Terri Givens

by Terri E. Givens

The transition to online courses is only one of the ways that the COVID-19 crisis is having an impact on higher education. As discussion forums have popped up for faculty and staff to share information and resources around the shift to teaching online, there has been less attention paid to the fiscal impact of the crisis. 

In the last few weeks, we have seen several higher education institutions announce closures, including two here in the San Francisco Bay area. Even before the arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S., many institutions were facing an existential crisis. This was exemplified by the response to a study that was ultimately never published. 

Last November, Nick Ducoff and Sabrina Manville of Edmit cancelled their plan to provide a public database they had developed with researchers at Brandeis University, after significant pushback from some colleges. In an opinion piece at Inside Higher Ed, they noted that they “sought to release a modeling tool we created by using publicly available data to project how many years private colleges have until they could run out of money and close. We planned to share the projections and underlying qualitative and quantitative data, taken from federal sources, on Github, a platform for open-source projects. Inside Higher Ed was prepared to publish a news article on the projections.”

The Problem

As a former provost of a small nonprofit college, I can understand the financial issues that the current crisis is creating for higher education. The fact that many colleges and universities are facing an existential crisis has been an ongoing discussion, highlighted by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn in an oft-quoted New York Times editorial which compared traditional universities to sailing ships, as they faced the advent of steamships:

“Still, the theory predicts that, be it steam or online education, existing consumers will ultimately adopt the disruption, and a host of struggling colleges and universities — the bottom 25 percent of every tier, we predict — will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years. Already traditional universities are showing the strains of a broken business model, reflecting demand and pricing pressures previously unheard-of in higher education.”

Their prediction seems to be overstated, but there have been a series of colleges that have closed in the last few years. It hasn’t only been the lack of innovation that has led to the demise of small colleges, changing demographics and declining enrollment have played an important role in their demise, creating financial exigencies from which they couldn’t recover. In fact, for-profit colleges that were some of the first to embrace innovation have also been some of the first to go, as explained by Phil Hill in a blog post examining Christensen’s prediction: 

“The gist of the data analysis was that the vast majority of closures have been from the for-profit sector (which did not seem to be in [the] scope of Christensen’s comments, but we can’t be sure), but the predictions could be realistic if including for-profits but not if applied only to nonprofit institutions.”

Bernard Bull, himself the president of a struggling college that is on probation with its accreditor, has a another perspective in a recent blog post:

“Followers of my work know that I’ve challenged the college closure prediction, not because I think it is inaccurate, but because I think a more nuanced prediction could help us create a more hopeful future for learning beyond high school. I don’t doubt or question that many colleges will struggle and close, especially those resistant to fundamental changes. We already see that happening, and if they are not able to provide enough value to warrant the attendance of students and the support of donors, perhaps it is time for them to close.”

The last few years have been frustrating for someone like me, who is a strong believer in the value of higher education. Some campuses are embracing innovation, while others struggle to manage declining enrollments or are slow in updating their curriculum. Parents and employers are worried that college isn’t preparing students for the workplace, and companies that are trying to innovate with educational technology are having trouble convincing strapped campuses that their innovations are needed.

An important part of the solution for higher education is to focus on leadership. It will take strong, well-informed leaders to take on the challenges facing higher ed. Since I returned to the San Francisco Bay area five years ago, I have immersed myself in the latest innovations in higher ed, attending conferences, visiting college campuses in the U.S. and Canada, and developing The Center for Higher Education Leadership.

In order to meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students, higher ed institutions will need to focus on the following areas, with strategic planning as the first step, incorporating the following components into any plan:

  • Developing contingencies based on projections of the impact of the coronavirus
  • Financial benchmarking and working on developing plans to maintain fiscal viability
  • Ensuring appropriate communication with students, faculty, staff, parents and other stakeholders
  • Ongoing training for faculty in teaching online
  • Focusing on diversity in admissions and faculty recruitment
  • Programming to improve retention and graduation rates
  • Planning for working with re-entry and adult students
  • Improving the situation for adjuncts and creating faculty lines focused on teaching
  • Working with employers, particularly alumni, to get feedback on curriculum
  • Encouraging faculty connections with the community and developing links to high schools and college success programs.

CHEL is ready to help institutions tackle these challenges. Over the next few months we are providing free resources including our ongoing webinars and coronavirus website. Our courses on strategic planning and assessment are available on our website. We have developed a financial benchmarking project with the Peer Review Portal which will be an important resource for institutions preparing for accreditation and program review. 

What has become clear over the past week in particular is that institutions will need help in addressing the range of issues they are facing. Along with the financial review and our courses, we have a team of consultants available to provide their expertise. 

What is most important throughout this crisis is to ensure that we all remain healthy and that we have compassion and empathy for those around us. Our mission is to help ensure that leaders have the tools they need to be successful. We are here to listen and support you — please reach out, anytime.

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