Changes Ahead in the World of Higher Ed: The Experts Weigh In

changes in higher ed: experts weigh in

Changes Ahead in the World of Higher Ed: The Experts Weigh In

Published July 17, 2020

changes in higher ed: experts weigh in

When Stanford announced the elimination of 11 out of their 36 varsity sports teams, it was clear there’d be more changes ahead for the 2020-2021 school year that go beyond the much talked about COVID-19 testing, online learning challenges, and whether campuses will reopen.

To help keep you ahead of the curve as you make important college decisions, we reached out to professors, experts in education policy, financial aid, the economy, and law, as well as journalists who write about higher education, for their thoughts on what’s to come. Here’s what they said (lightly edited for clarity and length):

Non-Traditional Learning is the Future

Akil Bello, Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement at Fair Test, says non-traditional learning is the wave of the future, and asks if we’ve reached our tipping point as it relates to cost versus value:

In the coming months and maybe years, we will likely see students and families reevaluating what they value in a college experience and how they select a college. As the virus and resulting online learning has forced education to disassociate learning and a campus experience, I can see a world in which many students opt out of the “traditional” campus experience for greater safety and savings of living at home. Even before the pandemic, the profile of a college student was older, less likely to live on campus, and more likely to work while going to school than what is conveyed in the media. The years-long trend of “nontraditional” students becoming increasingly common is likely to continue and accelerate as the impact of this disruption lasts into the future. 

With skyrocketing costs, questions about the benefits, and now health concerns, will more families look for alternative ways to establish credentials that boost employability without committing to 4-6 years on a residential campus to earn a degree that no longer (and never did for certain groups) guarantee access to a comfortable class life? Will [these concerns] . . . conspire to drive significant changes in the financial and delivery models of colleges? The pandemic might just be the catalyst that conspires with the long-standing financial worries and consumer dissatisfaction to bring about a different model for training citizens to contribute intellectually and economically to their society. 



A Silver Lining Eventually, But First, the Sobering Reality 

Robert Kelchen, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy, Seton Hall University, finds a silver lining but acknowledges that first, colleges are going to look and feel very different: 

For at least the fall semester, the college experience is going to be nothing like anything that we have ever seen prior to March. Most classes will be online, and students who live on campus will have an experience that is somewhere between a monastery and a minimum-security prison. Until there is a vaccine, nothing will be close to normal even as the quality of online teaching at traditional colleges continues to improve.

I am deeply concerned about the financial impact of this pandemic on colleges and students. Dozens of small private colleges are at high risk of closing before fall when it becomes clear that they cannot welcome enough students back to campus. Most colleges will survive, but they will have to cut entire programs of study and lay off quite a few employees. This will result in a much different student experience when everyone returns to campus.

One silver lining for students is that they should be able to get some good scholarships for college because so many colleges are desperate for students and worried about their financial future. But expect scholarships instead of across-the-board tuition cuts as colleges walk a fine line between recruiting students and maximizing tuition revenue.



The Challenge of Increasing College Awareness

Kelia Washington, Research Analyst in the Center for Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, notes that this pandemic has proven that it’s going to get tougher to recruit students to a particular school if they can’t get there to experience it. 

I think a significant change that is already impacting and will continue to impact prospective students is college recruitment. Prior to COVID-19, college admissions offices committed lots of resources to exposing high school students to their college, including campus tours, high school visits, and pre-college programs. Due to COVID-19 . . . juniors in high school have been deprived of opportunities to increase their college awareness. This is especially concerning for students who already have a limited view of their college options, and who didn’t have the resources in the previous years to participate in pre-college programs or go on campus tours.

Colleges are responding in various ways, including hosting virtual open houses and campus tours, and making their admissions staff as available as possible online; however, I think most of us realize after months of working and connecting with others across video calls and email that nothing can completely replace in-person experiences. 



Changes Previously in the Works Are Now on Hyperdrive

Susan Fitzgerald, Associate Managing Director Susan Fitzgerald at Moody’s, believes coronavirus has accelerated some significant transformations that had already begun in higher education:

The move towards online and hybrid education will accelerate as many universities, previously unwilling to enter this space, are being forced to offer education through online delivery: Universities with good technology infrastructure and expertise in offering online classes will gain market share, education will likely see enrollment growth. Online enrollment growth will also benefit from social distancing practices—even if classes were to resume on campus in fall 2020, there is likely to be growth in hybrid and flipped learning, with lectures offered online with smaller group discussion sessions.

Nontraditional programs including non-degree/certificate programs will continue to grow, offering new market opportunities for colleges responsive to changing student demand. The rising unemployment rate, combined with the search for more affordable options, will benefit community colleges and public universities.

The coronavirus has highlighted that the on-campus residential experience is a unique product offering: Traditional four-year colleges will continue to attract a core market. The proven value of a college degree in higher earnings and lower unemployment for college graduates will drive ongoing demand.


The Only Certainty is Uncertainty  

Karen Gross, Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor; and Author, says the answer to the question about what changes to expect in education is “complex,” and explains why:

There are literally thousands of colleges (although some will close); some are large; some are small; some are elite; some are open access; some have been around for more than a century; some are of a more recent vintage; some focus on the liberal arts; some are career-oriented; some have mostly recent high school students in their entering class; others have a range of students including those who have their own children. Adding to this is the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, racial tensions, the upcoming elections, economic uncertainty and homelessness/joblessness and food scarcity. These all make predictions hard. I’d say these are more like conjectures.  

Some of her conjectures and concerns:

Faculty need to find new and effective ways to engage with students after and before class. Office hours and strolling the halls and going to plays or athletic events either can’t happen or won’t be enough. Faculty need to meet students literally and figuratively where they are. This means emails and chats and even a mailing and a cell phone call. This is also important so faculty can gauge whether students are struggling, not just or only academically but psychosocially as well. Indeed, if the college is being trauma responsive, the role of the faculty member will expand. I conjecture this will happen in some not all institutions; some faculty will still see themselves as content deliverers.

With the pandemic and racial tensions, there are real opportunities for learning in the moment. Campuses won’t be immune from the outside world as much as they were; the academic bubble is developing leaks and holes. Rather than lament the engagement with the real world, colleges should and many will embrace this, allowing discussions, conversations, readings, peaceful protests, mural paintings and local community engagement. This has to happen because employers too will want students who can and do engage in meaningful ways. I conjecture more campus focus on social issues in some locales—certainly not all.

I am not convinced campuses have the needed mental health services and trained personnel in place to respond to the focus on physical health’s psychic consequences. Add to this the inevitable tensions regarding race, friendships, romances, youthful experimentation, illness, sexual harassment, death and dying in the air, separation from family and friends.

I wish I could say I foresee robust mental health interventions. Perhaps at some institutions. But I expect the dollars and time and attention will be spent on physical wellbeing as if the mind and body could be severed. Sadly, I conjecture failed systemic mental health efforts on far too many campuses.


Fall Enrollment and Risk — It’s Going to Vary Greatly

Michael Itzkowitz, Senior Fellow Higher Education at Third Way, discusses some of the challenges that students and parents will be facing as they navigate future fall enrollment:

The Trump administration has advocated for all institutions of higher education to fully open their doors and offer in-person classes. In fact, they’ve actually threatened to withhold federal funding if no in-person classes are held. However, colleges are quickly realizing they may be liable if students start to get sick due to the current pandemic. And as we’ve seen lately, with rising numbers across the nation, there’s probably not a way around this no matter what precautions college campuses take. Ultimately, I think we’ll see a diversity in the approach that institutions take, as it may largely depend on the amount of financial strain they are under and the amount of risk they are willing to take on.



What Families Need to Be Thinking About

Susan Coia-Gailey, University Planning, Institutional Research, Assessment and Reporting, has ideas about what families need to consider moving forward to cope with the changes brought on by the pandemic.

I advise parents to be prepared for colleges to pivot on a dime in response to health and fiscal conditions, and to make decisions on the prospect that their least desired option might come to fruition. Simply put, be pre-emptive; look out for your student/yourself.

Consider that dorms might close, or that your comfort level with the dorm might change. Dorms are not physically or operationally set for social distancing. Consider that you might not be released from private or third party off-campus housing, which usually includes multiple students living in one unit.  

For continuing students: There are paid internships that offer a high chance of employment. Some schools have been better connected than others. Businesses are dealing with as much uncertainty as other institutions. Keep tabs on this; make sure you do not miss opportunities, and that you create some of your own. This is a big career-launcher for students in some majors.     

With financial pressures and cut-backs, will recruiting efforts at schools and businesses be as robust? Be ready to make your own pitch to employers who already know your school, have been pleased with their decisions to employ your school’s graduates, and have been returning for more.  Entering the workforce is your ultimate goal, whether it’s right after graduation, or after graduate school.  You will want to keep open the option of working by day and attending graduate school at night with your employer footing the bill.           

Don’t feel guilty if you receive merit aid, knowing that there are families worse off than you. Your remaining out-of-pocket tuition helps to fund more than one needier student, particularly when you attend a private non-profit. If you feel that the school is overestimating your ability to pay, speak up. People in Financial Aid are just like you; explain your situation, and they will be understanding. 

Finally, remember that the physical and operational infrastructure of college campuses are not built for social distancing.  College personnel are faced with giving thought to minute details, while realizing that not all students will be compliant (they are considering that, too). You will want to think for yourself. The most cautious students are as safe as the most careless people on campus. Keep communication open with your student, and encourage them to think for themselves. It’s a good lesson for their post-college lives, as well.                        


The Impact of COVID-19 on Admissions 

Jeff Selingo writes about higher education, and is a special advisor at Arizona State University and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. Here, he explores the impact of COVID-19 on the admissions process: 

In the short term, colleges will confront applications in the coming year with missing information: test scores, letter grades from high schools that went pass/fail, and extra-curricular activities that were canceled. To make their decisions, admissions officers will need to rely on what they do know about students. As I outline in my new book, admissions at top-ranked colleges and universities is a holistic process based on a complicated rating system. Just as one fragment of the application—whether it’s grades, an essay, or a recommendation—doesn’t push a teenager over the finish line, one slice of high school won’t make or break an applicant’s chances. That is especially the case for students whose final academic sprint was impeded by COVID-19.

That said, if there’s something applicants think is missing that is critical to the cohesiveness of their own story, figure out a way to include it in an essay or ask your teacher or counselor to refer to it in their recommendation. Remember, admissions officers only know what applicants tell them.

In the longer term, what admissions officers learn about the applicants they review this year will largely determine what they change about the process in the years to come. If they feel like they had a strong pool without SAT or ACT scores, they might remain test optional. If enough students participate in virtual visits, some might put less emphasis on students showing up for campus tours.

In general, I believe schools ask for too much in their applications. Colleges know that two basic measures indicate whether students will succeed on their campuses: high school courses and grades. That’s why nothing usually carries more weight in admissions than those two elements. Admissions readers I watched over the course of a selection cycle generally glanced at parts of the essays and recommendation letters and scanned the list of activities. It’s the only way they can wade through each year’s rising pile of applications without adding more staff or days to the calendar.

What schools learn about their applicant pool this coming year should result in a better college application, and a better process. They might ask for alternatives to the essays, such as supplemental materials—like creative writing, research projects, or a clip of a performance. They might ask students to write about their most meaningful commitment, instead of asking them to fill out ten boxes of activities. Ultimately the pandemic might allow both students and schools to focus on what really matters in the college search.


A Little on the Big Issues: Sports/Gap Years/Social Distancing/College Closings/Scholarships

Michael Horn, writes and speaks on the future of education, is the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank, and a senior strategist at Guild Education. He also serves as an executive editor at Education Next. Here, he looks at some of the big issues facing schools and students: 

  • Forget about just cutting certain sports, I don’t think many sports or intramural activities and the like will be happening at all this year on many campuses. Football will end up being canceled in many places, but so too will the intramural games that make campuses such fun places for so many.
  • Many students will be taking gap years–and there are now, more than ever before, many curated gap-year programs that make this more accessible, affordable, robust, and–in some cases–counting for college credit. The best are creating great networking opportunities as they shift to virtual programs.
  • There’s a wide range of confusion about how to keep students “socially distant” and what the repercussions are for those who don’t. Expect letters, suspensions, expulsions and turning a blind eye and a wide range of other impacts. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Department of Education get involved at some point as well.
  • Many colleges will close or merge in the year ahead, as they don’t fill a class, when they aren’t in session physically, if their budgets get hurt by the recession, or it’s simply unaffordable for families.
  • Some colleges will try to lure students well into the year to attend–and they will try to offer all manner of scholarships and discounts. Some of these scholarships and discounts may only apply for a student’s first year with the school–and then fees and tuition will rise.




Colleges With These Winning Strategies Will Attract Students 

Stuart Nachbar,  Independent College and Graduate School Admissions Advisor, looks at the new “reality” of higher ed, the difficult process of choosing a school during it, and envisions a college health alert system:

For most students and families, the challenge in the short term will be to find a school that is less expensive, through the sticker price or financial aid, or find a school that will teach better. To apologize and say “we had to put the lectures on Zoom or Web Ex” will not be enough for those who have a choice. 

There are going to be some winners in this new reality. These schools are:

  • Colleges that creatively manage their calendar, even through breaks and summers. I’m talking specifically about schools that offer smaller numbers of classes over blocks or trimesters. Colorado College has had a proven block plan for 50 years. Students take only one class for three and a half weeks, get a break, then take the next class. Cornell College in Iowa operates on this model. Beloit and Centre are adapting parts of that model, with two-class blocks. It’s easier to teach a block course in a hybrid or online model because you don’t have to worry about a class schedule. The professor and students can work together to manage the class, and those classes are small. Bentley College just moved to trimesters with a twist. Students can take as many, or as few courses over the trimesters, load up on classes during one, mix classes and more hours at an internship during another. 
  • Colleges that offer the flexibility to take your courses in-person, online or at other campuses and locations over the duration of your degree. Penn State is the best example. That system has had a network of Commonwealth Colleges since 1936. If you’re enrolled on the main campus in your major, you can also take Penn State courses online, or at a Commonwealth campus close to home, if you’re from Pennsylvania. 
  • Colleges that have the most experience delivering online classes. There are schools like Arizona State and the U of Maryland that have delivered online courses to non-traditional audiences for decades. They have a body of knowledge that can be applied to delivering online courses for the traditional college students.  

I also foresee something like a “health alert” system being in place at colleges, much like the governor of New Jersey has tried to do. . . College leaders will need to do what Governor Murphy and Governor Cuomo have done–watch the counts and determine when to issue alerts to stay quarantined, take classes online, not use more populated facilities. I feel this will be week to week as students “test the waters” in their academic and social lives on campus, and the community tries to find a workable routine.

It’s All Food For Thought

Making informed decisions about college is difficult enough, but when you factor in making them during a pandemic, it can quickly become over-the-top stressful.

With the help of experts such as these, you can hopefully get a better idea of the kinds of questions to ask not only of schools but of your family, higher ed plans and backup plans to consider, and career paths to explore.

It’s all food for thought, but born of experience and concern, and offered to provide you with some sense of peace in this anything but peaceful time. 

Stay tuned as we continue to bring you more of the information you need when you need it most.






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