For Colleges, a Time to Reflect and Innovate

Professor teaches class over video call

Flexibility, compassion, and a commitment to innovation and more student-focused decisions—these are the qualities that will define successful higher education professionals in the age of COVID-19, according to experts at a recent Georgetown University forum.

The pandemic has put tremendous financial stress on college and universities at a time when falling birth rates meant that many were already suffering from enrollment declines. Now, questions about the long-term future of higher education have been eclipsed by the immediate need to fill classes—virtually or otherwise—for a fall semester unlike any other.

“We often talk about higher education as an industry in crisis; that’s something that you’ll see in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” and “Inside Higher Ed,” and many op-eds over the last few years,” said Thomas Harnisch, Ed.D., Vice President of Government Relations at the State Higher Education Officers Association (SHEEO). “Now we're actually in a full-fledged crisis.”

Less Revenue, Fewer Students

Among the first revenue streams to be hit in the spring when students moved off-campus and instruction became virtual were payments to such “auxiliary enterprises” as dormitories, dining halls, and parking lots, said Harnisch, speaking at a School of Continuing Studies forum sponsored by Georgetown’s graduate program in Higher Education Administration. Now administrators are looking at possible drops in fall enrollment.

“We’re hearing early estimates of around 15 percent and then as much as 25 percent or more for international students,” said Harnisch, an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown.

Public institutions, which educate nearly three out of four students, are particularly vulnerable. They are largely dependent on appropriations from their state governments, but states are also hurting, with projections of 10 percent less revenue for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, and 25 percent or more next fiscal year, Harnisch said. Additionally, higher education budgets are discretionary expenses and often the first to be cut when balancing state budgets.

A ‘Paradigm Shift’ in Instruction

The financial crisis is just one of the consequences of the pandemic. Teaching has fundamentally changed as well, as all courses have moved online. 

When it comes to online learning, “the paradigm shift has been from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have,’” said Jonathan Kaplan, J.D., an education executive, strategic advisor, and EdTech investor who also teaches in Georgetown’s higher education program.

Initially, the imperative was simply to move to a virtual environment as quickly as possible, Kaplan said. But as the fall semester approaches, prospective students and their parents will expect institutions to do more than simply offer a virtual curriculum and will be doing “comparison shopping” to find online programs that best respond to student needs. 

For Many, a Tougher College Transition

Students have been highly impacted too, especially those from marginalized populations who find the college transition difficult enough in normal times, said Erika Cohen-Derr, D.L.S., an Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs at Georgetown. These include first-generation college students, students of color, undocumented students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities or acute mental health issues, and students whose home life is unstable or demanding.

“Much of student affairs’ work is creating programs and scaffolding that can help students persist and thrive in higher education,” Cohen-Derr said. “And the scaffolding is mainly delivered in person in high-touch environments: through meetings, through check-ins, through programs and workshops, through time spent with faculty and mentors and peers. And it all contributes to strengthening the fabric of a student’s connection to the university, and it reinforces their sense of belonging.”

Now, the challenges for student affairs professionals is to remain attuned to these students—many of whom may have been personally affected by the pandemic—and redouble efforts to support them, Cohen-Derr said. These professionals need to be creative in how they reach out to students during a time of “social distancing” and model empathy, resilience, and compassion.

A Time for Empathy, Innovation

Creativity and flexibility have also become essential for admissions officials, who should be reconsidering policies, fees, and requirements that aren’t student-friendly, said Erwin Hesse, Executive Director of Enrollment Management at the School of Continuing Studies.

One change the school made recently is to stop requiring students to submit an official transcript with a fee when submitting their application and accepting an unofficial one until the time of enrollment. Other institutions, including Cornell University, have taken the groundbreaking step of no longer requiring the SAT for undergraduate admissions. 

The idea behind these changes is to revisit virtually every aspect of the admissions process to determine what is in the best interest of the institution and, more fundamentally, the students it serves.

“Let’s start from scratch,” Hesse said. “If you were the student, what would you want from the institution that you’re applying to? How can you put yourself in the student’s shoes? What is going to be the best way to reduce the barriers for students to apply? And what is truly needed in the application process in order to review that student to make a thorough decision, but try to reduce some of those barriers?”

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