Saving higher education: Lessons learned from fall semester reopenings

With unprecedented challenges and low enrollment rates, universities and colleges need to reflect on their priorities for a successful next semester.
By: | November 4, 2020
Getty Images, FatCameraGetty Images, FatCamera

Despite major changes to classes, student services and experiences, higher education appears to be surviving the fall semester. Unfortunately, the pandemic meant that it was not nearly as successful as previous years or as predicted. Undergraduate attendance plummeted 2.5 percent and international undergraduate enrollment was down 11 percent. This forced many colleges into a difficult position financially. Yet most are still choosing to enter the winter semester without changing their initial pandemic plans. Estimates show that the pandemic has cost higher education institutes over $120 billion. With COVID-19 cases increasing, enrollment rates declining and further budget cuts on the horizon, schools are expected to fare worse. In order to survive the year, colleges need to revisit what worked—and what didn’t—to save higher education.

Kevin Grauman, QLess

Kevin Grauman, QLess

What worked

Although there were many different approaches to learning—remote, in-person and hybrid—the majority of successful openings, in terms of limiting outbreaks, were from universities that didn’t bring all students back to campus full-time. Within the first weeks of the fall semester, many colleges were experiencing spikes in outbreaks caused by students returning to campus.

Colleges need to find a way to improve the student experience while simultaneously keeping everyone safe.

The colleges that experienced these outbreaks had to adapt their strategy rapidly to reopen campuses. Some went to remote learning for a few weeks until cases dropped, while others decided that it was time to go fully remote with their learning strategy.

Yet colleges that offered in-person courses benefited from higher enrollment numbers. This could be due to the student experience. Students come to college for a community, which online classes can’t facilitate. This could also account for why freshman enrollments are down 16.1 percent nationwide.

Many freshmen appear to want to delay their education until they can have the proper college experience. Next semester, colleges need to find a way to improve the student experience while simultaneously keeping everyone safe.

What should be changed

Between flu season and the second wave of COVID-19 cases, next semester will have new challenges that need to be faced responsibly. This means that colleges need to start employing new approaches to learning to limit the number of students and staff on-campus. If possible, in-person classes should continue with limited spaces to improve enrollments. Lectures should be simultaneously streamed to students who choose virtual learning. Allowing students the option to choose how they will learn could help improve revenues and enrollment rates.

Although colleges are suffering from decreased revenues, there are some technologies that are necessary investments. For any college that has students coming to campus—whether for classes, student services or resources—contact tracing will be important to monitor students’ activities and interactions. In order to stay open at all, contact tracing technology cannot be overlooked. The same can be said for testing centers on campus. With many schools still allowing students to live on-campus, rapid testing facilities will be beneficial when students return from the holiday break. As they begin to move in, all students should undergo testing to ensure that they weren’t exposed during their time off-campus. If they were, they should be placed immediately in isolation on campus.

This also leads to another important aspect of the student experience that will necessitate change—student housing. Many colleges have packed dorm rooms, with few options for single occupancy rooms. In order to assure that students can safely maintain physical distance, dorm capacities need to be limited. Single-occupancy rooms will also have to become the norm. Following the outbreak last August, the University of North Carolina has made some significant changes to dorms. Rather than the 5,800 students they had in August, January will only have 3,500 students living in dorms. All dorms will also be single-occupancy rooms, which will help increase space for students who need to isolate. It’s these types of changes that more schools will need to consider if they are interested in facilitating in-person learning.

Preparing for the rest of this academic year

The fall semester was full of challenges, but it also revealed several successes. Colleges pivoted quickly to keep students safe, while a significant number of colleges that grant bachelor’s degrees experienced no enrollment declines. Campus leaders are continually learning and adapting. With no end in sight for the virus, it’s time that they take a critical look at their successes—and failures.

Kevin Grauman is CEO of QLess, a provider of virtual lines and digital crowd management. He was named as one of the 100 Superstars of HR Outsourcing in the USA by HRO Today magazine and is also the recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.