What’s next for higher education?

The pandemic will compel institutions to continue selling applicants on the inherent value of a degree, while focusing on innovation to get them in the door
Michael O’Connor is vice president of sales at Liaison International.
Michael O’Connor is vice president of sales at Liaison International.

Will college return in the fall? Will college as we know it ever return? These once-unthinkable scenarios have become legitimate possibilities amid the various radical disruptions to daily life.

Simultaneously, according to a new survey conducted by Hanover Research, nearly 90% of campus leaders are concerned about declines in enrollment and the overall financial stability of their institutions.

It might be too soon to predict that the COVID-19 outbreak will permanently move all classroom instruction online. Yet it is not too soon to assert that higher education will never be the same even after the spread of coronavirus is curbed. It seems inevitable that the U.S. and virtually all nations will rethink their approach to mass gathering in any setting, including on campus.

Read: 86 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic

Considering new approaches

However, the dystopian novel stops there. College is not going away. All-consuming traumatic episodes do not necessarily move society backward. They force adaptation and innovation. Just as the 9/11 attacks revolutionized airport security, coronavirus will transform higher education.

It is clearer than ever to envision the day when large, impersonal lectures are relegated to teleconferences, while only classes with 10 or fewer students are conducted in person.

Rising public health and hygiene concerns surely carry significant implications for dormitories. Will the romanticized notion of “going off to college” lose its luster?

Will the romanticized notion of “going off to college” lose its luster?

With a potential recession looming, the college affordability and student debt crises will inevitably reach their boiling point. Well before coronavirus-inflicted layoffs, the cost of college was increasing almost eight times faster than wages. But any solution is easier said than done.

Where will the funding come from to support loan forgiveness policies and new scholarships? Is reducing tuition a feasible option for institutions who are facing dire financial straits?

International enrollment and out-of-state enrollment within the U.S. will become increasingly complex propositions. American business programs had already experienced a 13.7% decline in international applications from 2018 to 2019, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Read: Colleges tinker with fall 2020 tuition to aid students

Encouraging signs ahead

Nonetheless, economic conditions will preserve the core identity of contemporary higher education models and offerings. The latest national wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that full-time workers without a high school diploma have median weekly earnings of $606, compared with $749 for high school graduates without a college degree, $874 for workers with some college or an associate degree, $1,281 for those with a bachelor’s degree, and $1,559 for those possessing an advanced degree (master’s, professional or doctoral).

Will COVID-19 fray the fabric of this education-workforce connection? More likely, the critical thinking skills and well-rounded subject matter knowledge that students acquire on campus will be more essential than ever in a world starved for problem-solving and actionable strategies. Higher education will play an unprecedented role in driving economic growth.

In this environment, it will be incumbent upon institutions to treat prospective students as consumers: first, by selling applicants on the inherent value of a college degree when tuition fees are unprecedentedly daunting and campus life is forever altered; and second, by nurturing them through the application process with frequent and thoughtful communication.

Read: How these colleges are marketing to admitted students during COVID-19

Another encouraging sign for higher education is that despite the industry’s natural inclination to resist change, the process of getting students in the door has benefited from consistent innovation, and it will continue to advance for as long as the educational technology community commits to supporting the journey.

Three (or even two) decades ago, admissions professionals lived in a world ruled by pencil and paper. Today, cloud-based solutions routinely alleviate the steep cost and burden of manual application processing.

The surge in remote work will only amplify the appeal and necessity of taking admissions operations fully paperless. As coronavirus compels a number of changes in higher education that should have been implemented long ago, I can proudly say of my colleagues: We were born for this.

Thanks to coronavirus, college as we know it is dead. At the same time, long live college.

Michael O’Connor is vice president of sales at Liaison International.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Michael O’Connor
Michael O’Connor
Michael O’Connor is vice president of sales at Liaison International.

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