At this point, few in academe are unaware of the digital divide—minority, low-income, and rural students and their families are severely restricted in their access to broadband internet connections and high-speed computing platforms. “…[O]nly 66 percent of black households, 61 percent of Hispanic households, and 63 percent of rural households had access to broadband, and one survey found that about 20 percent of college students did not have consistent access to technology, such as laptops and tablets….” As colleges shifted classes in March to remote delivery dependent on high-speed internet access, the impact of the digital divide became more pervasive.
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!
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?