Pondering the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education

Higher Ed April 20 / April 30, 2020

 – Thomas Mennella –

Click on any news link about higher education right now, and you’ll see that the sky is falling. Some will tell you that higher ed is doomed, others that it will be radically changed and maybe even improved. The truth is that no one knows for sure what the future holds for higher education, but the one certain thing is that the ground is shifting beneath our feet (and it doesn’t feel nice). 

I love higher education. It is my profession and my industry, and also my passion. I read about trends in higher education for pleasure. I relish “talking shop” with anyone in the business. And I have a fervent loyalty and sense of protectiveness for this wonderful enterprise. In addition to higher education providing me with my livelihood (both by training me as a scientist and employing me as a professor), I love the complexity of effective bureaucracies. While individual institutions can be riddled with minor (and sometimes major) issues and flaws, higher education as a whole has made good on its promise to better society, to better the masses, and to better the individual. This wonderful enterprise has made life better. This is why I sit here now with nervous sadness. Higher education is undoubtedly changing right before our eyes, but what is it changing into, and what impact will this have on all of us?

Will higher education be permanently changed by the coronavirus pandemic?

Make no mistake; higher ed is hurting. As this recent piece by Kevin Richert for the East Idaho News highlights, colleges and universities everywhere are experiencing approximately 10 percent budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The cause of this is a combination of fees refunded to students and unforeseeable costs associated with an immediate migration to online instruction. Colleges and universities are nonprofits; they spend and reinvest the revenue that they bring in. All of the room and board fees paid by students in August were spent long ago. This is not irresponsible fiscal behavior; it is how nonprofits must operate. Now, much of those fees have been refunded as students have been forced out of their dorms. That money wasn’t sitting in an escrow account; it had to come from endowments and rainy-day funds. Also, many institutions had to pay for immediate IT upgrades, network expansions, LMS subscriptions, hardware procurement, etc. to support 100% online instruction. These investments are costly, especially with no additional revenue coming in. I’ll say it again, higher ed is hurting. 

What’s more, this pandemic has resulted in a grand experiment in higher ed that we knew was coming (indeed, that we wanted to conduct), but that we were not yet ready for. In the Harvard Business Review, Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava pose a valid question: Do students really need a four-year residential experience? Whether higher ed was ready to address this question now or not, we’re about to find out; but we’re doing so under less-than-ideal circumstances. Online instruction is cheaper and more accessible for all, but it’s not entirely in the cloud. As Govindarajan and Srivastava rightly point out, “Online courses require educational support on the ground: instructional designers, trainers, and coaches to ensure student learning and course completion.” Brick and mortar sites are still needed in higher education, even for 100% remote instruction. It’s a misunderstanding to believe that all of a college education can be online. They go on with, “Some years ago, experts had predicted that massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, and edX, would kill [face-to-face] college education — just as digital technologies killed off the jobs of telephone operators and travel agents. Until now, however, [face-to-face] college education has stood the test of time.” Why? Because for some students, and for some majors, and for some competencies, face-to-face instruction is the superior modality. I can’t teach a student how to cast, pour and run a DNA electrophoresis gel online. Simulations just don’t capture the textured reality of the entire experience. I need a lab to teach these skills to my students, a lab in a brick and mortar university. 

But higher ed as an industry is in long-term jeopardy. Anemona Hartocollis, writing for the New York Times, states that “administrators anticipate that students grappling with the financial and psychological impacts of the virus could choose to stay closer to home, go to less expensive schools, take a year off or not go to college at all. A higher education trade group has predicted a 15 percent drop in enrollment nationwide, amounting to a $23 billion revenue loss [my emphasis].” I literally just shuddered… To counter this, as Hartocollis notes, institutions are taking drastic actions such as reducing tuition by as much as 50%, no longer requiring the SAT and/or ACT, and by furloughing or laying off major swaths of their workforce. This, too, is no small thing as higher ed employs nearly four million people across the United States.

Will these changes widen the socioeconomic gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots?”

Twitter is awash with nay-sayers and trolls stating that this is higher education’s reckoning. It is our comeuppance; the time has come. I wonder, how many of those pundits have college degrees? Have jobs providing them with a living wage because of their college education? How many owe their livelihood to higher education? If we set aside the societal good of higher education (advances in medicine, precision manufacturing, electronics, further understanding ourselves, our world, our universe); if we instead focus only on the individual merits of a college education, we still see the net gains it provides to us all.  

In the Brookings Institution’s Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education, three of those 13 evidence-based and -supported facts deal directly with higher education’s role in lifting socioeconomically challenged young people out of poverty and into prosperity: 

  • A college degree can be a ticket out of poverty.
  • The sticker price of college has increased significantly in the past decade, but the actual price for many lower- and middle-income students has not.
  • Few investments yield as high a return as a college degree.

Higher education betters the individual. Lives are improved by having a college degree. Higher education betters society. We enjoy our modern conveniences, therapies, safety and knowledge due largely to the research and innovations conducted at universities. And higher education is in trouble. Revenue is down, expenses are up, and while the few rich and elite universities can weather the storm, many of the small privates will not, and closures will occur. So, too, will some state university campuses likely close. When these public institutions turn to their state governments for bailout funds, they will find empty coffers as states are also feeling the tight financial pinch of this pandemic.

The potential consequences for society are huge. A college education may once again shift from being a societal right, as it was centuries before, to an economic privilege. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” may widen further. These consequences will be deep and long term.  

Closer to home, I am a college professor. I state this with pride and loyalty to my profession. But how much longer might I be able to say those words?  That, too, is uncertain. And personally, selfishly, that might be the most terrifying shifting beneath my feet of all. 

Errol St.Clair Smith
I am the Director of Global Development at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. I joined the education community in 2005, working closely with national education organizations on community outreach and professional development. Over the last decade, I’ve led the development of community platforms for The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE); the Association of Curriculum Developers (ASCD); the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Associations for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Parent Teachers Association (NPTA), and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO). I'm honored to have received four Emmy nominations and an Emmy Award for public affairs programming. In 2017 I co-authored Flipped Learning 3.0 with Jon Bergmann. The book was updated based on the AALAS Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning in 2019.

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