Red planet rising: Is there life on campus in the post-pandemic?

The pandemic's economic impact has threatened small, private, liberal arts, tuition and discount-dependent colleges. But it may also provide an opportunity to reinvent and transform institutions into more sustainable higher learning enterprises.

“Hope begins in the dark. The stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” —Novelist Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird”

James E. Samels and Arlene Lieberman, The Education Alliance
James E. Samels and Arlene Lieberman, The Education Alliance

Over the summer we learned from students that the large majority wanted to be reconnected to their classmates and take classes on campus. Surprisingly, three out of four of this campus-bound cohort said they were willing to avoid large parties and special events. Time will tell how accurate student self-discipline predictions prove out.

UMass President Marty Meehan put it nicely this way: “Most UMass students want to reunite on campus. That said, we first need to ensure our pandemic preparedness, public health capacity and regulatory compliance. Our campuses scanned their regional environment early on and correlated this data to local conditions. For now, we need to remain vigilant and stay dialed into both the campus and the public health of the surrounding communities.” Contrary to reopening naysayers, what has evolved in the pandemic is a shared sense of social and public health responsibility—the DNA of surviving the new normal on campus. This higher sense of individual accountability is inevitably self-enforced, with a good measure of affirming peer pressure. Unfortunately, media hype of big off-campus parties often distorts the actual picture on campus in the coming fall. Holy Cross comes to mind.

If baseball is any indicator, just consider the MLB teams who were placed at risk by a few teammates who celebrated at the hotel bar. That said, no campus is bulletproof. The possibility of elevated risk is ever-present no matter what students do to avoid trouble. The key will be to correlate campus and public health data with local COVID conditions—i.e., infection spread; hospital utilization and capacity; testing frequency and tracing; mortality; and the list goes on.

Beyond uncertainties surrounding fall semester campus reopenings, the economic fallout of the pandemic will impact the near-term liquidity of small, private, liberal arts, tuition and discount-dependent colleges. For those already living on the edge, the pandemic may serve as the extra push off the cliff. Yet, the pandemic may also provide a propitious opportunity to reinvent and transform institutions into more sustainable higher learning enterprises. This data farming process will produce best-practice pandemic preparedness self-assessment tools; campus reopening and closing scorecards; predictive dashboard indicators; and risk threat calculators.

We recognize today’s perilous financial circumstances reflect preexisting soft market conditions. These diminished circumstances are evidenced in spiraling tuition price wars; craven competition; evaporation of international students; lower conversion yield rates, and crashing residential and auxiliary revenues.

In 2017, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen predicted that 50% of our institutions would cease to exist in a decade. Though some industry analysts have a more robust view, experience tells us that the American higher education system will never look the same. Most of us who work in higher ed daily have a profound sense that our higher learning sector is going to contract sooner than later.

In Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press), we intuited this crushing reality would soon arrive. Naturally, we had no foreshadowing that this downward spiral would be accelerated light-years by the pandemic.

Even public colleges and universities are now at risk. Just look at the states considering consolidation: Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Louisiana, Minnesota, Vermont, to name just a few.

For some students, attaining a well-rounded liberal arts higher learning experience may become an impractical goal. As more families face unemployment, higher education must increase its focus on 21st Century job skills and employment marketability. Academic program outcomes will become increasingly connected to lifetime career compensation and fully funded retirement.

Over the past several decades, we witnessed a steady migration away from irreversible mergers and shotgun weddings. These alternative, transaction-specific, time-limited partnerships and joint ventures generate a predictable return on investment.

It is important to remember that mergers partners don’t always live happily ever after. One of the endearing qualities of antenuptial agreements is that they offer ready-made solutions to the dissolution of a marriage—crafted when the parties are on good terms and willing to engage in amicable compromise.

Once the brand name, students and institutional assets are transferred, few will remember where it all went sideways. How quickly will we forget that Boston College took over the Pine Manor College campus, or that Wheelock College was acquired by Boston University, et al. No surprise, these assets transfers made “dollars and sense” to the acquiring institutions.

These days, savvy higher ed leaders take a more proactive, creative approach—best characterized by collaborative academic programs; shared administrative services; collective procurement; and assets transfers. These transaction-based joint ventures have well-defined target goals and milestones for measuring success. These mutual growth, win-win transactions typically produce positive net revenue results—without the trauma often caused by organizational restructuring and new governance.

What feels counterintuitive is that historical competitors need to transform themselves into collaborators and leverage their distinctive strengths. This may translate into competing in some program areas, while simultaneously collaborating in others. This brings to mind the timeless wisdom of Sun Tzu: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Perhaps, the time has come to recast this teaching for our times as “keep your friends close and your institutional competitors closer.”

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 is senior consultant of The Education Alliance and senior associate, Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law.

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