The Post COVID-19 Higher Education Landscape

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Now that higher education has hit the pause button for a few months, it is prudent to consider what the “new” higher education will look like when it returns for a second run this fall. Will it simply look like it always has? Or will it morph into something slightly or radically different?

If you think like me, and I hope for your sake you don’t, you might think that higher education will simply do what it always has in the same way in a very labor intensive, inefficient manner. Teaching, at least the way we’ve mostly taught, is largely inefficient. And when we try and make it more efficient (e.g., through larger classes and lectures), people don’t like it. Damned if you do…

The reality is that some colleges will return to normal and others will be forced to change their practices. Of course, many will close their doors, as we are already seeing. Others will merge with other, similar colleges. So, we should expect to see a myriad of outcomes from the pandemic with regard to higher education.

Even as we approach mid-April, we do not know if colleges will be physically opening up their doors come August and September for the 2020-21 entering class. Right now the bet would be that the fall semester would start late, if at all. If this happens, expect to see many more colleges shutter.

A survey of students by SimpsonScarborough published in today’s InsideHigherEd.com found that 11 percent of high school graduates who were planning to go to a four-year institutions were now not considering doing so this fall. As the article says, this would be devastating to higher education. However, this is only one of 10 students that said they would change their minds. In the end, will they?

There are varied perspectives on this issue. What happens to higher education enrollment this fall depends partially on the population we are considering. At the four-year level, there may be a different perspective for first-time entering students as compared to current and transfer students. One suggestion is that some new students will take a “gap” year. That is, take a year off between high school and college. The challenge here is this: what will they do? If higher education is shut down, at least in the traditional sense, so will the working and travel world from which this group emanates. Second, gap years are almost universally used by affluent people and not the larger percentage of students who traditionally matriculate immediately after high school. In the end, my bet is that parents and students won’t want to “get behind” by taking a gap year. The timing of a college education is all competitive. Competitive in terms of where you go and how quickly you can complete, then how competitively you can find job offers. Yes, the nation will return to some normal, even if a “new” normal, and the economy will roar back. And when that happens students and parents don’t want to be behind the curve. Thus, I expect, even if college does not open up for physical classes, students will show up online to at least get some of their courses completed.

For current and transfer students, I expect also relatively normal enrollments. In the end, I still think the question, “what else will we do?,” comes into play. If we are somehow still confined to home, then online education will become a new level of virtual reality for students. They have to do something and I don’t think online gaming is for everyone.

Two-year institutions could be in a pickle because much of their programming is physical and hands-on. HVAC and nursing, to mention two, are difficult to do without a physical presence. Same with other manual labor industries, like welding and automotive. And although two-year colleges traditionally see large influxes of enrollment during an economic downturn, the COVID-19 world is a whole lot different. Some programs will simply have to mothball.

Of course, the serious question will be what colleges and universities will do if they are forced to remain online this fall. If they are stuck with an online arrangement, will they charge the same tuition and fee levels as they did before? Will students get stuck with athletic and lab fees that amp up the real cost of college? There is certainly a cost crunch for colleges but charging the same for not the same will have negative repercussions. For example, if I plan to attend ACME University with a tuition and fee cost of $12,000/year but they are going online, do I think it is fair to still spend $12k/year? Or do I simply take my initial courses at WGU at a cost of $7,000? Or just pay $3,500 for a six-month term to “wait it out.”

The highly-selective colleges can charge whatever they want. People will still go because they want that piece of parchment that says Harvard, Williams, Oberlin, or Bowdoin. That stated, I expect some of these institutions may lead the way, due in large part to extraordinary endowments, and cut their tuition charges significantly during this short period of time. The public four-year and small privates that are largely tuition driven will have a much harder time unless, for the former, state governments come to the rescue.

This entire discussion is predicated on whether students are back on campus this fall or not, and we just don’t know. The tough part for administrators is to make decisions about a future that doesn’t exist right now. They can assume that their quick fix online version of higher education will resume this fall and plan accordingly. But that can change in a quick instant via epidemiological findings and solutions.

One thing may be true out of all of this: some students and parents will look at higher education a little differently from now on. Some will start considering the cost differently and perhaps questioning the worth of a $100,000 residential degree at a public institution and a $250,000 degree at a private institution (to be fair, not all private institutions are more expensive than publics, but typically). Those with money will do as they always have. But for those below the top five percent, the rubric for decisionmaking may change due to COVID-19.   

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