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COVID-19's Lasting Effects on the Higher Education Landscape

Higher ed's response to the novel coronavirus has exposed issues of pedagogy, equity and more — but also offers opportunities to reshape the future.

closeup of laptop with videoconference on screen

Earlier this year, as the news of coronavirus began spreading as rapidly as the virus itself, colleges across the country had to quickly decide the most effective and, more importantly, safest course of action for their students and faculty. This fall, while some colleges pivoted to e-learning, others sought to create a hybrid model as a handful of students returned to campus. While we hope these uncertain times are not long-lasting, our response is sure to alter the landscape of higher education moving forward.

In 2009, in the shadow of the Great Recession, I founded TCS Education System (TCS), a nonprofit system of colleges dedicated to advancing student success and community impact. At the time, many small- and medium-sized higher education institutions were becoming insular due to a lack of a sense of community. In turn, those colleges were struggling to maintain effective back-office management and efficient delivery models. Our vision was a community model — the potential for stability and growth through collaboration, or what we at TCS call radical cooperation. Just a decade later, there is no sugarcoating the crisis we now face. The novel coronavirus has pulled back the curtain on pre-existing weaknesses in education and has also exposed vulnerabilities we never saw coming.

Beyond the Zoom Classroom

It's become obvious that no matter when students return to campus, whether this fall or in 2021, it will be a long way to a sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for either the impact or the recovery for universities, whether they pursue a traditional residential model or hybrid/online learning model. Regardless, most plans laid out by experts envision reopening the country with periods of social distancing to smother infection flare-ups — fluctuations in restrictions that would severely disrupt institutions that are banking on business as usual.

To prepare for the possibility of recurrence, higher education institutions need to invest more in online programs, as well as sharpen their ability to quickly and easily pivot face-to-face courses into web-based instruction. To reflect these changes, accreditation standards should move away from the physical classroom as a baseline for the standard. Discussions are already taking place around the definition of a credit hour. Expect virtual degree and certification programs to become a standard offering for many more colleges — even those that have maintained a traditional format in recent years.

College students expect an experience, not just a Zoom class. The schools that will succeed in the face of this crisis are the ones that not only utilize online learning, but embrace and invest in it. With reduction in ancillary experiences for undergraduate students, universities must take this time to focus on a cohesive educational experience, which means going beyond Zoom classes.

Recent reports show that some students are more sensitive to tuition price when it comes to online education. Some universities are facing requests for spring-semester tuition refunds because campus-based students feel like their tuition covers more than classroom instruction, like extracurricular activities and social experiences. This fall semester and beyond, the bar will be raised for more sophisticated online education requiring investments in instructional design, student and faculty training, technology and learning platforms.

Minding the Education Equity Gap

COVID-19 has also lifted the veil on existing educational inequities, making them impossible to ignore.

Students working night shifts to cover tuition payments suddenly find themselves furloughed, laid off or forced to put paychecks toward healthcare and other living expenses. Students who act as primary caregivers for loved ones must now balance those responsibilities with coursework in cramped living spaces. Students are struggling to acquire the technology and reliable internet needed to handle advanced livestream instruction.

The result has been an outpouring of empathy — one that must persist past the height of this epidemic. Educators are making myriad adjustments to ease the burden on students in this chaotic time. For instance, many instructors are employing asynchronous models, making lectures available on-demand and holding discussions in text-based forums instead of live video. Building that sort of flexibility into courses moving forward will offer students of every background and circumstance a better chance to succeed.

In order to meet the needs of low-income students, higher education institutions should engage them directly to find out what their needs are by asking the right questions. What can I do to help? Is it lending an ear? Is it money? Is it tutoring? Is it finding a place to study? Is it encouragement? There's not one answer — it can mean deferring tuition, freezing tuition for the time being, or connecting students with someone who can help. I recently found out we have one faculty member at a TCS partner school who, during the pandemic, was regularly calling each of her students. Because some students have great spaces to learn and some don't, that engagement with the faculty could mean everything — could keep the student moving forward in the path they've set.

Of course, many students are borrowing money to pursue higher education. Figuring out how to work with them so they have the financial resources to live and thrive while in school is key. Borrowing money and not progressing is the worst of all outcomes, so no matter what, colleges need to do whatever it takes to support their students on their path to graduation.

Shifts in Resource Allocation

More students pursuing their education remotely will mean fewer students physically present on campus.

Expect institutions to put budget toward in-house media teams, specifically in the realm of video production. Courses that are traditionally hands-on, such as labs and workshops, will require high-quality video to translate effectively into a digital medium. The nature of recruiting will change as well: A recent survey of 1,100 prospective college students found 64 percent expressed interest in virtual campus tours, and 50 percent wanted to video chat with a professor in their major — sentiments that suggest the need for investment in online recruiting.

Other campus resources — libraries, tutoring services, mental health counseling — will also need to be built out in virtual environments. Broadly speaking, the experience of attending a school online will need to be every bit as substantive as attending live.

The American story of higher ed — the value promise — is that it enables you to advance socio-economically. Even in a pandemic, we need to continue to tell students, "We are still 100 percent devoted to keep you progressing on your path toward graduation." Students are better served by continuing to chase their goals — continuing to move forward.

It is crucial that colleges step up their retention, graduation rates and career placement for their students. On a macro scale, students with unmanageable debt from student loans, and those who may lack the credentials for higher paying jobs, will impact the national debt and unemployment rates. By engaging with the right target businesses and community members, colleges can create relationships that can support the success of their students by maximizing their career potential.

The aftermath of this pandemic will be long-lasting. But the ingenuity and innovation born from the crisis can make for a positive legacy — opportunity from adversity.

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