How can higher education respond to a perfect storm?

COVID-19 combines and exacerbates essentially every challenge higher ed has known. Leaders must innovate and plan for the future or suffer a repeat of history.
By: | July 13, 2020
Photo by Torsten Dederichs on UnsplashPhoto by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash

As higher education faces intensifying challenges, academic institutions’ next steps could define their vitality not only for the next semester, but the next decade.

Campus closures for what remained of the spring have led to uncertainty amongst institutions’ decisions to hold on-campus classes in the fall. Some have elected to implement a hybrid learning model, and many will hold a mainly virtual semester; other schools are still undecided. Public university systems across the country are projecting budget shortfalls in the tens of millions due to declining enrollment.

For higher education industry professionals, the pandemic has accelerated the changes in the way we all work. The most successful adopters have leveraged technology to overcome these challenges. Higher education, a sector that has a reputation of being slow to implement change, must innovate and plan for the future or suffer a repeat of history. I know this firsthand, because I navigated three past crises during a 12-year stint within admissions and enrollment management roles at the University of Miami. These episodes were not unique to my institution and impacted campuses nationwide.

Rick del Rosario, Liaison International

Rick del Rosario, Liaison International

2008: Global financial crisis

When global markets took a substantial hit in the early stages of the current pandemic, comparisons to the 2008 financial crisis and fears of a recession became commonplace.

In 2008, when I was manager of graduate studies for UM’s School of Communication, academic institutions had ample concern about their financial stability. Yet many families who suffered job loss and nosediving investment accounts could still send their children to campus due to college savings plans. Today, it is unclear when returning to campus will be safe.

2012-15: Law school crisis

During my time assistant director of student recruitment at UM’s School of Law from 2012-2015, the legal job market was saturated with entry-level attorneys who could no longer depend on the six-figure salaries they were long accustomed to upon graduation. Not surprisingly, applications to law schools also sharply declined.

The law school crisis was serious, yet manageable from an institution’s perspective. Universities can offset decreased enrollment in one graduate program by strategizing around boosting enrollment in other areas. The same cannot be said for the COVID-19 era, when declining enrollment is expected across academic programs.

2015-16: Zika outbreak

The Zika virus epidemic was another relatively containable crisis for higher education—from a geographic perspective. In the U.S., Miami represented the clear epicenter of the outbreak. As director of admissions and recruitment at the UM Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences, I found myself in the center of that epicenter.

2020 and beyond: COVID-19

Coronavirus is overhauling conditions and expectations for all institutions. COVID-19 is a perfect storm that combines and exacerbates essentially every challenge higher education has known.

The most important immediate step that colleges and universities can take in order to prevent enrollment declines is to begin expanding their programs’ exposure to a broader and more diverse pool of applicants. This can be accomplished through multi-channel advertising campaigns that drive students to programs—ranging from social media to traditional news media to email marketing to direct mail—as well as deeper analysis of data on applicant trends.

It is also crucial to nurture applicants by frequently and thoughtfully informing them about relevant developments surrounding COVID-19, including through responsive application support and real-time application status updates. Relationship-building and transparency go a long way toward ensuring that students continue to enroll.

The day has arrived for colleges and universities to focus on what matters most for their survival: robust enrollment. This means embracing technological tools, which have already been available to them, but which they might have previously resisted in favor of the status quo. If COVID-19 has proven anything, it is that the status quo is not sustainable.

Rick del Rosario is associate vice president of enrollment management solutions at Liaison International.