Crisis recovery for higher ed institutions remains at the top of the to-do list entering 2021. The coronavirus pandemic continues to change the nation’s higher education landscape, which includes 1700 private non-profit colleges. This podcast will feature Barbara Mistick, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Higher Ed Crisis Recovery Continues
The pandemic has been very personal and many individuals believe that they are in it alone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of jobs across the higher education sector that have been lost is approximately 500,000, and that about 150,000 of those jobs will not come back after the pandemic. Therefore, this is a significant period of change and adjustment across higher education. Many of these individuals who are affected are dealing with a significant amount of isolation.
Higher education didn’t have much warning that the pandemic was coming. When the pandemic first started to emerge, the primary concern was how to bring students who were participating in study-abroad programs home. There wasn’t a sense that the pandemic was going to be a permanent or semi-permanent situation; instead, the general feeling was that it was going to last only a short period of time.
This crisis recovery for higher ed has continued for a long period of time, which is difficult. These crisis situations tap into leaders’ training and extraordinary good sense in being able to look after a community. Everyone has had to respond differently, depending on their sector and community.
People are being asked to rally their energy and do the work for a sustained period of time, which they can do only if there is an inspirational leader who is providing guidance. There is a point where the fatigue factor weighs in, which is starting to happen.
Pandemics can last for several years as nations see hot spots continually popping up and higher infection rates emerge in certain places. However, because there also is the prospect of the vaccine on the horizon, people see an endpoint. BUT … it hasn’t arrived yet, and this leaves leaders having to navigate a crisis situation for an extended period of time.
In the fall, faculty were already burned out. They already had faced swapping out courses, moving rapidly back to online education, and rapidly changing plans for the semester. This led to increased stress, which ultimately can result in burnout. This uncertainty leaves people looking to the senior leadership team for a response.
Higher education leaders’ optimistic nature also may have worked against them, since this approach suggested that the chaos from the pandemic would end quickly. The end isn’t in sight so everyone across the institution has felt a level of uncertainty.
Lack of Political Leadership
This situation was compounded by the lack of a national political response, which forced each state to respond on their own, resulting in each state identifying different actions and behaviors based on what was happening in that state. Crisis recovery for Higher Ed institutions was challenged because of the number of residential colleges and institutions that have a student body that comes from other states and nations. This made the question of quarantining much more complicated.
While faculty and staff were frustrated with higher education leaders during the pandemic, the college or university president often was frustrated with the political leadership, which made decisions that affected institutions without including higher education leaders in those discussions.
With ever-changing state guidance and ever-evolving issues related to the pandemic, many institutions had to change from in-person to hybrid instruction to online learning within a semester. This proved very challenging for faculty and students because they wanted some level of certainty. This felt like whiplash for many higher education stakeholders.
Some institutions did a good job of adapting to the changing environment due to the pandemic. At the global level, institutions were very flexible—which is not a term commonly associated with higher education.
Institutions, to their credit, also put students first by focusing on student safety. This included bringing students back from international trips as well as back to campus and making changes to academic calendars.
Institutions also focused on preparations and change management. Some institutions planned their efforts using four different scenarios by looking at delivery systems and calendaring options. No matter the method that leaders were looking at, the guide star remained consistent – ensuring that students were able to continue their education, that it would be a good experience, and that students would be safe.
Support from Surprising Places
Institutions also became much more mission-focused on the well-being of students. The crises brought on by COVID shed light on opportunities for higher ed institutions.
The pandemic offered the opportunity for Congress and higher education to find common ground on how to help students through a very difficult time. Seeing the institutions’ commitment, Congress included higher education funding in the CARES Act, which provided money for students through colleges and universities. Without congresses support, the crisis recovery for higher ed would be much more arduous. This seemingly reversed Congress’s declining support for higher education, as evidenced through the decreased funding to the Pell Grant program.
Faculty also came on board to make the changes to help institutions survive. Higher education often gets tied up on things that are perceived by the faculty to be not going well. However, when the chips were down, the best of the Academy emerged. Faculty focused on helping students to get through the semester while student life staff worked on different and creative ways to help students be successful.
The pandemic also highlighted the gaps related to access to broadband and technology. Students in rural, urban, and lower socio-economic areas had had difficulty accessing the internet while some tried to complete their assignments on their phones because they didn’t have computers or tablets. To address this, Congress passed a package right before the end of 2020 that will help address these issues, which will help communities as well as higher education.
Crisis Recovery for Higher Ed: Moving Forward
Private higher education institutions are doing things that other institutions should be doing but affordability and accessibility are issues. There are vast areas of the nation that don’t have access to education; policymakers and higher education leaders need to make sure that education becomes available in these areas. Students need to be able to go from high school to college and then earn their college degrees.
There are many markers to support this. The unemployment rate is much lower for college graduates when compared to high school graduates. In the pandemic, the employment rate is close to 9%; this rate is almost three-fold higher for those who have only a high school degree.
Therefore, it’s important to make college accessible. This will require looking at financial aid, which includes increasing the Pell Grant. This effort, which would have the potential to help public and private institutions, may see support from the incoming Biden Administration.
The best thing is recognizing diversity in the higher education ecosystem. Maintaining both public and private institutions is critical because students have different learning styles; some do better at smaller institutions while others are prepared to attend larger institutions. Many individuals also go between the public and private sectors for their undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Private institutions have their place in educating society – they enroll about 20% of all students in the nation, but award 30% of the degrees. There’s an effectiveness ratio that is higher at private institutions as compared to public institutions.
Preparing the Workforce
The pandemic has exacerbated the haves and have-nots in our nation. Many are unemployed while others are still employed and safely working from their homes. After the pandemic ends, states will need people who are educated and ready to step into the workforce.
States have various educational attainment goals based on the industries in each state. Most states have set a goal for a certain level of college attainment, but the number of students who have attained that is much lower than the percentage that the state needs. States are looking at the needs of the workforce, the level of skills and training that are required, and how many people can meet those skills requirements. If a state can’t maintain that, the state can’t be competitive in trying to recruit new employers and industries.
The Need for a Shared Vision
Crisis recovery for higher ed will take institutions pulling together. They need to turn out graduates who are prepared for the workforce. One concern during the pandemic is the lower number of low-income students who are applying to college. This is problematic across the ecosystem since it will impact institutions for a period of time.
Congress’s financial support is not even close to the needs of the sector. The recently-passed stimulus allocates $23 billion to higher education; however, this is only 15-16% of what higher education needed.
There also are new COVID testing requirements on campus as well as efforts to increase social distancing. Still, students want to be back on campus and in classrooms, which leads to significant tension.
Therefore, it’s important to find ways to support higher education during this pandemic so when this period of crisis recovery for higher ed is over, these institutions can be stronger.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
Mistick suggested several takeaways for higher education leaders:
- Given the times that we’re in, it’s important to figure out how to be resilient. Additionally, institutions can bounce forward. There are silver linings in the pandemic, including Congress’s increased support, so we need to do a good job of advocating for this sector.
- Take a look at what students want from their college experience. Many want the residential option because this is the growing-up aspect of going to college.
- Institutions understand they are part of the community and are trying to provide support during the pandemic.
- This crisis recovery for higher education is going to have significant transition period. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of jobs across the higher education sector that have been lost is approximately 500,000. The Bureau projects that about 150,000 of those jobs will not come back after the pandemic.
- The extent of the pandemic was not expected. This has tested leaders’ skills and the resilience of the faculty, staff and students.
- The lack of a national political response forced each state to respond. This resulted in each state identifying different actions and behaviors based on what happened in that state. Higher education then faced additional challenges, including a number of residential college and institutions that have a student body that comes from others states and nations. This made the question of quarantining much more complicated.
- Many colleges and universities faced institutional whiplash as they had to move courses online, move students back home and change semesters. However, faculty and staff proved remarkably adaptable—and opted to put students’ needs first in the process. This resulted in numerous scenario planning exercises.
- The pandemic offered the opportunity for Congress and higher education to find common ground on how to help students get through a very difficult time in the nation’s history. Seeing this commitment, Congress included higher education in the CARES Act, which provided money for students through higher education institutions.
- Maintaining both public and private institutions is critical because students have different learning styles; some do better at smaller institutions while others are prepared to attend larger institutions. Private institutions have an important place in this ecosystem.
- The pandemic has exacerbated the haves (those who are employed) and have-nots (the unemployed) in our nation. After the pandemic ends, states will need people who are educated and ready to step into the workforce.
- Increased Congressional funding is needed to support crisis recovery for higher education. There is a strong possibility that the incoming Biden Administration will support increasing the Pell Grant program. Other funding is needed as well to recover from the pandemic.
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