How the Pandemic Changed Higher Ed:

Accelerated Transformation One Institution at a Time

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How the Pandemic Changed Higher Ed

Many higher education institutions are deep into planning for the fall term, and how the pandemic changed higher ed is coming into full view. The face of higher ed is changing – and the pandemic has dramatically accelerated these changes.

Enrollments for fall are down – some higher education institutions are reporting a 20% decline- and other institutions are struggling to make ends meet. Yet, there are some colleges and universities that have seen an increase in both applications and enrollment.

At the same time, many institutions–over 200 at this point–will require students to be fully vaccinated prior to coming on campus for the fall term. And no surprise, with the exception of Indiana University, they pretty much follow the red-blue political divide of the nation.

But post-pandemic, the emerging “new normal” for higher ed does offer some great ideas and stories to consider as you get ready to welcome students back in the fall.

New Models of Delivery

Nearly all higher ed institutions have some form of online education due to the pandemic, but many are taking online learning to a new level, thanks to technology. For example, there are fully online models, hybrid models, synchronous and asynchronous, flipped classroom … you get the point.

Is there one that’s better than the others? No, because the quality of online education depends (mostly) on your students and faculty. But there is one type of online learning that does not work – when faculty attempt to duplicate face-to-face lectures while using online learning platforms synchronously. This is especially true when students do not have the bandwidth to fully hear the “lecture” – and we all know what we felt like when our parents lectured us growing up…

Higher education leaders need to realize that LOTS of higher education institutions are continuing to move forward with different online models, so expect fierce competition in recruiting and enrolling remote students. The 800-pound gorillas of online education – Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Purdue Global University – are getting better. This reality means that institutions that are looking to grow an online presence must do marketing research to find out what the student population wants and needs.

Also – keep in mind that online education can meet the needs of working adults, e.g., graduate studies, degree completion, and certificates/micro-credentials targeted at businesses and employee training. But do not ignore the power of online learning for the undergraduate population; instead, make it a point to learn what these students want and need for this approach to work.

Redesigning Curriculum

In addition to the online transitions, the curriculum is getting a facelift at some institutions. For example, Howard University and Amazon Web Services announced last week they are teaming on a new data science degree. And this isn’t the first – Google is partnering with Northeastern University and others to create certificate programs.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Institutions are sharing courses across the curriculum as a way to bolster their offerings. Other institutions such as Goodwin College and National University are building their portfolio of programs through acquisition.

Arizona State has been offering programs to businesses (e.g., Starbucks) to educate and train their employees. And when these programs are in the form of stackable certificates, employees soon have a new degree.

Higher ed institutions consulting with businesses may create issues with implementing shared governance because it requires colleges and universities to give someone, other than faculty, the “keys to the curriculum car.” BUT … if these arrangements lead to more students enrolled – which, in turn, leads to more revenue and more jobs – leaders have a pretty good argument for redesigning the curriculum and making it more “employer/business-friendly.”

And for those institutions that are totally focused on STEM to the exclusion of liberal arts … not so fast. The top skills that employers say they need from graduates include working in teams, communications, and the ability to analyze data. These competencies come from a liberal education (although STEM can teach these skills). To learn more, tune in to our recent podcast discussing Higher Ed’s role in workforce success with Dr. Ashley Finley, senior researcher for the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Enrollment Management

Many new things on the horizon for enrollment management caught our attention.

First off, college enrollment continued to decline for the 2020-2021 year, dropping 2.5% from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Undergraduate, freshman, and community college enrollment took the biggest hits, at 3.6%, 13.1%, and 21%, respectively. The undergrad number was partially offset by an increase in graduate students (3.6%), but overall, the numbers were not good.

This predicament is why many institutions are doing unique things (at least as compared to the past). At the forefront of these innovations is doing away with the requirement for standardized testing as part of the admissions process The University of California and California State University systems had previously announced this move. Last week Colorado University joined more than 200 other colleges and universities that are not requiring standardized testing for admissions. This one change has led to more applications at many institutions, which in turn increases the selectivity of the institution.

Colleges and universities are doing other interesting things, including:

  • Madison College is letting prospective students “try before you buy,” i.e., allowing prospective students to take a week of online classes without paying tuition. If the offerings do not work for the student, they can drop the course at no cost to themselves.
  • Ohio Dominican University is doing drive-through admissions, i.e., giving prospective students an immediate thumbs up or down if they apply during their campus visit (which is complete with hot chocolate and balloons).
  • Many institutions, including the University of Maryland – Baltimore County and the University of Louisiana System, are reaching out to students who left before completing their degree to try to entice them to return to school.  


The Alaska Senate has passed a bill that established a grant program to provide free tuition for those workers who were laid off as a result of the pandemic or workers who were classified as essential when the pandemic began. This is one of the first in the nation–and hopefully will not be the last.

Breaking down barriers for transfer students is also a way for higher ed institutions to improve their enrollment.  Currently, only 1 in 3 community college students continues to earn a degree at a four-year institution. The biggest challenge they often face is receiving appropriate transfer credits for completed community college courses at the university. Creating articulation agreements with local community colleges is a great way to get this done.

And although international students declined for the first time during the 2019-20 academic year, we’re guessing that international enrollments might improve for fall 2021 given vaccinations, the lessening of the COVID pandemic, and the change of administration in Washington, D.C.

Costs and Discounting

Private institutions are relying on discounting more than ever. Last week, NACUBO announced the results of their 2020 Tuition Discounting Study, which found that the discount rate was nearly 54%, for first-year first-time students and 48%for all undergraduates. These rates were the highest since they began the study in 1992. 

One of ACE’s top initiatives is to make higher education affordable. We are seeing a few (but not many) institutions doing tuition rollbacks. Some CFOs say you should NEVER do this, but we do not agree.  Leaders must do something to control the cost of higher education, and until it is free to all, let’s do our part.

Institutional Viability

We have not had the levels of closures over the past two years that were expected, but things are “cooking up.” We’ve seen a couple of acquisitions close recently, and a few institutions announce closures.

State funding for publics is up 2.9% for FY2020, according to the State Higher Education Funding report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, but it is still down from the cuts made during the last two recessions. And had the states not received the stimulus money, the SHEEOA says that there would have been a 2.3% cut in higher ed spending. And that doesn’t take into account potential cuts that could be coming this year because tax revenues are down.

As for the privates, we know they are hurting in many ways. But one must wonder … were it not for serious funding coming from the federal PPP and CARES Act bills, would more institutions be on the ropes and/or have announced their closure? 

Wrapping Up

As we move through the summer months, higher education has the opportunity to take a short breather after a whirlwind 16 months. With that said, more challenges are just around the corner.

How will university and college leaders deal with enrollment issues, affordability, and accessibility? How will we improve the institution’s online education to serve more students but also enhance the quality so that these courses truly provide a quality learning experience? How can we work with businesses and other organizations to develop a curriculum that supports the workforce—and offers avenues to increase enrollment and revenue? How can higher education create a new model that is financially affordable while also being state-of-the-art?

It could take a while to see the full impact of how the pandemic changed Higher Ed. These challenges will continue for the foreseeable future, leaving many institutions behind (and in some cases, marking the end of many colleges and universities). Only the best minds who can think flexibly and creatively about the higher education model will successfully forge a path forward. Will your institution be among them?

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