Let’s not sugarcoat it, the last two years have been hell. Every industry sector, every organization, every business, every family and every individual has been impacted by the global pandemic, and many have been severely stressed. The full impacts may not be known for years. And we may never be done with COVID. But we are certainly in an “emergence” phase and we are collectively (and hopefully) looking forward to living in a world in which COVID is endemic, not a raging, endless pandemic.
Higher education in the United States has been particularly hard hit by COVID. Largely but not solely because of the pandemic, many of the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic were long overdue and simmering for years. Some would argue that the impacts of COVID have been less severe than anticipated at the start of the pandemic, or even reassessed and projected as the first year of the pandemic dragged into the second. But, in fact, for many institutions the impacts have been severe and relentless, costly and onerous, and the full impact may not be felt for another year or more as colleges and universities spend the relief funds COVID one-offs provided by the federal government. . These funds have surely mitigated the impacts over the past two years. But were these funds used strategically to reposition institutions for the new post-pandemic normal, or have they been largely (or only) used to offset management costs during the pandemic and bridge income gaps to meet current expenses? Time will reveal which schools were able to do both – whether through leadership, governance, or even state mandate – and why it was so important.
Universities that have been able to take advantage of the emergency of the pandemic (the pivot to online and hybrid teaching, allocations for distance teaching and learning, streamlined offerings and other necessary efficiencies, and increased awareness of the fragility of enrollment patterns and reliance on net tuition fees and other income) to make necessary reforms and position for the post-pandemic world will be successful. Those who have failed to capitalize on their successful adaptations and new flexibilities, but are instead reverting to pre-pandemic modalities, operating models and priorities likely will not. And what a missed opportunity that will have been.
Will universities build on what they have learned and jump cheeky? Do they have the leadership, the collective will and the remaining energy to do so? People are exhausted. Large organizations like universities are even more so. Will universities find the reserves to leap forward, or will they give in to their exhaustion and lapse in their previous and unsustainable posture?
Lethargy, the path of least resistance and returning as much as possible to pre-pandemic conditions, is the easy way out. But it misses the mark in three important ways. First, it fails to capitalize on the tremendous changes and progress that have been made in response to the pandemic (and the learning and comfort/confidence in new ways of doing business that have been developed over the course of road). Second, it brings them back to a position we know is untenable. It positions institutions to face the same (and greater) challenges they faced in the years leading up to the pandemic, without more tools or adaptive capacities. And these problems were serious: declining enrolment, worsening financial hardship, failure to meet the needs of increasingly diverse and non-traditional learners, loss of public support and trust, and a perception of being increasingly more disconnected from the rest of the world and to promote the advancement of ideologies. about practical preparation for success. And third, it doesn’t recognize the post-pandemic world will be different. The strategy of head in the sand and going back to how it was was anything but strategic. In fact, it’s fatally flawed.
here is five strategies that colleges and universities can adopt as they emerge from the pandemic, each specific and actionable, and when taken together can help better position them to meet the challenges ahead – known and yet unforeseen.
1. Commit to making some changes permanent. Institutions and their teachers, staff and administration have learned a great deal. New ideas were implemented, new techniques tried, new tools employed and new approaches adopted. Some were improvements over pre-pandemic methods, while others offered new (and newly appreciated) flexibility and options. Still others have opened new doors to new opportunities to engage students, generate revenue, and expand both mission and impact. Evaluate what worked well, what was adopted, what added real value to current and future students, then make them permanent.
2. Commit to regular evaluation, re-evaluation and repositioning. Commit to a new agility/responsiveness. Avoid falling back into reluctance and stagnation. Replace the “as it always was” mentality with “as it could be.” Replace obstructive behaviors with opportunistic behaviors.
3. Build budgetary reserves to make strategic investments and build institutional resilience. Universities must be able to invest strategically and proactively when opportunities arise. This will require creating reserves at the discretion of the institution’s management, empowering and trusting leaders to make strategic investments in the best interest of the institution, and maintaining these strategic reserves and not allow them to be spent on defensive or reactive expenditure needs (e.g., shortfall, deferred maintenance, pandemic response, or other emergencies). Instead, a parallel investment should be made in building institutional resilience. Such a fund should have the dual purpose of: (1) enabling investments to reduce the institution’s vulnerability, and (2) providing the funds needed to respond to emergencies.
4. Commit to recognizing and welcoming non-traditional learners as essential members of your University community and essential elements of your mission. Given the combination of declining enrollment and the need to increase revenue to meet rising expenses, universities need to broaden their target audience to include adult learners and those seeking to complete their studies or develop their career; those interested in shorter educational programs that are both self-contained with a degree and can be coupled with other similar degrees to be put in place for a future degree; post-baccalaureate bridging programs to prepare for admission to professional degree programs (eg, medicine, law, engineering); those leaving military service and preparing for civilian employment; advanced high school students seeking college credit and other high school students seeking college preparatory work; groups of employees accessing on-site training; and more. Where possible, access should include virtual options. Evolve the mission statement, goals and leadership team to clarify that “traditional” students (18-24) are a target audience, but by no means the only audience. The “new traditional” students will become increasingly important, will represent a growing percentage of all enrollments and will see new programs developed and delivered specifically for their needs.
5. And finally, take this opportunity to refresh all from mission and goals, to organizational structure and priorities, to message and brand. Seize this moment. Pivot to where you wanted to be and know you need to be, without looking over your shoulder for obstacles that previously held you back. Things are different now. Change is as urgent as it is inevitable, and you have the closest thing to a clear path to make the necessary changes, as you will ever do. The pandemic has opened this door. Step-by-step procedure.