We’re steadily moving toward the start of the next school year, yet something is off. Normally this time of the year has been marked by excitement—whether that’s because of the return of students, the start of the next phase of life for incoming freshmen, or the sense of camaraderie created by the impending football season.
This year is different. The major upheaval that started earlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic emerged is still sweeping away a lot of what we’ve known for centuries. We have no normal anymore; we only have this moment and we now understand that things can change in an instant.
That means that we must be proactive in reengineering the business of higher education in order to remain open and viable. Otherwise, higher education will continue to be subject to market forces and disruption.
Just look around — the tremors in higher education that were set off by the pandemic are rippling everywhere. One university dropped its tuition costs by $10,000 for students who only take online education. Students at another college are petitioning to receive a rebate of $300 they were charged for athletic fees since athletics won’t be offered this year. Some higher education football powerhouses are planning to try to hold their season with stands half-way full to allow for social distancing, thus attempting to walk a swaying tightrope that could lead to disaster because the healthcare safety net is so thin at this point.
Then there are the continually changing public perceptions that now cast doubt on the value of higher education. As reported in University Business, a recent survey by Populace, a think tank focused on access and opportunity, noted that over half of more than 2,000 students, graduates and parents believe that higher education is misguided. Only slightly more than a third of the respondents agreed that a degree was needed to join the middle class. And half of the college graduates who were surveyed said they attended college as a way to improve job prospects while only 15% enrolled to learn more about a specific academic prospect.
You can hear the same feedback by Dr. Scott Galloway, a higher education thought-leader. In a podcast with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, Galloway described the calculus he offers to parents who are trying to decide whether to send their child to college. He offers three components – the certification, the education, and the experience. However, Galloway noted that because the price of going to college has escalated so dramatically, the ratio of these three factors over price no longer leads to an automatic “Yes, I’m sending my child to college.”
Self-Preservation over Safety
The Populace survey also found that over two-thirds of the respondents believed that colleges and universities place their own interests ahead of students’ needs. That perception is playing out in front of us as higher education leaders make decisions about what the fall semester will look like as the pandemic rages.
For example, one of the latest institutions planning to bring students back to campus this fall is the University of Notre Dame (even though they recently declined to host the first presidential debate due to COVID). The institution plans to offer coronavirus testing, quarantine options for students who test positive, restructured classrooms and interactions between faculty and staff, and minimized in-person meetings. Institutional leaders are still determining what will happen with athletics.
However, Galloway cautions that these decisions have a high probability of taking a dangerous turn. In his thought-provoking No Mercy/No Malice blog, he predicts that this fumbling response of offering in-person classes during a major pandemic will ultimately put a number of lives— ranging from the grounds crew, the food staff and the custodial staff all the way to the student’s grandparents–at risk. Additionally, many college towns have limited hospital infrastructure, which will be severely strained—and potentially broken–if they get swamped with an outbreak caused by thousands of college students.
What’s behind this disconnect? Galloway believes higher education leaders are focusing on the economic calculus that they’ve ignored for so long, which has led to what he calls “a tsunami of denial.” That tsunami is coming – and many institutions that once could have taken appropriate and timely action that would have saved them will now drown.
The cost of higher education is off the charts—and as higher education leaders, we need to first deeply understand and then give voice to the reality that these costs don’t make sense. Higher education leaders need to analyze costs to determine what is realistic in this new era.
The cost of paying a researcher whose work is relevant to helping businesses survive and thrive is worth it. The salary of a faculty member who helps students learn how to think flexibly and creatively so they can navigate the rapidly changing job market is worth it.
But (and this will be controversial), the $9 million contract paid to a football coach is increasingly frivolous. This idea will make some alumni and current students furious with calls of sacrilege, but expect to see mammoth football stadiums shuttered this fall (and maybe even longer). Is that expenditure of money ultimately worth it?
Ultimately, higher education leaders need to focus on their core values as educators. Galloway writes, “University leadership need to evolve from denial (“It’s business as usual”) past bargaining (‘We’ll have a hybrid model with some classes in person”) to citizenship (“We are the warriors against this virus, not its enablers’).”
So What Is Next?
Higher education leaders are being called to be transformational leaders who need to lead by example in these tumultuous times. They need to help their institutions transform through patience, grit, communication, perspective, innovation, statesmanship, and commitment to the welfare of the academic community. Frankly, higher education leaders can’t afford not to….
The current situation offers huge opportunities. For example, keeping courses online can mean reaching more students, thus doubling capacity. Large land-grant public institutions can use this model to cut costs
These leaders must start looking to other industries to get ideas on how to transform their institutions and ultimately our “industry.” We have gotten out of touch with what our graduates need to be successful – one needs look no further than curriculum that does not support the nine careers that today’s graduates will have.
For example, how many institutions:
- Consult with local businesses and business leaders when developing or updating curriculum?
- How many include someone from business in the process when doing program assessment or formal program review?
- Understand the critical skills that graduates must have to be successful over the life of their career?
- Promote and encourage lifelong learning, not because of the financial aspects to their institution, but because in today’s society, it is critical that graduates have the ability to refresh their skills?
- Ensure their faculty have the knowledge and skills to be able to teach in the new millennia – not just in their research areas, but in all areas that students/graduates need?
Until these and other critical questions are answered (such as how to keep costs down), higher education institutions will continue to flounder and their demise will be accelerated due to COVID. This is not business as usual, and unfortunately, a lot of them will learn this lesson the hard way – by closing their doors.
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