3 reasons universities should shift budget allocations in a post-COVID environment

With rising dropout rates exacerbated by COVID-19, higher ed institutions must rethink how they earmark funds with a focus on retaining students.
Nicolo Bates is founder and CEO or TEDU.

Over the past eighteen months, university dropout rates have risen to 40%, making it even more difficult for institutions to maintain strong levels of student enrollment. While COVID-19 played a major role in the increase in dropouts, the primary factor for this trend over the years has been the availability of alternative forms of education that are more accessible and accommodating to students.

As tuition rates continue to skyrocket, the higher education industry still has not fully adapted its infrastructure to cater to the new landscape of hybrid learning. This leaves students to wonder if the amount they are paying for tuition is being reflected in the academic support they are receiving. As universities are nearing the process of finalizing spring semester budgets, they should consider three reasons to shift budget allocations to provide students with more academic support outside the classroom.

The education landscape has shifted

Recent data shows that enrollment has decreased by roughly 240,000 undergrads this past fall, a 3.2% decline, following last year’s 3.4%. If universities do not make impactful changes soon, enrollment will continue to decrease year after year. The virtual shift during COVID-19 exposed the lack of educational and technological support that universities are able to offer to their students, professors and staff.

Despite having to adjust to a new lifestyle and learning method, many feel that the small amount of tuition reimbursement did not equate to the learning loss they suffered–prices remained exponentially high even though students were not receiving the usual in-person academic experience. This left many to question if the virtual education they were receiving was worth the price tag. This change brought to light what was most important to students, their education, rather than the college experience.

This lack of educational support in certain areas, such as tutoring and academic assistance, has created increased levels of frustration, and universities must allocate their budgets in a way that reflects the needs of students. While many campuses are offering both in-person and hybrid classes this year (which is a step in the right direction!), it is crucial that they continue to improve the academic experience, and the lifestyle changes faced by students in order to combat the remaining implications that the pandemic caused and the new reality it exposed.

If universities are going to continue the remote and hybrid learning approaches, they need to adopt new infrastructure to support and facilitate this new learning experience, rather than relying on pre-existing structures designed exclusively for in-person learning. Students need new ways to access support through new technological platforms and tutoring assistance that is accessible to both the in-person and remote student. By making data-driven decisions regarding budget allocation based on the most pressing needs on campus, universities can prove to students that they care about their needs, resulting in a better sense of trust and higher enrollment rates and retention.

Opportunity to strengthen academic support

Most recently, the Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP) has been created for universities to improve retention rates and student experiences in underserved areas. The grant provides an average of $2 million per university to make advancements in areas such as academic quality, management, fiscal stability or any project relating to student academic success. This could include new academic support and tutoring centers, better access to technological learning platforms, free/reduced pricing for textbooks and other critical learning supplies.

It’s an extremely competitive grant, and highly sought after, specifically by community colleges. This could be a result of community colleges facing lower enrollment rates post-pandemic than larger universities, with a 14% enrollment decline from 2019. Recognizing the need to change this, these colleges are doing everything in their power to improve academic infrastructure for students with their funding rather than use it to pay for things related to extracurriculars. Student support infrastructure, such as Supplemental Instruction, has demonstrated effectiveness in improving student grades in historically difficult courses, improving retention, and improving graduation rates.

The government is auditing this closely to ensure that the grant is being utilized for efforts that will improve student academic success. By not taking action with their funding allocation, larger colleges and universities will also continue to see a decrease in enrollment rates year after year. Utilizing funding to invest in new learning support structures (LSS) will demonstrate that the universities value their students and want to ensure that they receive the best education possible.

Action plans can maintain student retention

Some universities have already started making proactive changes by utilizing the SIP grant to create an action plan. Southeast Missouri State University is known to be using the funding to increase retention and graduation rates, as this has been identified as one of their significant problems, specifically among their first-generation and at-risk student populations. In order to reach these goals, funding will be allocated to provide program activities that will strengthen educational support and advising, increase engagement in career and work-based learning experiences, and enhance data-driven decision making to support student success. By following the five year plan they’ve created, the university is on track to increase completion rates for all students to 60%, in addition to offering career-based learning in 80% of classrooms and internship and field experiences within 100% of academic programs.

Universities that utilize funding to invest in academic resources are investing in the success of their students, making them feel more confident in their decision to pursue higher education. Rather than relying on more funding, it is crucial that universities allocate the funding and resources they already have to help rebuild their academic landscape, following implications brought on by COVID-19, which has impacted student life and learning significantly.

I want to empower students to be vocal and question where their universities are utilizing their resources. While multi-million dollar sports arenas and state-of-the-art facilities may be flashy, exciting, and visually appealing, they do not benefit students in a way that helps them to succeed academically. I want to create a call to action for universities to do better, and for students to have their needs met.

Nicolo Bates is the CEO and founder of EdTech company TEDU. Founded in 2016 with a mission to elevate higher education, TEDU partners directly with universities through a conscious business model to improve student grades, retention rates, graduation rates, internship, and job placement opportunities while providing the university with valuable real-time data analytics to improve their curriculum and teaching methodology. 

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