Modern times have allowed humans to become comfortable with feeling like they can predict the future. No longer wed to working in the agricultural fields and manual labor, we have become used to jobs that offer climate-controlled temperatures, top-caliber technology and information at our fingertips. We have sophisticated programs that allow us to do statistical modeling, predict the future and create supply chains that span the world.

Enter coronavirus.

COVID has upended what we know so let’s admit it with grace–the coronavirus currently is way beyond our expertise. And that includes the brainpower of every higher education leader and faculty member on this planet.

The pandemic has and is stirring up chaos. And that chaos is being supplemented by a number of societal and generational factors that are going to make it even harder to predict where this situation is going – and how to deal with the different scenarios that are emerging.

Open and Closed Case

We’re seeing this show up among many higher education institutions that initially planned to open with face-to-face classes.  You can see this play out in Davidson College’s The College Crisis Initiative. The real-time dashboard is noting where colleges are planning to reopen fully in person, primarily in-person, hybrid, primarily online, fully online, and still to be determined, and other. Thanks to Davidson, we can see how quickly the overly-optimistic thoughts about coming back to the full college experience are withering in the summer heat (and spreading coronavirus).

The list of institutions that are walking back their initial decision reads like a who’s who:

  • University of North Carolina Chapel Hill – Soon after welcoming students, the institution asked undergraduates to return home and prepare for online classes after cases of coronavirus jumped within a week and the need for students to isolate and quarantine almost overran capacity.
  • Michigan State University – The university asked undergraduates who planned to live in residence halls to remain at home. Classes that were originally planned for in-person instruction will be offered through online education instead.
  • The University of Notre Dame – The institution suspected its in-person classes and moved undergraduate classes online for two weeks while keeping students on campus. This will give leaders a chance to reassess plans based on what happens with the coronavirus rate.
  • North Carolina State University – The university also ended in-person classes for the fall semester. All undergraduate classes are being moved online; however, students will be able to remain in campus housing. Students who choose to return home will have their housing contracts canceled with no penalty.

There will be other institutions that revise their plans, no doubt. The good news is that we have the capacity to make these changes. Going forward, higher education needs to truly focus on making sure that every student, faculty member, staff and administrator are able to remain safe and healthy in whatever instructional model is used.

Dr. A. David Paltiel, a Yale University professor of public health, described the current situation as a “s**tshow in the making.” A recent study that he co-authored suggested that colleges could bring students safely back to campus if: (1) they test every student every two days; and (2) if they maintain strict behavioral standards to keep the virus’s rate low. That means that both institutions and students need to do their part – but will they? The current ever-changing situation suggests that won’t happen.

Blame-Less

It’s the start of the semester, so it’s to be expected that students are excited to be on campus. That’s led to crowded parties at Penn State and Syracuse University, which were tied to incoming freshmen. Now Texas A&M University is asking sororities and fraternities to end visitations after multiple members of two sororities tested positive for coronavirus. Many other institutions are seeing the same sorts of issues. And the list of colleges and universities that invited students back to campus and are now facing expanding coronavirus numbers is rapidly expanding.

Who’s to blame for these changes? North Carolina State University’s president stated that North Carolina universities’ plans to begin the summer in-person were “undermined by a very small number of students behaving irresponsibly off campus, which unfairly punishes the vast majority of their classmates who are following the rules.”

But should we be placing blame? We agree with some other administrators who have a differing view. “Dear administrators who are scolding students for messing up your ill-conceived plans: instead of blaming the students, perhaps we should analyze why you put them in that position in the first place,” said Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College.

First of all, let’s be honest – did you really listen as a college student? Remember, this is a time for young adults to test their wings and figure out their limits as they gain more independence and prepare for the next phase of life. At this age, many (if not most) also don’t understand their own mortality. And the environment of college is stronger than the willpower for most students, many of whom are still teenagers and have never had this type or amount of freedom before.. Think about those keg parties and other rites of passage that many enjoy (and I would bet that many higher education leaders and faculty did as well when they were in college).

Put on top of that the reluctance and (in many cases) outright resistance of many parents, thought-leaders and politicians to take this pandemic seriously. There have been so many mixed messages in the press and from politicians … Is wearing a face mask safe or not? Is it necessary? Is this taking away our civil liberties? So many students are getting their messages from “trusted” sources who don’t encourage the CDC’s and other experts’ recommended precautions. And many of those influencers live in an information bubble that creates biases toward one viewpoint.

Of course, we can’t forget the role of social media, where everyone is an expert and rumors (and misinformation) run(s) rampant. So even if students don’t have their family as influencers, they do have people that they look to (as we all did at that age). So anticipate that this generation of college kids won’t necessarily look to true experts—like the CDC—to provide guidance.

Then you add helicopter parents into the mix, which means that many of the current crop of students have not had to take responsibility for their actions. Instead, their parents dart in at any moment to alleviate the stress and save them from making a “mistake,” which removes the opportunity for learning.  The pandemic is going to be a rude awakening for these students, many of whom have been catered to with their parents handling all the big and small details all their lives.

Immediate Next Steps

So what should institutions do in this chaotic time? We’d recommend the following actions:

  • Involve students in determining next steps. A lot of administrators are providing feedback, guiding the development of processes, and serving in the frontlines of the pandemic response. However, there’s a glaring omission – students. It’s important to get student voices involvement in order to determine what happens at the campus. This includes determining trigger points – when to send students home, if (and when) to bring them back, as well as how to get students to follow CDC guidelines. Their involvement will help lead to their buy-in, which will spread across the student body. And who knows? They may have better ideas than the administration and faculty,
  • Take your time. It’s important for higher education institutions not to rush to bring students back to campus (even though many have and still are). While the primary driver may be (and in most cases is) money, institutions need to focus on their mission – students. We’re in a public health crisis situation so it’s imperative that student safety and health needs take precedence. Will that hurt financially? Perhaps. If worse comes to worse, take out an insurance policy – but maintain the focus on student welfare. However, don’t underestimate what people—especially alumni–will think if you keep your focus on student safety. For example, one smaller higher education institution (~ 1000 students) is maintaining an eagle-eye focus on the students (instead of the funding), and they already have received $10 million in donations (1/3 of their annual budget) and has a commitment of another $8 million, which ultimately will cover any shortfall due to the pandemic.
  • Think creatively about how to proceed. You may want to consider the structure of classes or even the semester, and involve faculty members in creating this new approach. How can you create in-person opportunities? How can you make online courses viable, since the reality is that students will not take 4-5 online courses at the same time?

Long-Term: Embrace New Opportunities

This current situation continues to present higher education with a silver lining, if we choose to see it that way. The biggest one is that it is causing institutions to really focus on creating new instructional delivery systems that are cost-effective.

However, while we’re being mindful of the dollars and cents, these models must be instructionally effective. Students aren’t going to continue to enroll in our courses if they’re not being engaged and if the content and deliver are not useful to students’ interests and ambitions. A recent survey of Americans’ perceptions of in-person, online and hybrid education found that while a plurality (35%) of respondents believed that online education was the best value for the money, online education also was viewed as the least effective approach for learning. Survey respondents also said online education was least likely to prepare students for their career. Only one in 10 of the survey’s respondents said they are likely to enroll in some form of online education or training in the next six months.

So in this murky waters, the course is becoming clearer. Higher education leaders and faculty need to begin to focus on how to make online (and other modes of delivery beyond f2f) learning the best that it can be, starting with ensuring a quality instructional program and then looking at cost-efficiency. It’s a path that’s opening colleges and universities to a new horizon—and one that higher education needs to embrace, explore and enhance in order to survive and thrive in the age of coronavirus.

Are higher education leaders frustrated that their plans for the fall semester are falling apart? Yes, of course. Those plans made sense in the optimistic bubble of summer. But we’re now seeing the beginning of another storm. That’s why it’s important to own the decisions if these plans are not working out (and not blame students). It’s also important to be flexible in developing next steps, through involving both students and faculty in helping make sense of a chaotic situation.

And once a safe environment is created (whether it’s with students remaining on campus or returning home), it’s important not to rush to create another outcome. Spend time with what is unfolding. Start implementing scenario planning. Focus primarily on student safety and health, trusting that the money will come. Find ways to improve online education. And give yourself space to focus on reinventing your institution to thrive in the post-coronavirus future.