COVID-19 can change everything—if we let it

The pandemic is changing the way higher education works—and we shouldn’t go back to our old ways. An attorney who represents higher ed institutions says: If you want to know why, just ask my seventh-grader.

Getting ready for school this August was certainly different. Family dinner table conversation focused less on new sneakers and more on who needed a new desk chair—or a new webcam instead of a new backpack. Then there were the big questions of the summer: Do parents want their kids in school or learning at home? And what do the kids want?

Edward M. Cramp, Duane Morris
Edward M. Cramp, Duane Morris

My seventh-grader’s answer to this last question carried the day. Given a choice between going back to brick-and-mortar and online learning, he said he didn’t want one or the other.

He wanted both—the so-called hybrid model.

He’s not alone. According to Dave Clayton, senior vice president of consumer insights at Strada Education Network, hybrid education “was a consistently popular option” throughout a recent survey taken by his organization. It beat out both online and in-person when it came to which option Americans were likely to recommend, as well as which option offered the best preparation for joining the workforce.

Will this change higher education? Of course it will. The market to find students gets more competitive for colleges every year. That trend is predicted to continue long into the future. If today’s junior high schoolers already know that they want “both,” this shift in consumer demand won’t go unnoticed. If college leadership wants the freshman class of 2026 to enroll in their institution, they would be foolish not to adapt.

Under today’s circumstances, however, universities have responded more out of a sense of emergency. Having been handed millions of dollars from the federal government, traditional institutions spent these funds largely on preventative measures (like hand sanitizers, masks and testing—all necessary, of course) and less on investments in hybrid modalities. But all their precautions may make little difference if and when their customers (i.e., co-eds looking to let off some steam) continue to put themselves at risk outside the classroom.

Even amid this crisis, university administrations would be wise to look to the future. The University of Southern New Hampshire and Purdue University might be helpful models: Both saw the online learning writing on the wall and made investments early, long before the pandemic. In the former’s case, what was once a struggling, little-known Northeastern school has become one of the largest online universities in the U.S.

Of course, not every university and college should strive to acquire a global online empire. But what they can do is create a business plan that sets a trajectory for (at least) the next 2-3 years, one that asks: How can we convert our operations to meet the realistic expectations of a post-pandemic student body? How can we drive demand and interest in our school in ways that incorporate hybrid learning? What cost savings can we begin to realize as we move more online? What metrics will we use to hold ourselves accountable?

In doing so, university administrators will have to consider a number of factors. Which classes should be online and which must be brick and mortar? Growing amoebas in a lab requires you to be there in person, but is there any reason an entry-level stats class should be held in a lecture hall rather than online? In the latter case, couldn’t online learning—with more one-on-one instruction/tutoring—provide even more value?

A hybrid model isn’t just a way of attracting future undergrads. It can also bring in that 33-year-old bartender who, having been let go, realizes she wants to go back to school.

Administrators will also need to consider which technology platforms to partner with, and what goes into those partnerships. In the past few months, we learned that universities want more than just an online learning tool, they need online learning content. Higher ed leaders must assess their content needs alongside their technology needs in deciding where to draw that line with their servicers.

They’ll need to keep up with new regulations, too, like the recent set of rules governing distance learning from the U.S. Department of Education. Though they don’t go into effect until July 2021, early implementation is an option—and one that universities should very much consider.

Finally, universities shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this shift in consumer demand presents a real opportunity. This is especially true now. Higher education is understandably countercyclical: With more people out of work, more look to restart or advance their education. But while trade schools have done a good job of attracting such clientele, traditional higher ed institutions have typically fared pretty poorly. A hybrid model isn’t just a way of attracting future undergrads. It can also bring in that 33-year-old bartender who, having been let go, realizes she wants to go back to school.

My son is not just one of millions of seventh-graders who have returned to school; he’s among millions who will apply for college in just under five years—after having become quite familiar with the hybrid model. Not all of them will like the approach, but some will. And it will influence their decisions about where to apply.

This is important because meaningful change was very much needed in higher education, even before the pandemic. If the question is whether COVID-19 is finally ushering in that change, I think it is—and whether he fully realizes it or not, so does my seventh-grader. 

Edward M. Cramp at Duane Morris represents institutions of higher education around the United States in accreditation, regulatory, litigation and transactional matters. He also serves as the managing partner of the firm’s San Diego office.

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