Higher education change management and crisis management was critical in 2020 as college and university leaders dealt with crises brought on by COVID, and will remain so for 2021. This podcast features Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Deb Maue, and looks back at 2020 and predicts what 2021 has in store for higher ed.
Overcoming 2020s Challenges Through Higher Ed Change Management
The year 2020 was completely unpredictable with crises such as the pandemic emerging seemingly overnight. The nation and higher education have not recovered from what has happened—and it will be a long time before that recovery happens.
However, significant good also came out of this year. For example, many people—such as Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, the president of Amarillo College—stepped up in showing what it means to be a servant leader. This meant getting out on the frontlines, helping to test individuals for COVID, using a mask, demonstrating behaviors to protect everyone, and being very present for the students. These leaders also embraced transparency and strategic communications.
Institutions also were able to turn on a dime as the pandemic emerged. Faculty at many colleges and universities converted their entire course load to online over a span of only a few weeks. It was incredible to see the speed that people willingly adapted and how institutions worked to get ready for people to return to campus.
The pandemic also forced institutions to really figure out what their mission is—educating students. Dr. Billy Hawkins, the president of Talladega College, checked in regularly with students. This was noticed by both students and parents. Dr. Hawkins continues to meet monthly with student leaders to find out what is going on. These kinds of communications make the college experience so important for students.
Academic restructuring and prioritization also came to the forefront. A great template for this process was led by Dr. Lori Varlotta when she was at Hiram College. They cut a number of programs that were not benefitting the students or the university. What made this effort unique is that Dr. Varlotta raised funds to provide a salary and benefits for a full year for faculty who were in programs that were terminated. This humane approach offers guidance for other institutions as they move forward in prioritizing academic programs in the wake of the pandemic and economic fall-out.
Student needs also increased and many institutions stepped up to provide support. Amarillo College again was in the spotlight as it put in new counseling services for students and doing campus visits online. Additionally, some institutions raised and earmarked financial support to help students who were struggling financially.
Employee needs also increased. Dr. Tom Marrs of Texas A&M University’s Center for Executive Development pointed out how employees are burning out due to the prolonged stress. Many employees have contracted COVID and also seen loved ones and friends struggle with it—and in some cases lose their lives. With no relief in sight for most of the year, the continued stress took a toll, which also impacted people’s ability to perform their jobs. That’s where employee assistance programs and other efforts focused on supporting staff have become even more meaningful. The pandemic has helped underscore the importance of humanity and thinking of others before oneself.
2020’s Student Enrollment Challenges
The nation and the world have never experienced a pandemic like this for over a century. The death rate is huge—the daily death rate exceeds that of 9/11. This is fundamentally changing everything on our planet and in our nation.
Enrollment was the top challenge facing higher education. College enrollment fell 2.5% from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020, which was almost twice the rate of decline. This represented almost 500,000 students. There were 327,000 fewer first-time students this fall, which was unprecedented. International student enrollment was down 43%. Public institutions experienced a 4% decline in enrollment while privates remained flat—and would have been lower if the graduate enrollments hadn’t helped boost them back up. Community colleges’ enrollment fell over 13%. Transfer students dropped.
There were some bright lights, enrollment-wise. For-profits increased enrollments over 5% while graduates were up 3.6%.
Community colleges were hit harder than expected. The challenge may be because prospective students often are from lower socioeconomic households who are looking for ways to get into a four-year institution. With the transfer rates between community colleges and four-year institutions being down, it could be possible that the drop in community college enrollments may be due to demographic and financial issues.
Finances also are an issue. Moody’s is predicting that the net tuition revenue will decline in about 75% of private schools and 60% of publics. That’s a huge decline in revenues. Private universities have room and board as about 40% of their revenues, which makes it challenging. The publics faced major issues after the Great Recession when the cost didn’t change, but the state government allocations dropped; the tuition burden fell more on students than on states.
Student costs and tuition continue to go up. There currently is $1.7 trillion in student debt. This is unsustainable. However, some institutions are trying to find sustainable financial models. For example, Southern New Hampshire University just set a limit to their annual tuition at $10,000 a year for on-line and $15,000 for face-to-face. Many students are transferring to online education because costs are less. This will challenge institutions to find ways to compete.
Black Lives Matter and Societal Issues
Higher education had to deal with four major issues this year: COVID, Black Lives Matter, climate change and the economy. Each of these issues on their own would be huge; together, they created a perfect storm. This is forcing higher education—and everyone else—to wake up. Long-time higher education leader Dr. Gordon Gee said, “The pandemic has accelerated needed change in higher education by a decade or more.”
Black Lives Matter affected higher education in a major way by giving this type of activism a renewed sense of urgency. Protests emerged and grew, especially around the election. Both faculty and students were demanding more emphasis and attention be given to these types of issues, especially in regards to police. Some institutions said they were not going to have police on campus anymore. Many buildings are being renamed and statues are coming down. The superintendent of Virginia Military Institute resigned after racist accusations that were going on at that school.
Higher Education Policy Changes
Major issues happened with Title IX at the federal level. The Department of Education changed many of the rules on adjudication. Many of these decisions are going to be set aside under the Biden Administration.
Distance education also was a significant change point. Higher education had to embrace distance education due to the pandemic. With the Negotiated Rulemaking from 2019 that just went into effect, there’s a significant number of changes to the rules. In some cases, decisions–such as substantive interaction—are good; in this case, that’s going to give rise to institutions similar to Western Governor’s where they are doing competency-based education. It’s not going to be the faculty member being the “sage on the stage” as much. Instead, there will be flipped classrooms and students being more in charge of their learning. Faculty interactions need to be good, but they only need to be once a week.
Mergers and closures will continue. There was a big one this year as University of Arizona acquired Ashford University. This consolidation helps the University of Arizona expand its online programs. Additionally, some colleges face sudden closures based on financial crises.
Last Year’s Predictions
One of last year’s predictions involved the restructuring of the NCAA. The issues that are currently happening in regards to football exposed the NCAA’s inner workings, especially in that, some conferences have significantly more power than others. The NCAA will face changes. For example, the current case before the Supreme Court may lead to athlete compensation when their image is used. This will make the rich universities richer because students will want to play at colleges and universities where they can get more publicity.
Another prediction from last year was that fundraising would change. This proved to be true, although because of COVID not in the way that was predicted. Fundraising also changed based on Black Lives Matter, especially in relation to naming buildings. There will be more due diligence.
Mergers and closures were also predicted. While this also has happened, it hasn’t happened at quite the rate that was predicted. A lot of that has to do with the CARES Act, which infused critical funds into higher education.
Another prediction was that higher education would develop partnerships with businesses to increase opportunities for employees to gain credentials. This is now starting but it isn’t at the degree originally predicted because of COVID.
Looking Forward – Higher Ed Predictions for 2021
Enrollment declines will continue due to the enrollment cliff and the economic downturn caused by the pandemic – the go-go years leading up to the Great Recession are gone. This also is part of the finances because of the COVID pandemic. Enrollments may be down the same amount or more than this year as foreshadowed by the decline in applications and FAFSA filings. Finances combined with the enrollment cliff are coming into play. The positive note is that graduate education and degree completion is moving up, which is balancing the loss of enrollment. Institutions need to be positioned properly and understand their mission and the programs that speak to their ideal student.
The game-changer for next year will be the vaccine.
Traditional students will be moving to online universities in larger numbers. Universities with strong online presences, such as Western Governor’s University, University of Arizona, and Southern New Hampshire University are doing well—and will gobble up other programs or create alliances with MOOCs to keep costs down. This also is forcing many institutions to reconsider online education options for their traditional undergraduate students, who now are demanding this option. Non-traditional students also are making up more of the online enrollment; this group needs the flexibility that online education offers.
With the Biden Administration taking office, education is going to come back to being more in the forefront. President Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos focused on choice; this will be curtailed in the new administration. The new Secretary of Education has a strong educational background from Connecticut, which should be very good for public institutions. If there is a new CARES Act, more money should be steered toward higher education. Free college is a great idea for individuals in certain income levels but this may not happen. The forgiveness of debt is far more realistic. The question becomes how much to forgive and what is fair. Also, having Dr. Jill Biden in the White House will be significant; she will have a big influence on education. Also, hopefully, there will be less politicization of education in the future because people realize that education is the awakening of people’s minds.
Mergers and acquisitions will continue to come forward. While many institutions have survived the pandemic to this point, many have been bled deeply. These institutions may not be able to survive; in fact, 75% of CFOs in higher education are expressing concerns.
Finally, the public will begin to realize the higher purpose of higher education is for the greater good and to develop life-long learners. At the same time, higher education must do a better job of partnering with businesses and employers about what they need. So while higher education does need to prepare students for their first jobs, it also needs to instill the understanding of the need for life-long learning.
- 2020 was completely unpredictable. It will take a lengthy period of time before the nation and higher education return to normal, and change management and the vaccine are critical to making this happen.
- Higher education had to deal with four major issues this year: COVID, Black Lives Matter, climate change, and the economy. Each of these issues on their own would be huge; together, they created a perfect storm.
- Servant leaders emerged on the frontlines, helping to test individuals for COVID, using a mask, demonstrating behaviors to protect everyone, being very present for the students, and embracing transparency and strategic communications.
- Institutions turned on a dime as the pandemic emerged. Faculty converted their entire course load to online over a span of only a few weeks while other employees worked to make campuses safe for people to return.
- The pandemic forced institutions to really focus on what their mission is—educating students.
- Academic prioritization also came to the forefront as institutions tried to determine how to move forward during the pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn. The challenge is to create a process that treats employees and faculty who are laid-off humanely.
- Student needs also increased and many institutions stepped up to provide support through counseling and finances.
- Employees also needed support so many institutions utilized counseling, employee assistance programs and financial support programs to provide assistance.
- Enrollment was the top challenge facing higher education with declines in most areas.
- The pandemic may cause up to 20% of higher institutions to close or be acquired due to financial issues.
- Finances also are an issue. Moody’s is predicting that the net tuition revenue will decline in about 75% of private schools and 60% of publics.
- Student costs and tuition continue to go up, and there currently is $1.7 trillion in student debt. This is unsustainable. Institutions are starting to develop new models that are more affordable for students.
- Black Lives Matter brought activism back to campus. This movement forced institutions to look closely at policies, procedures, and practices. It also forced institutions to do due diligence before accepting major gifts with naming rights.
- Title IX shifted to protect the accused, but this probably will shift again once the Biden Administration comes into office.
- A significant number of changes to the rules about distance education just went into effect due to the negotiated rulemaking process in 2019. In some cases, decisions–such as substantive interaction—are good.
- Mergers are starting to happen. Some allow institutions to increase their reach, such as into the distance education market. Some institutions are also facing a financial cliff that can lead to sudden closure.
- The NCAA will continue to face changes. For example, the current Supreme Court case may lead to athlete compensation when their image is used.
- While mergers and closures were predicted last year, the rate didn’t match what was predicted. This has to do with the CARES Act, which provided a lifeline to struggling institutions.
- Another prediction was increased partnerships with businesses to increase opportunities for employees to gain credentials. This is now starting but it isn’t at the degree because of COVID.
- Another prediction that was impacted by COVID was that higher education would develop partnerships with businesses to increase opportunities for employees to gain credentials. This is now starting to emerge.
Higher Ed Predictions for 2021
- Enrollment drops will continue, due to the combination of the enrollment cliff and students’ and families’ financial issues due to COVID. The positive note is that graduate education and degree completion is moving up, which helps to balance the loss of undergrad enrollment. Institutions need to be positioned properly and understand their mission and the programs that speak to their ideal student.
- Traditional students will be moving to online universities in larger numbers. Universities with a strong online presence will continue to find ways to increase their market share. Other institutions will focus on creating or bringing more programs online.
- Education will move back to the forefront in the Biden Administration, especially having a Dr. (Jill Biden) in the White House.
- Mergers and acquisitions will continue to emerge as many institutions have been financially bled to death during the pandemic.
- The COVID vaccine will be the game-changer. With that said, higher education needs to develop partnerships with businesses and also stress the concept of life-long learning in current students.
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