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COVID-19 Puts 2019 Higher Ed Challenges in Stark Relief

Graduation rates? Workforce readiness? Competitive pressures? None of these shows up in a recent ranking of the top three major issues faced by university and college executives. Still, in a survey done pre-pandemic among members of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, researchers found that many of the big challenges cited by higher education leaders then are the same ones they're grappling with today, in an era of COVID-19:

  • Government funding (listed by 77 percent of respondents);
  • Student mental health and well-being (68 percent); and
  • Diversity and inclusion of students, faculty and staff (63 percent).

Each of those topics gets coverage in a new report issued by the APLU, which was developed in partnership with Blue Moon Consulting Group, a higher ed crisis management consultancy, and SimpsonScarborough, a marketing firm focused on higher ed.

Declining government funding has two root causes, according to the report: a decline in the "belief of higher ed as a 'public good'" and an "inability to quickly adapt."

The first plays into a painful cycle. As government support drops, schools increase tuition, forcing people to reconsider the value of postsecondary education, generating less political support and so on. Countering that, members told the APLU, would require greater public advocacy on the contributions made by higher ed, creation of political action committees for more lobbying and continued attention on finding "alternative sources of funding."

The second, slow adaptation, was questioned as an assumption. As the researchers pointed out, "COVID-19 has certainly forced almost all institutions to adapt extremely quickly, particularly in the area of moving to online education, perhaps suggesting the perceived inability to adapt is only partially true." Among the suggestions offered by respondents: to incentivize faculty "to engage with business/industry" and to encourage universities to "think big, think entrepreneurially [and] move nimbly."

Challenge two, support for students' mental health, is only getting harder under COVID-19, the report noted. "Not only is there increased need around access to and support for an online environment, but there is increasing concern about students who are facing additional anxiety as a result of the disease itself," the authors stated. Presidents "uniformly" said their institutions have seen a "three-fold increase in funding" for student support programs and counselors in the last five years. However, since many of those are funded by auxiliary fees (generated through housing and dining), fees that are currently at risk, school leaders are concerned that they'll be unable to maintain — "let alone expand" — those programs.

Challenge three, diversity and inclusion, will become even more pressing, the authors asserted, due to the "uneven impact" of COVID-19 on communities of color, in terms of infection rates and treatment, as well as financial stress. "We can easily foresee dramatic reductions in the number of minority and first gen students who will be able to return to school next year due to family conditions," they wrote. At the same time, they noted, public opinion "is shifting significantly on the subject of entrenched racism," ensuring that "the issue will be more prevalent this year," showing up on campus in many forms: protests, both peaceful and disruptive; antagonism among student groups; and professors sharing their political opinions to the dismay of at least some portion of their class. "We can expect a tumultuous start to the new school year," the report noted, "that will likely put campus leadership under intense scrutiny."

Coronavirus has added a solid veneer of crisis to all of the issues faced by institutions, the researchers concluded, putting schools' reputations and viability at risk. The question is, they asked, whether "things will remain as they have been" or whether campus leaders will be able to "find the opportunity amidst the crisis."

The report is openly available on the APLU website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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