At the end of 2019, I wrote a series of expositions on the
top eight threats to higher education:
1. Market Disturbance
2. National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Changes
3. Price Sensitivity
4. International Student Decreases
5. 2026 “Demographic Cliff”
6. Poor Public Understanding of What We Do
7. Geographic Population Redistribution
8. Limited Reputation
At the time, COVID-19 was an unknown factor. We have since seen virtually every sector upended by the pandemic. The aforementioned list was not rank ordered, but over the past 8 months some of these threats have become significantly reprioritized, and new challenges have emerged.
The “Market Disturbance” to which I then referred was an unexpected decline in the percentage of new high-school graduates who enrolled in college in Fall 2019. That reduced population was also distributed across institutions less consistent with predictive modeling than in recent years.
The “Market Disturbance” created by the pandemic hasn’t just become the elephant in the room; for many institutions, it has become the room.
In the spring, entire curricula were placed into remote instruction almost overnight. The transition was bumpy, but surprisingly effective. I was so proud of our faculty and staff for making a valiant instructional 180, and for the most part, our students recognized how extraordinary the results were under the circumstances.
As we moved to hybrid instruction this fall, following a summer filled with professional development and planning, some students called it a “100% improvement.” Those who are taking classes remotely have shared that they still deeply miss the innate benefits of face-to-face instruction and learning in community.
As so many of the nation’s K-12 students have moved to remote or intermittently remote instruction, families have become keenly aware of the educational gaps their children are experiencing, which is helping prospective students to appreciate the value of what we do as a residential learning community. It is also a good lesson that when we do have classes face-to-face, we should emphasize the things that we can only do in that environment, or that are greatly enhanced when we are together.
Last fall, NACAC (The National Association for College Admission Counseling) suspended their Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP) in response to a challenge from the Department of Justice that these practices were the equivalent of collusion. The CEPP had been an agreement of NACAC members not to recruit students who had deposited elsewhere.
The disruption COVID had on last year’s recruitment cycle makes it difficult to make clear comparisons with previous years, but it appears that in spite of new recruiting freedoms, most students remained committed to their first-choice schools.
The current recession and the battered employment market have once again elevated price sensitivity. Typically, during an unemployment spike, we see a parallel increase in enrollments at 2-year colleges, and in previous recessions there have been migrations from 4-year to 2-year institutions. This year, 2-year institutions experienced the largest drops in enrollment. The difference may be because current unemployment is the result of business cessation due to the pandemic rather than an abruptly emerging skills gap.
The social unrest that was elevated this summer following the murder of George Floyd drew national attention to the systemic structural barriers students and employees of color encounter in nearly every sector across the nation. Many higher education institutions are seizing this moment to push this Sisyphean rock over the mountaintop. It is the right human and moral action, and as the “Demographic Cliff” approaches, it is also prudent to position our institutions to be places where the “new majority” will thrive.
The element that was not on last fall’s list is financial fragility. Within the first few months of the pandemic, we began seeing colleges and universities taking dramatic actions including extraordinary endowment draws, reductions or cessations of retirement contributions, institution-wide furloughs, massive budget cuts, program elimination, and large-scale faculty and staff reductions. Many have not been provisional belt-tightening measures, but dire bids for survival.
We have been talking about the failing business model of higher education for a decade as net revenue per student has failed to keep pace with the cost of delivering a high-quality educational experience for our students. The new financial stressors of the pandemic have laid bare how precariously many institutions have been operating.
This has emerged as the greatest threat to higher education.
The pandemic has revealed that many colleges and universities have been operating on the margins. It has also shone a light on other institutions like Susquehanna, whose fiscal discipline have prepared them for moments of stress and will allow them to adapt to new prevailing head winds.
The winners will be those universities that effectively meet the needs of the current generation of students, that enroll more non-traditional students, and become places where the new majority will flourish. Being student-centered, nimble, and investing in future readiness fulfill our mission and will define the future business model for higher education.