Looking Ahead – an Assessment of the Future of Higher Education amidst the Impacts of COVID-19

By David Clark, CIA, CFE, CRMA

The spring of 2020 was witness to an unprecedented disruption to life as we know it. The onset of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and rapid spread around the globe required an unexpected and immediate response to how businesses and individuals operate. Colleges and universities were no exception and, in many cases, were some of the most highly publicized organizations in terms of reaction and response and the change in the nature of the higher education industry.

Though higher education has been operating distance learning activities and programs for decades, with a dramatic increase in online-only programs throughout the 21st century, the public concept of higher education still revolved around ivy-covered buildings and students rushing through the quad to get to their next lecture. However, amidst the public health emergency, campuses across the country shuttered and institutions rushed to establish the necessary protocols and infrastructure for fully remote operation.

In large part, the crisis response and new normal can be called a success. Institutions have transitioned the majority of all educational activities online and operate effectively with staff working remotely. Now, schools are beginning to focus on the opportunities created through the crisis, while also considering the risks and uncertainties to come. As the initial surge in activity associated with campus closures has ended, we’re now left to evaluate the impact and review lessons learned from the transition.

Immediate Lessons Learned

Evaluating the impact of campus response to date identifies several important considerations for higher education institutions:

  1. Many activities can be offered remotely—with the exception of certain research activities, hands-on lab work or higher-level courses requiring deep interaction and collaboration, university operations have been able to continue in the remote environment. While there is no replacement for the campus experience through this environment, institutions will likely rethink how they deliver courses and provide operational and administrative support in light of the success of remote options. Could this enable institutions to reduce space needs by moving more employees to full- or part-time remote work or signal the end to the slate of introductory courses packing lecture halls with hundreds of students?
  2. Campus emergency response plans work (for the most part)—though many institutions had likely not planned for an abrupt closure of all campus activities and ability to sustain remote operations for months afterward, the basic foundations and building blocks for rapid evaluation and response existed and enabled mobilization of key individuals and prompt decision making. As the full impact of COVID-19 unraveled, many campuses also saw the need to expand the sphere of individuals or roles included in the campus response, helping to further enhance the blueprint for disaster preparedness in the future.
  3. Students want the campus experience—though it’s now evident that many institutions could permanently offer enhanced online courses, there is still strong demand and interest in the traditional experience of higher education.

Considerations as we Look Forward

Though the initial response and reaction to the COVID-19 crisis has passed, the work is not over. Colleges and universities are now faced with potentially even more difficult decisions than the ones they’ve already tackled, with uncertainty continuing to loom over factors that are largely beyond their control. Considerations include:

  • How do state or local reopening plans impact our ability to reopen campus?
  • What will the impact be to enrollment as students and their families may face economic hardships, want to stay closer to home or question the cost-to-value proposition of traditional higher education?
  • What changes should we make to how we operate for the immediate future when campuses can reopen? What aspects of that environment may be here to stay?

Can we withstand and/or are we prepared to respond in the event of another outbreak or similar scenario?

While institutions continue to struggle with how and when they will answer these questions, they should also look introspectively at what has been learned through this crisis. The landscape and view of risks has changed, so it’s important for leadership to take a step back and assess how they can grow and adapt for the better. This can also be a time to perform a post-action assessment and see if there were areas that may have been missed or overlooked that could be useful in designing the environment of the future. In many cases, institutions were developing and implementing responses simultaneously. Now, they have the chance to optimize and correct issues, implement or enhance controls and, ultimately, provide a more robust and strengthened program.

Overall, COVID-19 exacerbated issues and widened fissures already being discussed regarding the culture and standing of higher education. Schools were already feeling the impact of expanded online programs or other distance learning. Projected enrollment declines and concerns regarding college affordability were already raising concerns over the financial health and sustainability of the campus operating model and viability of maintaining the status quo with thousands of independent schools across the country.

It’s impossible to know what changes will continue to hit higher education in the coming years, but I am offering a few predictions:

1. College closures will continue at a higher rate, with many small, private liberal arts colleges closing or consolidating.

2. Overall college enrollment and completion will hold steady, but more students will choose cost-conscious alternatives in the short term (next two to three years) such as:

  • State universities over private
  • Leveraging community colleges
  • Full or partial distance learning

3. Higher education will adapt and continue. Though the landscape of higher education is likely forever changed in certain ways, the demand and need for traditional colleges and universities is more evident now than ever.