Like many other industries, colleges and universities have taken an enormous COVID-19 hit. When doors were first closed for lockdown in spring of 2020, students and families attempted to get partial or full refunds on the semester. Some universities refused, and there were class action lawsuits filed to restore “wasted” tuition and residence fees that did not deliver as promised.
Enrollment for the fall looks increasingly dismal, as some families struggle to afford college and others question the ROI of an online or hybrid model. Meanwhile college sports, which could produce upwards of $1 billion annually, are on hold indefinitely. Campus stores, residences and other peripheral sources of revenue are also more or less shut down and both students and professors have expressed great concerns over the safety measures that colleges and universities are expected to invest in.
Simply put, providers of higher education will be lucky to keep the lights on, much less thrive, while the pandemic continues.
On the other hand, these institutions were struggling long before the pandemic. Tuition costs were soaring, layoffs were prevalent, standards were dropping, student loan debt was skyrocketing, diversity gaps persisted and the quality and ROI of a college education had come under harsh scrutiny in general. Coronavirus is only the proverbial breath that might bring down this house of cards.
And now there is a certain opportunity and freedom that comes from the impossibility of the situation: if the bottom line cannot be maintained anyway, what reforms can be pushed through in the name of survival that could ultimately help these institutions rebound in the long term?
We actually think there are a few short-term solutions that could have lasting impacts on the general struggles that higher education has been facing since the 1980s:
- Take the opportunity for inclusion. Among the many benefits of a hybrid or online learning model is that 1) class sizes can be much, much bigger, and 2) they are much less expensive to teach with no or partial physical spaces to maintain.
This means that costs could be discounted and a greater set of students could be reached and served. It is a chance for colleges to narrow the income and race divides that have traditionally plagued the system as they simultaneously keep enrollment numbers up. Moreover, students and families will be more inclined to invest in an institution that upholds their values.
- Consider creative financing options. Students have struggled to meet tuition requirements for decades, and student loan debt has become so crippling that political cries for government funding have headlined the last several election years. Regardless of whether policy changes ensue, enacting relief and solutions on the side of the universities can only help the situation.
Universities can explore packaged bundles, more flexible payment options and plans, discounts and other deals that might bring in a greater number of students willing to invest in a hybrid or online teaching model in the short term. This could lead to “bonus enrollment” and extra revenue in the future.
- Play the long game with tech. As no one knows how long the pandemic will last and bottom lines are already suffering immensely, no one seems sure exactly how much to invest in virtual education tech. Zoom is functional despite “bombing,” lagging and other issues, and it is not a very expensive solution for most institutions.
However, as noted in the need for inclusion and the benefit of making costs more accessible to a wider audience of prospective students, investing in quality tools and products for virtual learning has a huge potential ROI in the long run.
- Campaign on premises of value. Colleges and universities have identities, school spirit and unifying values that are all the more important while the world struggles with COVID-19. That sense of school pride and community is a linchpin of the college experience regardless of the times.
Higher education institutions should reach out to students and prospective students to become involved in helpful ways that strengthen that community and identity. They should highlight students and faculty who reflect those values and bring pride to the school.
Higher education certainly has an uphill battle ahead. The pandemic has put pressure on stress points that had already been well established, and there will likely be failures in the years to come. But there is also an opportunity to reboot and take a chance on some more unconventional prospects and solutions that might solve some of the old problems as well as the “novel” issues presenting today.