With Phase 4 of the state’s grand reopening kicking off in as few as 19 days, universities near and far are getting ready to put their own plans in writing. In the second installment of a Sunday miniseries, we asked this week’s panel of special guests what they believe will be the pandemic’s most profound impact on higher ed as we’ve come to know it
Even after COVID-19, the health and safety of all will become a bigger priority on campus.
Says Illinois Department of Public Health Director DR. NGOZI EZIKE: “The pandemic has had the profound impact of challenging higher education to think of dynamic ways to promote growth and learning beyond longstanding traditional norms. I am confident that our nation’s educators — arguably, our most learned and pensive leaders — will continue to amaze us with innovation as they restructure what higher education looks like for classroom and virtual learning, campus life, collegiate athletics and more.
“The pandemic has compelled our communities of young adult learners to look beyond individual needs and requirements towards a loftier ideal of ensuring the health and safety of the larger community.
“I am praying that this ideal will be woven into the fabric of our young adults and not abandoned when COVID-19 is in the rear-view mirror.”
Says former U.S. Secretary of Education ARNE DUNCAN, a member of Barack Obama’s cabinet from 2009-15: “We will need to become much more aware of the needs of our most vulnerable students, staff and faculty.”
There’s bound to be a mix of some good and some bad.
Says TED MITCHELL, president of the American Council on Education: “Things are not going to be the same — ever — but we will find our way to a new normal in which faculty, students and staff will prosper, but differently.
“There are no crystal balls, only cloudy glassware, but we can already see that student-faculty interaction is going to be mediated more and more by technology. But this might not be a bad thing.
“Oddly, Zoom and email are creating more informal, human-scale interactions. How often did we see a faculty member’s dog scamper across the lecture stage or kids tugging on our professors during office hours?
“Teaching and learning will likely be more fluid and flexible, not only in response to COVID-19 but to the needs of this generation of students who are older, more mobile, more likely to work part or full-time, and to have kids of their own.
”Finally, the major worry in higher education is that the inequities that the pandemic have highlighted and exacerbated will erase the gains we have made in diversity and inclusion, requiring generations to restore.”
Colleges and universities will reinvent themselves for the better.
Says Danville Area Community College President STEPHEN NACCO: “Higher education has been overdue for a good swift kick in the pants. With costs to students skyrocketing and the students we graduate proving to be less prepared than ever to succeed in life, the pandemic has knocked higher education out of its comfort zone.
“Since converting all of our courses to an online platform, most colleges and universities have been forced to confront the stark truth: that the vast majority of the online courses we have force-fed to our students are dull, uninspiring and vapid.
“Prior to the pandemic, the national course-completion rate for students in online classes was abysmally low — in the 10 percent range. One would think that COVID-19 would be a wakeup call for colleges and universities to make every possible effort to focus on improving the quality of online education.
“I know that community colleges in Illinois have responded to COVID-19 by working hard to infuse a more imaginative and interactive environment in online education. That’s why I love working for a community college. We really care about students.”
No matter how it plays out, this school year will cost universities a bundle.
Says INGRID KATZ, associate faculty director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute: “Penn State has predicted losses of $260 million over the next 14 months.
“If schools attempt to bring students back and conduct learning in person, testing will be incredibly cost-prohibitive. For example, at most of the schools in the University of California system, 80 percent of students live off-campus and testing all those students regularly would (cost) about $25 million per week.
“Still, many universities are committed to an on-campus experience, and are willing to pay for it, especially when so much of the university’s revenue is generated by students being present on campus.”
There could be far fewer foreign-born students on American college campuses — and that would be a real shame.
Says two-degree UI grad JIM APPLEGATE, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Education from 2013-17: “The entire enterprise of international education is at risk — both because of the pandemic and the rampant xenophobia it has sparked.
“As one who has consulted to promote a global higher education system, I see this as a tragedy. Not because of its impact on institutional finances, but because of the threat it poses to higher education’s historic teaching and research role in promoting global cooperation and peace.
”Also, community colleges enrollments will grow in the medium term — unless they become a hot spot for infection — for multiple reasons: people wanting to stay closer to home in a time of uncertainty, reasonable decisions to not pay four-year college prices for uneven quality remote learning, and the traditional rise that occurs in times of economic downturn.”
Much like working from home, attending college from afar will become a more popular option — permanently.
Says former Parkland VP SEAMUS REILLY, about to begin his third year as president of Galesburg’s Carl Sandburg College: “The single greatest impact on the world will be the shattering of the myth of the time-space structure, inherited from the Industrial Revolution, which tied a person to a space for a certain amount of time.
“We associate face-time with work, and the knowledge — which we already really knew but refused to acknowledge — that a model based on productivity and quality and value is just as productive and cheaper to maintain will become an economic reality. Major corporations are planning to leave their office buildings.
“Also, it means that people spend time with family and spend less time making the trek to the space to work.
“The same will be true for education. The magical 16-week learning model has already been abandoned by graduate schools. The same needs to be true for all education to quickly up-skill people — especially the vast numbers without a bachelor’s degree, who are the most at-risk population in our country.”
Families will face tough decisions.
Says two-degree UI grad BEN ALLEN, former president of the University of Northern Iowa (full-time) and Iowa State (interim): “I have the luxury now of pontificating and not making decisions — today’s university and college presidents are facing a lot of difficult decisions. I remember the tough decisions I had to make at the University of Northern Iowa during the great recession of 2008-2010 time period.
”I believe that the future of some colleges and universities could be in doubt even if their leaders make the right decisions. For other colleges and universities, if the leaders make too many incorrect decisions, or are reluctant to make any tough decisions at all, the future of their universities could be in doubt. The governing bodies will need to provide guidance and support for those leaders willing to make difficult decisions. No doubt some universities will not survive given that they were struggling financially before the pandemic. Others might gain, those who have a history and a reputation of providing relevant and meaningful on-line courses and programs.
”There will be a long list of changes because of the pandemic including how courses are taught, how students experience higher education — on campus or at home, a reduction in student numbers, particularly international students, and where students will live. Some of these impacts will be short-term but many will be longer-term.
”I will focus on what I see as a major impact, maybe the most profound impact, of the pandemic on higher education — the necessity of changing the basic business models used by institutions of higher education. My comments are more about public universities because my professional experience has been with public universities.
”Before the pandemic hit, many parents were questioning the value of higher education in terms of the costs and benefits of being on a college campus and earning a degree.
“There will now be a concern by most parents of sending their students to a campus because of the health dangers associated with the pandemic. Other parents, who lost all or part of their income because of the pandemic, will not be able to afford to send their students to college because of the pandemic, or because of the uncertainty of their financial futures, feel like they can’t.
“In short, many students planing to be on a campus will opt to attend a college online, or maybe attend a local community college where the health dangers of residential living are eliminated.
”The business model that most universities now use is based on what I term offering a total experience for student development (and enjoyment) and charging a premium necessary to cover the high costs of providing this ‘college experience.’ The marketing materials of universities emphasize this total experience on their campus--sometimes the course work is not the first thing listed. I believe the pandemic will require a change to a business model that is based on what I term a “college education.” Course work, much on line, some in hybrid form, and some in person, will be the focus of providing a “college education.” And the focus of the marketing.
”In the short run, most public universities will be facing reduced enrollment because of the health scare and economic conditions of many families, and thus, tuition revenues will be greatly reduced. Plus, families are asking why full tuition is being charged when the real or perceived quality of the instruction has been reduced via online instructions and some of the normal student development resources might not be available, etc. Thus, tuition might have to be lowered further reducing the revenues. And most public universities will be facing very challenging decreases in state support because of the economic impact on state finances.
”The ability of higher education institutions to reduce costs is constrained by having a large part of their salary costs fixed by dictates of the tenure system, some of its infrastructure costs fixed if new buildings or the renovation of buildings are funded by bonds, etc. My view is that many colleges campuses were overbuilt before the pandemic — the pandemic will make this matter much worse.
”So the most profound impact might be the required changing of the underlying business model for many public universities. The question is will these universities be able to change quickly enough to survive. Those with less excess capacity in academic and non-academic buildings, and those that had outsourced the building and ownership of most of their residence halls are probably in a better position to lower their cost structure that is more aligned with providing a ‘college education.’ Excess capacity is a source of unneeded costs.
”I do want to emphasize that I strongly believe in the students being on campus for the ‘college experience.’ I, and others, did not do enough in past years to control the costs of providing the ‘college experience.’ I believe necessity now will force universities to lower their costs to the students, and thus, lower their own cost structure, and to market more on the value of getting a ‘college education.’
”The derivative impacts of this change in the business model will affect the future and nature of the tenure system, the future of Division I athletics at universities not in one of the Big Five conferences, and the nature and amount of research being conducted at many non-AAU or research universities and colleges. The increasing excess capacity in the overall university and college system will lead to more price discounting leading to more financial stress and will delay the necessity of making structural changes in the system. Alums do not want to see their colleges fail (or even change).”
As the number of online offerings rises, so will the desire to return to the way things were, pre-pandemic.
Says DR. LaMAR HASBROUCK, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health from 2012-15: “Colleges and universities probably realize to remain competitive and nimble, they may need to invest more in digital learning platforms and training faculty in best practices for online instruction.
“That said, there is no substitution for an on-campus experience in terms of building a sense of community, camaraderie and school spirit.
“As a father of three daughters who are in college, I hope schools reopen sooner rather than later — even if it means additional precautions, including requiring students to be tested for COVID-19 prior to returning.”
So long, packed lecture halls and soldout stadiums — at least for the short term.
Says ALI MOKDAD, chief strategy officer of the Population Health Initiative at the University of Washington, a national leader in coronavirus modeling: “Classes likely will be reduced to 10 or fewer students, depending on the physical space. I also do not expect there will be sports events with audiences.
“Regarding housing, sororities and fraternities likely will not be allowed, though dormitories, depending on their configurations — that is, bathroom sharing and common areas — will be allowed, but I expect with fewer students.
”Colleges and universities must be flexible on who can opt out of attending classes in-person, as opposed to classes only online. Some students may be infected and asymptomatic, others may at high risk or fearful of contracting the virus. It is imperative that people’s privacy be protected, regardless of one’s COVID status.
”COVID-19, for the foreseeable future, has restricted our freedom to travel and to gather with family and friends. For many, it has created economic hardships. In the academic sector, however, we are fortunate that technology has enabled us to continue pursuing many aspects of research and learning, and, in turn, seeking careers in our chosen disciplines.”