Future Shock: It’s time to hit the reset button

College and university leaders must be nimble and open to disruptive, outside-the-box systems thinking—now and in a post-pandemic world
By: | May 15, 2020
(Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash)(Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash)
James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates.

James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates.

Using canaries to test mine tunnels was a best practice in the 1900s. This arcane method of detection still speaks volumes to growing optimism surrounding the hope of reopening campuses for the fall 2020 semester.

“Black Swan” theorists ask why we failed to formulate logical prevention, detection and mitigation strategies. It’s not like we didn’t see the economic downturn and higher ed industry contraction coming. Yet Chinese and World Health officials, and confused federal and state bureaucracies arguably undermined public confidence in the source and pervasiveness of the virus.

That said, the “new normal” will likely entail widely adopted preventive screening and digital detection; cohort testing and contact tracing; monitoring devices and temperature sensors; negative pressure labs; diagnostic entryways; and extended social distance protocols.


Read: Updated: 107 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic


Where we stand

In the conventional war of rankings and amenities, some institutions have already overleveraged, and now face fall semester enrollment revenue shortfalls and predictably near-term liquidity gaps. This new world order of college creditworthiness is most recently reflected in Moody’s negative outlook for the higher education industry—no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic.

Over 30 years ago, I opined the future of higher ed was in mission complementary, mutual growth, win-win mergers. Since then, history has overtaken us with more and more closings and shotgun weddings of small, tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges. Many of these fragile campuses are now looking at declining enrollments, spiraling discount rates, high fixed costs, increasing student and family debt burden, and serious internal constraints (i.e., collective bargaining agreements; faculty senates; and, sadly, faculty tenure).

As important, helicopter parents have now nested down with their college kids to shelter at home—and stay closely tethered over the summer. Indeed, as I write this commentary, there are no clear government regulations, rules, guidelines, timelines or milestones for reopening campuses.

Even with the anticipated reopening of some campuses, institutions still need to successfully navigate the troubled waters of post-pandemic reset. Our most recent interviews and research suggest that campus leaders are already sharing just-in-time post-pandemic solutions; disaster prevention, detection and mitigation best practices; and post-pandemic student and visitor public health and campus safety regulations.


Read: Will all college campuses reopen in the fall?


Where we’re headed

Significantly, the pandemic has disrupted the perennial ebb and flow of conventional recruitment, admissions, deposit and conversion yield cycles. That is just one of the reasons the time is ripe to freshen and launch virtual campus tours, virtual reality freshman and parent orientations, and artificial intelligence-enhanced learning experiences.

Down the road, one can easily imagine the reemergence of the one-room schoolhouse situated on a cloud-based, remotely controlled microcampus—with flippable smart classrooms, labs, studios and galleries all in one rotating room.


Read: Have virtual admitted students days been successful?


How will higher ed move forward? Here are my thoughts.

  • Beyond classrooms and residence halls, institutions will need to create a new level of engagement, interaction and retention. Cloud-based, remotely delivered 24/7 student services, academic mentoring and career counseling could be a powerful fuel for post-pandemic retention, graduation and career placement in the new gig-based economy.
  • While most colleges offer online courses, many have yet to develop 100 percent complete online degree programs. In some cases, colleges will struggle to launch all programs online in scores of underenrolled degree programs, not just one-off courses. (Even technophobic faculty can now produce and broadcast their own programming by interactive video, Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting or Webex despite the occasional “Zoom bombers.”)
  • In 2020, accelerated degree and certificate programs will attract student consumers who want asynchronous, high-touch, high-tech, virtual reality learning experiences. Early college three-year bachelor’s and four-year combined master’s degree programs will become the most popular college fast-track modes of choice.

    Cloud-based, remotely delivered 24/7 student services, academic mentoring and career counseling could be a powerful fuel for post-pandemic retention, graduation and career placement in the new gig-based economy.

  • Beyond traditional-age students, some adult learners want to see other adult learners and faculty at least once per week. For these midcareer students, low residency, accelerated, interactive programs will be hosted on campus and remotely distributed on smartphones, tablets and laptops—at home, at work and anywhere in between.
  • In the post-pandemic environment, we sense craven interstate competition that transcends geopolitical boundaries. These competitors will target somewhat saturated regional markets for potential residential students. These residential students offset tuition shortfalls by generating dormitory, food plan, athletics and other auxiliary revenues.
  • Institutions need to rethink their conventional retail recruitment strategy—that is, one student at a time. In the future, cohort-based relationships will incentivize savvy colleges and universities to transform historical competitors (for example, community colleges) into collaborators for bachelor’s degree completion programs; and significantly, create new partnerships with public school districts, charter schools and prep schools through early-college dual and concurrent enrollment.
  • Before summer staycation, some provosts will be recalculating which academic programs are underenrolled from spring and summer melt—and they may be getting alarming results.
  • The new higher ed business model will be based on counterintuitive, entrepreneurial public-private partnerships and joint ventures. Beyond joint ventures, look for new federal and state coronavirus education relief and recovery grants, contracts, and subventions. These alternative revenue streams will help relieve pressure on traditional enrollment growth.

Read: How coronavirus is driving higher ed innovation for fall 2020


Advice for campus leaders

When announcing fall semester campus reopening decisions, higher ed leaders must be nimble and open to disruptive, outside-the-box systems thinking. This approach should pivot off fresh data and a thoughtfully considered, carefully measured, phased, post-pandemic campus reopening plan.

These comprehensive and detailed post-pandemic reopening plans will need to detail public health protocols, policies and procedures that best protect returning students, faculty, staff and campus visitors. These post-pandemic plans and policies must also incorporate scenario-based economic simulations—with candid enrollment projections for worst scenario, best scenario and most likely scenario.

By late August, many students will be eager for campuses to reopen so they can have the social opportunities and intellectual stimulation that come with living and learning with peers. Yet those needs must be balanced with the need to stay healthy and safe. We all want to avoid or at least be prepared for possible future Black Swan and canary in the coal mine events.

Brown University President Christina Paxson put it this way: “Campuses were among the first to shutter during the COVID-19 pandemic. … Our duty now is to marshal the resources and expertise to make it possible to reopen our campuses, safely, as soon as possible. Our students, and our local economies, depend on it.”


James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates.


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