Existential crises are not new to regional public universities. Three years ago, an article entitled “Public Regional Colleges Never Die. Can They Be Saved?” suggested that, while regional public universities are the “workhorses of a public higher-education system,” they are “hemorrhaging students and struggling to balance their budgets.” Nathan Grawe’s eye-opening research two years ago forecast that the enrollment and budgetary crunch for regionals would be serious especially in the eastern United States with enrollments declining by 20 percent or more in the next 10 years. One has to be concerned as to the future and viability of the regional state university in our overall higher education system.
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?
When colleges expanded spring breaks and then closed campuses for the remainder of the spring term, they felt that this response would get them past the coronavirus crisis. They hoped that campuses would reopen, if not normally in September, at least in a general approximation of normal. Now, that expectation is being questioned. Many colleges are beginning to plan for students to return to campus no earlier than January 2021.
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.
In an earlier blog, I looked at Scenario Planning as a strategy for dealing with the gross uncertainty that colleges and universities face relating to the upcoming academic year. We do not know if and when campuses might reopen; and when they do, we do not know how many students will return.