Post-pandemic universities: Taming the COVID dragon in the 21st Century

As the fall semester gets closer, higher education leaders are finalizing complex plans about reopening campuses safely, plans that must be able to change at a moment's notice as the pandemic continues.

“There is no harm in hoping for the best as long as you are prepared for the worst.”
—Stephen King

As I gaze out on Lake Cochituate in late July, I find myself still waiting for final federal, state and local guidelines and requirements for campus reopening. At the same time, we are waiting on Congress to define acceptable parameters of residual liability protection (safe harbor).

James E. Samels, The Education Alliance
James E. Samels, The Education Alliance

The truth is that the preponderance of State jurisdictions are still trying to keep up with the pandemic. At this moment, schools, colleges and universities are understandably delayed in developing calendars, rotating schedules, staggered classes, logistics, precautions and projected utilization as the fall grows ever closer.

These days helicopter parents are so closely tethered to their children that they morph into Backpack Parents, literally hovering over student life on campus. Yet, it’s no surprise that the overwhelming number of students want to see other students, even if it has to be with staggered and delayed starts, rotating sections and accelerated semester schedules.

The word “pivot” best describes the fluid nature of pandemic planning. Schools, colleges and universities must be nimble enough to turn on a dime if public health circumstances change significantly. For this reason, institutions must plan for in-person learning, remote learning and hybrid learning where students learn on ground for some of the time and remotely other times. The mix is driven by mission, economic conditions and, most importantly, public health.

The Public and High School Relations Director at Central Alabama Community College described disaster management planning this way: “We have plans and a backup, but now we need a backup to the backup plan.”

The time has arrived for finalizing a reopening game plan for the fall semester.

Our institutions do not need to go it alone. We’re all in this together. Through shared pandemic medical research projects, case studies and clinical trials, we now have predictive analytical tools to promote COVID-19 prevention, detection, avoidance, mitigation and risk management. Just consider the COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education created by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Self-Assessment Calculator and the Smartsheet Return-to Campus Plan.

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth reopening website provides helpful precautions and best practices of symptom self-monitoring, social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, the use of face coverings, student and employee Daily Checklists and Returning to Work guides.

Over the next several weeks, senior administrators will convene virtual pandemic boot camps, webinars, and other conversations to share both long-term strategies and near-term practical solutions. Campus leaders should think about hosting virtual roundtable conversations with guest experts, faculty and administrators.

Clearly, education leaders reopening campuses for the fall need an independently verifiable comprehensive and detailed pandemic compliance and risk assessment. This independent compliance and risk assessment process will identify and predict unforeseen pitfalls and resource gaps; potential risk exposure; and protective actions for risk avoidance, mitigation, remediation, testing, isolation and quarantine logistics.

Some campus leaders will wake up in the middle of the night haunted by the responsibility of assuring the health and safety of the larger campus community. At the same time, these administrators will need to create a compelling value proposition in order to generate sufficient enrollment count and non-tuition residential and auxiliary revenue.

Sadly, American higher education finds itself at a crucial crossroads—crushed by the consequences of a still-raging Pandemic. As far back as 2017, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen made the controversial prediction that half of U.S. higher education institutions would be bankrupt in the next 10 to 15 years. Now COVID 19 threatens to accelerate the human, economic and career costs of this catastrophe.

Unhappily, this pandemic has created the perfect storm of declining demographics, enrollment shortfalls, crashing auxiliary revenue and inevitable right sizing, retrenchment, furloughs and givebacks. All of this is to cross-subsidize pandemic recovery and sustainability.

Now that the summer melt is red hot, we will have a snapshot of near-term liquidity—i.e., fall semesters payroll. It is one thing to be a commuter college in the city. It is quite another to be a small, residential, liberal arts college surrounded by splendid isolation. The need for residential and auxiliary revenue is much higher. It is one thing for the Ivy League to claim high ground by canceling athletics. However, we also know that Ivy Athletics are not nearly as net profitable as ESPN Big Ten market share.

Significantly, institutions need to pay close attention when more students are considering gap years and deferred enrollments; commuter schools; and vocational and technical certifications and job training programs. A new college-bound demographic cohort may just opt to learn by doing.

For the first time in American history, the actual value of a college education is being questioned in the Court of Public Opinion. That is the reason why our precious campus resources will be strengthened and diversified by shared experience, warp speed vaccine trials, biomedical analytics, and best pandemic practice and case studies. Taken together, these several proactive preparedness planning and programming measures will be guided by externally validated assumptions and predictive tools.

Though difficult to witness, small, private, tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges without considerable endowments, other assets or collateral face dire consequences for the year ahead. Unfortunately, some of these institutions will experience a 15% to 30% decline in enrollments.

The recent chaotic takeover of Mount Ida College in Massachusetts changed the regulatory landscape by implicating state licensing agencies and accrediting associations—now more closely monitoring financial and enrollment conditions. Over time, if not prudently administered, overzealous regulatory triggers can stampede instability and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Though we will witness an increasing number of mergers, not all campus missions and cultures are complementary. That is the reason why consolidation and not merger will become the tool of choice for long-term sustainability.

For the future, public-private partnerships will accelerate economies of scale, expense reduction, future cost avoidance and nonduplication of faculty and programs.

Many students and families might choose to withdraw from distant campuses and go to a local community college. That said, even public institutions are not immune to the consequences of the pandemic. Just consider the plight of the public university systems in Alaska, Kentucky Massachusetts, Minnesota New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

James Peyser, Massachusetts Secretary of Education put it well:
“Covid-19 has created significant financial challenges in much of higher education, especially for smaller residential colleges that rely on tuition and fees to pay the bills, even in good times. Although most institutions will likely dip into reserves, make budget cuts, and rely on one-time federal aid to survive the coming school year, the pandemic has deepened, and probably accelerated, trends already well underway in the sector. Colleges and universities—both public and private—must find a way, not just to weather this storm, but to pivot their business and educational models for long-term success and sustainability.”

So, the next time you get a digital invitation to a Pandemic Preparedness Boot Camp Webinar or other virtual meeting, be vigilant and engaged. You owe it to your own peace of mind and, importantly, the students, faculty, staff and other members of the campus community who are eager to return to campus when convinced they can do so safely.

James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law. Arlene Lieberman, senior consultant of The Education Alliance and senior associate, Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law contributed to this article.

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