What Happens to Higher Education in a Post-Pandemic World?Neil Trotta | Assistant Dean of the School of Graduate Studies, Fisher College
Back in March, colleges and universities moved students off-campus and all instruction online. Now that the semester and graduations have come to an end, we have to collectively decide what will happen in the fall semester. Will it be more online instruction? Will it be a combination of both online and face-to-face learning? Will it be all-in back to campus? How many more acquisitions and mergers will take place?
At some institutions, budgets are being slashed; faculty, staff and administrators are being laid off, furloughed; and many are having their pay cut. Tough decisions will need to be made as we move closer to fall. Not one college administrator in the world has experience dealing with a pandemic or any disaster of this magnitude. If you have Bryan Alexander’s book Academia Next, turn to page 23 and see that the author somewhat predicts what would happen to higher education if a pandemic were to strike.
So, what happens if colleges and universities open in the fall and a resurgence of the pandemic tears through campus? Will there be lawsuits? Will parents even send their freshman children to a re-opened campus There needs to be options equally provided to all, similar to what SNHU did. SNHU provided three different models to serve their students’ needs. Now, SNHU has decided not to open for the fall 2020 semester after careful consideration. The California State University system determined early on that it will continue with online instruction for the time being. If campuses reopen, are they able to provide all of the necessary health and safety measures to ensure everyone’s well-being? Face masks, hand sanitizer, constantly disinfecting common areas, social distancing and contact tracing. All of those things come at a cost. As a result, will they all be provided?
What happens if colleges and universities decide to go totally online for the fall? Will the full-time resident students get a reduced rate on tuition? Will the faculty be receptive to the idea of more online instruction in the fall? Can the college or university’s bandwidth handle a full semester load of online learning, again? Most places were able to prove they can handle the temporary move to all-online instruction and do it well. There may be students who decide they won’t come back to a traditional college experience because they prefer to stay home and study online. Perhaps they can do this at their current institution, or they might have to move on to another institution of their choice. Then what happens?
Most of the literature out there currently warns of more college closures and mergers. The closure of Pine Manor and agreement with Boston College is one that immediately comes to mind. Clayton Christensen had said many times that 50% of all colleges will be gone in 10 to 15 years. Many felt this was quite extreme. Christensen was speaking more about disruptive innovation being the reason for it, but he was not far off.
The financial ripple will be felt across every campus. Robert Kelchen from Seton Hall posts daily about the financial implications of the pandemic and moving education online. Kelchen tracks 403B matching cuts, health insurance cuts, furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts, program cuts, etc . Employees likely just feel relieved to have a job. Student services will have to be trimmed as well. If students don’t notice the cuts to services in the fall, they will definitely feel them when they once return to campus. What impact will this have on the students? Will the larger institutions more successfully ride out the storm, or will the smaller, nimbler private institutions be the ones to emerge stronger? Only time will tell as we trek through summer waiting to see what fall holds for us. The decisions still must be made by institutions’ leadership teams. The final choices they make will determine the success or failure of their schools. A “proceed with caution” approach will be most appropriate. However, remember as I stated above, none of the leaders who need to make these very critical decisions have ever had to make them in such an unpredictable environment. I do trust and have full faith that each administration will make decisions based on the most current information available to them, in the institutions’ best interests.
Author Perspective: Administrator