April 27, 2020

How College and Universities Can Emerge From the COVID Crisis Stronger Than Before

Advising Leaders

By Elliot Felix, Abigail Smith Hanby, Adam Griff, and Amanda Wirth Lorenzo

Editor’s note: This was written in April 2020 and since then we’ve learned a lot. Nearly all of our predictions were spot on like increasing equity issues but others we didn’t anticipate like community college enrollment dropping 9%. The analysis, predictions, and strategies remain valuable to any college or university seeking to emerge from the crisis stronger than before.

You’ve just gone through years of change in a matter of weeks.

Courses and support services are now online. Faculty and staff are working remotely. Students are learning. Vital research continues. Communities are staying connected. All in the face of a global pandemic that has infected 25 million people in the US, claimed 400,000 lives, and changed how we all live, learn, and work. This is an amazing accomplishment.

Now, planning for the long-term begins – to move from triage to treatment. In this moment, you have an opportunity to boldly transform what your institution looks like after COVID-19 peaks so that your college or university can emerge from this crisis stronger than before.

We know it’s hard, but the changes you make now will set the path for your future. So, as you think about next semester and the next decade, don’t go back to ‘business as usual’ just with fewer students and fewer funds. Don’t run the playbook from the Great Recession again, deferring structural changes by shifting the financial burden from states to students. While time is short and pressure is high, you can change things now that were impossible just months ago.

Affordable access. Engaging learning. Holistic student support. Research with impact. Work with purpose. Diverse, inclusive communities. Remarkable places. Equity across race, income, and background. These are all within reach if you can build on the amazing work you’ve just done and take this moment as a unique opportunity to reimagine your college or university from the ground up.

In this whitepaper, we’ll share our view on what the world might look like after COVID-19 peaks based on which trends are likely to accelerate and which are likely to decelerate in terms of broader societal changes, finances, enrollment, programs, student support services, institutional organization, and facilities. 

We then offer six suggestions for what to do about it to better understand, communicate, and help your people, programs, and places adapt. You can take the pulse of students, faculty, and staff; convene leaders to update your strategic plan; develop and execute a communications strategy; redesign support services in the short- and long-term; and then assess and adapt the usage and operations of your campus facilities.

The quad at a crossroads

Part I: How to Think About the Future

There are many ways to plan for an uncertain future. At brightspot, we often use scenario planning in which your uncertainties or big decisions become axes in 2 x 2 grids that generate four different futures for you to plan for – by choosing one future to focus on and/or selecting strategies that work in multiple futures to hedge your bets. These choices are informed by data for institutions navigating COVID-19 (some of these data are compiled here, along with other tools and resources). We have three suggestions to inform your scenario planning, as you think about next year and well beyond. (This classic article from Wired is also a great primer on scenario planning). 

First, we think the biggest immediate uncertainties are likely to be: (a) enrollment of your new and returning students; (b) the degree to which courses and support services remain online; (c) the way programs are scheduled (i.e., four courses over four months vs. four one-month courses); (d) the way people in those programs are organized (e.g., cohorts or living/learning communities); and (e) your financial outlook based on tuition, research funding, endowment, auxiliary services (e.g., housing and dining), and income from sports and academic medical centers. Then after reopening, the big question will be the positioning of the institution in concert with the other factors; for instance, in the search for better enrollment and more stable finances, will you broaden your appeal (e.g., enroll more adult learners) or will you deepen your focus to enroll more students in the specific segments you already have strength and distinction in?

Second, we recommend thinking holistically about the different impacts of COVID-19 in terms of broader societal changes as well as your finances, enrollment, programs, student support services, institutional attributes, and facilities. New social norms are forming with lasting impacts. Government funding for education and endowments will decline. Enrollments will dip – especially international students and transfers will increase. Academic programs will offer greater flexibility, affordability, and alternative credentials as online/on-campus converge. Student support services will continue to be more holistic and inclusive of a more diverse student body. More institutions will compete and more will close. Spaces will be less full for a while, then there will be fewer of them.

To put these together in scenario planning, you might choose the proportion of online/on-campus and the degree of flexibility as your two most critical axes. So, let’s imagine one future in which most of the activity returns to campus and there is much more flexibility in programs – call it the “modular hybrid.” Since courses have to work for those that chose to remain remote or for international students who couldn’t re-enter the country, “HyFlex” courses that are both online and on-campus will be dominant; for instance, a professor might record a video and assign readings for all students. Then they would be discussed on-campus by some students and online by others. Students might take four, one-month courses so that it’s easier to stagger starts, mix online and on-campus, and be exposed to fewer people at a time. As we are seeing with NYU’s Shanghai campus partial reopening, classrooms, libraries, dining halls, residence halls, and offices would all be half full but used over twice as much time, with schedules closer to 24/7.

Third, you can also build on scenarios described by others; for instance, NYU Professor Scott Galloway’s prediction is that COVID-19 will simply intensify what’s happening today. McKinsey identifies three scenarios in this whitepaper based on how long it takes to return to “normal” – Fall 2020, Jan 2021, or Fall 2021. Higher Ed Futurist Bryan Alexander lays out similar scenarios: a return to something similar to life before the pandemic, an entirely online fall 2020, or a “toggle term” alternating between online and on-campus based on the conditions. Edward J. Maloney and Joshua Kim identify 15 different possibilities for Fall 2020.

Example Scenario Planning Grid for an academic library

Part II: What Might the Impacts of COVID-19 Be?

Let’s consider what the impacts might be in terms of social change as well as college and university finances, enrollment, programs, student support services, institutional, and facilities. These are summarized in the below and then described.

Summary of COVID-19 Impacts

Accelerating Trends Decelerating Trends
Online/on-campus convergence

Work/school convergence

Declining enrollment, esp. internationally

Decreased state and federal funding and increased tuition-dependence

Increased student diversity

Increased student mental health issues

More flexible and compressed programs with alternative credentials

Increased competition and transferring

Increased closures and mergers

Increased remote work

More part-time/non-tenure track faculty

Decreased corporate funding

Decreased endowment gains

Decreased urbanization/densification

Decreased travel (especially, globally)

Decreased use of mass transit

Decreased study abroad

Decreased coworking

Slower closing of equity gaps

Societal Impacts: Pushing Us Apart Despite Wanting to Be Together

We’re experiencing a paradox of place: having been apart to comply with social distancing and shelter-in-place mandates, people will value being together more. Yet, densely populated places and situations now feel risky – whether a city, mass transit, airplanes, stadium, or classroom – and pandemics have historically reshaped cities.

Students will more likely feel a greater connection to their local community and will be more inclined to enroll closer to home and live at home during their studies. Given the outsized distribution of COVID-19 on the coasts and differing political views on the role and efficacy of government, we’re unfortunately more likely to be more divided, and less equal. For example, Liberty University’s decision to welcome 1,900 students back on campus while other universities closed was met with both concern and praise.

  • Accelerating Trends: Declines in student preparedness, increased political division, increased implicit bias, increased student mental health issues
  • Decelerating Trends: Decline in densification, decline in mass transit (down 70% nationally since February), decline in travel (especially internationally), and wider equity gaps by race and income, decreased social pressures like “FOMO” (fear of missing out)
Declining transit ridership in the US


Financial Impacts: Instability from Decreased Funding

During and after the Great Recession institutions generally increased tuition to make up for decreases in federal, state, and endowment funding. That won’t work this time around because tuition (up 2x at privates and 3x at publics in 30 years) and student loan debt are unsustainable. So, more institutions are vulnerable to collapse as they are more tuition-dependent at a time when there is downward price pressure from online formats and competitors as well as fewer opportunities for funding from auxiliary sources like housing, dining, and space rentals. For example, Robert Zemsky, co-author with Susan Shaman and Susan Campbell Baldridge of the College Stress Test, estimated that 20% of institutions are at risk.

Declining state and federal funding for higher education


Enrollment Impacts: Declines from Demographics, Greater Uncertainty, and Competition

The diversity of students will keep increasing in all senses of the word. Fewer students may enroll. While enrollment in higher education typically increases during recessions (20% during the Great Recession), affordability and physical access issues may diminish the enrollments already in decline. More students will transfer, particularly given new admissions officers code of ethics endorsing marketing to students at other institutions. This will mean greater competition among institutions during a moment of financial crisis.

This will only accelerate students’ and parents’ focus on the return on their investment in higher education – and thus holding institutions accountable for metrics like affordability, graduation rates, and career placement. For example, Arizona State University is using blockchain technology to create a “Trusted Learner Network” (pdf report here) that facilitates seamless credit transfer between institutions. This may also affect interests in specific majors such as medicine, public health, business, economics, statistics, political science, and history.

  • Accelerating Trends: Decline in international students (down 10.5% since 2015), Decline in overall enrollment (10-20% by some surveys), increased transfers, ROI focus for students and parents, diversification of student body
  • Decelerating Trends: Enrolling closer to home (15% of students and 20% of parents, from Maguire Associates Survey)
Unemployment vs. College Enrollment


Programmatic Impacts: Convergence of Education and Work, Online and On-Campus

Many separations defined higher education historically: academia vs. industry, teaching vs. research, on-campus vs. online, academic affairs vs. student affairs, and separate disciplines and departments. These will all converge in the future to reshape programs to be shorter, more flexible, credentialed by more than degrees, and more connected to industry. For example, Boston University now offers an online MBA for $24,000 and many top-ranked institutions offer one-year MBAs. Employees will work where the development opportunities are best, and they’ll expect lifelong learning from their university.

Education will be more distributed, tech-enabled, project-based, and asynchronous. Creativity, communication, and critical thinking will become even more important, but they may be harder to teach online and to fit into prescriptive career paths. Flexibility will be paramount: reduced course loads, staggered starts to terms, shorter terms with fewer classes at a time, and more schedule options. For example, Beloit University already announced a more modular, flexible schedule for the fall.

  • Accelerating Trends: Decline in study abroad, more compressed programs (i.e., One year MBA), convergence of online/on-campus learning (currently 67% of online students enroll with 50 miles of home), increase in alternative credentials, more asynchronous learning, greater focus on core learning outcomes
  • Decelerating Trends: Focus on creativity and critical thinking for their own sake, decreasing occupancy and utilization of space 
Online students enrolling closer to home


Student Support Impacts: More Diverse Students with Better Integrated Support

Increased competition, diversity, and stress will require a holistic approach to supporting students. Student services will be seamlessly integrated across departments and physical and digital channels. Institutions will provide more basic needs support for students who experience housing or food insecurity, may lack anything from a textbook to technology, or need emergency funding.

The current student health crisis will be compounded by the stress of the pandemic. Institutions will work hard to keep closing inequity gaps by race, income, and background but this will get harder as campuses are great levelers – and students of color and underserved students are less supported. For example, NYU provides a virtual computer lab so students can access the software they need anywhere.


Institutional Impacts: More Closures, Regionalization, Partnerships, and Flexibility

Unstable enrollment and finances will mean more closures, and work/school convergence will mean more collaboration with industry. The market will further sort institutions into two categories: large, high-tech institutions that compete on cost and immediate career-focus versus small, high-touch institutions that focus on creativity and critical thinking for a lifetime (see this prescient Economist 2011 article about this happening among business schools). Some regional campuses that were recently among the most likely targets for closure may get a reprieve as students enroll closer to home.

Driven by needs to support students like adult learners studying nights and weekends as well as the desire to synchronously connect with international students who can’t come back to campus, institutions will truly become 24/7 operations. New organizational models will be used to reduce contact among students and risk; for example, studying in cohorts and Colorado College’s defining block schedule might see greater adoption to reduce exposure. 

Declining numbers of colleges and universities


Physical Impacts: Spaces That Are Less Full for a While, Then Less of Them

The impact of COVID-19 will happen in two waves: before and after a vaccine (or preventive treatment). Before, colleges and universities will need to rethink how they use and operate space with new norms – for those that opt-in to coming back to campus rather than remain online. Systems like air conditioning will require quick reassessment. Most spaces will be no more than half-full, people will have to move through spaces differently, usage will be spread out over more hours, and it will take more staff to operate them and enforce new norms. These space changes will create large ripples on people and programs; for example, faculty can’t double their teaching loads because classrooms are half-full so they’ll flip the classroom by recording videos that on-campus students can watch and then come together for discussion (albeit in a classroom that’s half-full). Testing and tracking will be important to mitigating risk, as Brown University and Purdue University have already stated.

After a vaccine, the allocation and configuration of workspace, large classrooms, housing, dining, and recreation will all be reduced and rethought demand will decrease and concerns about proximity to people will linger and the purpose of the campus may change, as Southern New Hampshire University has just proposed. While it may be cheaper to build in the near future, campus expansion outpacing enrollment will slow as institutions assess and better utilize what they already have.

  • Accelerating Trends: Increased utilization of time, reductions in large lecture halls, increasing classroom space per seat (i.e., lower density, higher flexibility)
  • Decelerating Trends: Decline in campus expansion (which has generally outpaced enrollment), decline in shared and multipurpose spaces, decline in coworking, decreased occupancy and utilization of space, increased office space per person, decline in open workspace
Space growth outpacing enrollment growth


Part III: Six Things You Can Do to Prepare for the Future 

Once you’ve considered different future scenarios and their impacts – social, financial, enrollment, programmatic, student support services, institutional, and facilities – you need to move forward. To do so, take the pulse of students, faculty, and staff; update your strategic plan, develop and execute a communications strategy, redesign support services, and then assess and adapt the usage and operations of your campus facilities. 

The dimensions of a student’s experience
  1. Take the pulse of your community: This is a “black swan” event. So, data more than a month old may be irrelevant if you really want to understand how people are feeling and what they need. Instead, reach out to your students, faculty, and staff through surveys, interviews, and online focus groups. Look at what they are saying on social media. Analyze the data from your learning management system and other platforms. Use these insights to understand how people feel about learning online, working remotely, and being together. 
  2. Convene leadership retreats and update strategic plans: The degree and pace of change mean that much of your typical five-year strategic plan has just become obsolete. Your mission, values, and vision will remain. Many of your goals will not. Bring people together to update your short-, mid-, and long-term strategic plans – and build in opportunities to assess, learn, and adjust. You’ll need to decide things like whether to change your positioning (i.e., broader appeal or deeper focus?), to what degree courses and support services stay online, and what partners you need among industry and academia. 
  3. Develop and execute a bold communication strategy: Informed by the needs of your community and prepared with updated goals and tactics, you then need to communicate. More than conveying the facts, you need to help people feel heard, understand the changes coming, and feel connected. This means the right messages, communicated and reinforced at the right time, in the right channels, with the right processes and tools in place. The fall will bring anxiety about job security, new norms for using spaces, and the need to reinforce a sense of belonging.
  4. Redesign services to more effectively and efficiently support your people: Higher ed has just experienced decades worth of shifts in service delivery in a matter of weeks as courses and support services like counseling, tutoring, research support, career advising, tech support, and much more all moved online. Service design can buttress these shifts with better-defined roles, new skills, and the right tools. Then these online lessons need to be applied to the campus in the future – ideally in a way that captures some of the new-found agility and more lean processes borne out of the crisis. 
  5. Assess and adapt how facilities are used and operated: Campus facilities including classrooms, labs, lounges, libraries, lobbies, cafes, gyms and dorms all need rethinking in the short- and long-term – for buildings and campuses. Before there’s a vaccine, spaces, their scheduling, and their operation staffing need to be adjusted in light of new norms and social distancing. Then, they need to be planned differently post-vaccine, considering lasting impacts of these norms (i.e., more space per person) as well as shifts in needs (i.e., no large lecture halls, fewer on-campus workspace). 
  6. Rethink operations and manage organizational change: Shifts in learning and work will mean that operations must change. Staff inevitably will play new roles; a library staff member previously focused on the stacks transitions to coordinate appointments for research consultations. Processes get leaner; layers of approvals and processes that were too slow during the pivot online don’t need to come back. Changes in space use and operations require staff changes. All these changes need to be communicated and people need to be developed in such a way that they are informed, prepared, and excited.
iZone: A place for students to make social, cultural, community, and economic impact

Part IV: Conclusion

In times of crisis, the most vulnerable are hit the hardest. In the pivot to move online, many colleges and universities forgot that not all students could afford a plane ticket home, had another home, had the technology and the bandwidth they needed, or the home environment in which they could learn. But, we are hopeful that closing equity gaps by race, income, and background won’t slow because other institutions provided housing, loaned laptops, and cut tuition – and concern for low-income students topped a recent survey of college presidents.

The choice is clear. Colleges and universities can plan for a future that’s just a slightly worse version of the ways things have been, or you can think boldly about what your institution will look like after COVID-19 and what changes you’ll have to make to deliver on your mission. You can reimagine your finances, enrollment, programs, student support services, institutional attributes, and facilities – and do it in a way that’s more equitable and inclusive.

You can engage more than 50% of your students, have more than 74% make it to sophomore year, and have more than 60% graduate in six years. Students can find their purpose, passion, and career paths. Faculty can conduct groundbreaking research that solves complex problems like climate change and income inequality. Staff can be fulfilled and productive. Communities can thrive. 

To do this, take the pulse of students, faculty, and staff to learn what their needs are. Informed by this assessment, the external trends, and the competitive landscape, convene leaders to update your strategic plan – and make it more agile and less prescriptive. Develop and execute a communications strategy so that you stay in touch with and learn from your community. Redesign support services in the short- and long-term to provide both a better experience and greater cost-effectiveness. Assess and adapt the usage and operations of your campus facilities to account for new norms and policies today while being more strategic about your portfolio of spaces tomorrow. Onward!

The authors wish to acknowledge contributions from Meredith Bostwick-Lorenzo Eiroa, Shannon Dowling, Greg Johnson, Kelly Sanford, Maggie Thacker, and Maggie Walsh. These fine folks responded to an early Linked-In post about the impact of COVID-19 on trends currently reshaping higher education.

Please get in touch of you’d like our help thinking through how your programs, people, and places will change as you reopen your campus and plan for the future.