This past month, another New England college announced it was closing at the end of the academic year. The announcement came as a great surprise to most people. The only external indication that the college was in trouble was an announcement about fall enrollment made a few weeks before the closing announcement. It apparently came as a surprise to most faculty, staff, and students who had been assured all along that the college was in good shape. All publicly available evidence suggests this closure was not a decision resulting from thoughtful strategic planning. It emerged suddenly, seemingly out of thin air.
Thoughtful planning has never been more critical for higher education institutions. The COVID-19 crisis coupled with the already difficult enrollment and financial challenges facing higher education is leading many institutions to engage in a deeper and more far-reaching planning exercise than has been the case for many years. Institutions must take a deep look at their strategies, plans, and programs, and must consider significant changes, not just minor adjustments (Planning and Budgeting Post COVID-19).
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!
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, most higher education institutions were well into their budgeting processes for the next academic year (2020-21). The pandemic, our collective responses to it so far, and the changes we will continue to make are causing institutions to step back and reassess their plans and budgets. In many cases, this means rolling back to the beginning of the process. COVID-19 has introduced two key uncertainties that will impact the budget—students and money. In the case of money, the key question is how much will there be? In the case of students, there are two questions: how many will there be, and will they be resident on campus or attending remotely?
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in numerous immediate changes in higher education—online education only, closed campuses, remote work for faculty and staff. While many may hope these changes are temporary and things will go back to the way they were, that is quite likely not what will happen. Pressures have been building for several years to move more courses and programs online. Although many institutions already offer some online learning, it has not been without resistance from various stakeholders, especially faculty.