understanding the new environment faced by their institution, in knowing and understanding the data on institutional and programmatic performance, and in developing an institutional vision appropriate to the “new normal.”
Theme 5: The future of higher education will be much more dependent on technology.
The higher education landscape will be radically changed when the COVID-19 crisis ends (Too Many Buildings, Not Enough Bandwidth, April 24; What Happens if Students Cannot Return…; Maintaining the Relevance…). Large lecture halls will almost certainly be replaced by virtual classrooms. Technology will become more widespread and critical to outcome achievement than it was pre-crisis. Much more of the learning and the work on campus will be accomplished in a virtual environment. There will likely be only two types of courses—those offered online only and those offered either online or on campus. This means that many elements of college campuses and their buildings will need to be repurposed. This is good news in many ways. Space has been at a premium on most campuses for years. Campuses have struggled to provide breakout space for study groups and classroom project teams. Lab space for disciplines outside of the hard sciences has always been hard to come by. As more classes are offered online, these kinds of spaces could now become available. For once, the problem on campus will be something other than not having enough classroom space.
The trends toward “flipped classrooms” and hybrid or online courses will intensify. Classes of all sizes will emphasize online or virtual elements, not just the former large lecture sections. Faculty members and students alike will need to learn how to operate in this new environment. Information Technologists and Instructional Technologists will become vital and ubiquitous.
Providing co-curricular activities that are a vital part of the on-campus college experience in a virtual format may be the biggest challenge for technology (What Happens If Students Cannot Return…). This spring, institutions focused their attention on transporting courses from physical classrooms to a virtual and remote environment. The process was largely successful, though it was only a first step. The quality of these remote classes and their inability to recreate the on-campus experience has led to many class-action lawsuits demanding tuition refunds. If substantial parts of the college experience in the fall semester and beyond are conducted remotely, demands for tuition adjustments will increase. It is incumbent on institutions to devise mechanisms to keep the student newspaper, the student literary magazine, the student-managed investment fund, and substantial numbers of similar activities operational in a remote and virtual world. Similarly, virtual meeting spaces for study groups, project groups, and faculty-student interactions must be available to support this important element of the learning process.
Theme 6: The future landscape of higher education will look quite different from the current one. Some currently successful large institutions will grow substantially larger. Some smaller, struggling institutions will disappear.
Predictions of the number of college failures and mergers have abounded this spring. We doubt that anyone can make accurate predictions before seeing what students do in the fall and what the virus does in AY 2021. It is reasonable to expect, however, that as many as a quarter of small institutions will not survive the 2021 academic year. This will be extremely challenging for both the industry and students. Mergers are preferable to campus closures. However, institutions and their boards are reticent to plan for such actions. We are familiar with institutions that have been running deficits for multiple years, have been forced to spend endowment funds to meet payroll when banks cut off lines of credit, and yet are not seeking opportunities for mergers that could sustain operations and provide opportunities for their students, faculty members, and staff. As unpleasant a prospect as merger or closure may be, many institutions need to be considering and planning for it.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis is frightening to us all. Our daily existence is radically different. Our relationships both socially and at work have become virtual. The very survival of our organizations and way of life is challenged. Undoubtedly, numerous colleges and universities will not survive the crisis. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity and an imperative for colleges and universities to use this time to rethink and reform the current system of higher education. Historically, academe has been very slow to change. Amazingly, institutions and faculty members responded with dramatic rapidity to the challenges created by COVID-19 this spring. The challenge ahead is to maintain this momentum and to focus on the future. While this future will not be familiar, it can be one that is rooted in high-quality education that is more broadly accessible and will still generate the research that drives the world. US higher education has long been the envy of the rest of the world. With an effective response to the broad nature of this crisis, this can still be true.
This is part of a series of blog posts meant to outline strategies for dealing with the mid-term and long-term implications of the Coronavirus crisis and our changing higher education environment. Let us know what questions and challenges you have about the future either by leaving a comment below or by contacting our principal consultants directly.
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