COVID-19 Will Fundamentally Change Higher Education with Big Winners and Losers

Image credit: Getty

Higher Education, in the sense of institutions that deliver content for credit, then confer degrees to students fortunate enough to persevere for the length of the program, is in the midst of foundational, forced change, that will result in a new normal that will be unrecognizable for large portions of the industry—and most institutions will find themselves in the new reality by default rather than by design.

Even before the novel coronavirus pandemic, American higher education was in the eighth consecutive year of enrollment declines and 2020 will not only be the ninth year, but will manifest the greatest year over year decline of the entire contraction. If the last decade was death by a thousand paper cuts, COVID-19 is a lethal assassin of the status quo. The challenge for colleges and universities, which applies to organizations in any industry, is that it’s very difficult to manage a crisis and think transformatively at the same time. Institutions of higher education, however, are further challenged by cultures and leadership that are far more effective at sustaining the status quo than thinking audaciously about the future.

Unlike virtually any other sector of the economy, colleges and universities were able to operate for decades with anachronistic, expensive, and institution-centric models that amazingly, until recently, also managed to avoid market forces! The last decade marked the beginning of the end of that dynamic with downsizing, mergers, and nearly 1,300 closures, so the industry was already in decline and many institutions were in a severely weakened state even before the pandemic. A combination of unfavorable demographics, cost, debt, new alternatives, and an increasingly negative societal view of higher education was already substantially decreasing demand while also making college enrollment more discretionary among the shrinking potential pool of students. Despite the “pre-crisis crisis,” colleges and universities were remarkably complacent, if not in outright denial about the structural challenges of the last ten years. Although few institutions are likely in denial about the severity of the COVID-19 crisis per se, almost all are in a very heads-down, transactional mode, unable to see the current predicament as an opportunity for reinvention. While that is not atypical of organizations in crisis, the pandemic ironically presents the greatest opportunity in modern times for colleges and universities to think very differently about how they operate and bring value to constituents.

Winners-Losers

There are currently about 5,800 institutions in the U.S. that are eligible for federal financial aid (there used to be almost 8,000). About 15% of them are financially sound enough, exclusive enough, and/or have enough political patronage to continue to operate very similarly to how they have in the past—at least for the foreseeable future. As Scott Galloway, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and marketing professor at NYU describes the situation in a recent New York Magazine interview, “The better universities are fine in the short term because they just fill spots from the waiting lists. The kid who’s going to Boston College will get into MIT. But if that snakes down the supply chain, and you start getting to universities that don’t have waiting lists, those are the ones that get hit.” The catastrophic combination of factors created by COVID-19 will reduce applications, and thus selectivity at the top of the higher ed food chain and will dramatically reduce selectivity in the middle. Those in the bottom third, or so, will basically implode. As an example, Pepperdine has dipped into its wait-listed students for regular admission well before their deposit deadline — it’s the first time in institutional memory they’ve done that — and then did it again. And that was more than four months before the fall semester! As Galloway further notes, “It will be like department stores in 2018. Everyone will recognize they’re going out of business, but it will take longer than people think.” Some will hang on for a while as “zombie” colleges, technically open, but no longer viable concerns.

On the other extreme, the rich and powerful will get more rich and powerful. As we’ve seen with retail and banking, for example, those with scale, money, reputation and political clout (maybe 50 to 100 institutions) will get bigger and more dominant at the expense of everybody else. As few as a dozen will be the “Amazons” of higher ed. This group will include both the scions of higher education like Stanford and Harvard, with bold upstarts like Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire, with a few flagship publics as well. What most Americans don’t realize is that the richest institutions in the country also serve the richest students, perpetuating a higher education caste system that has been almost impenetrable and will remain so after COVID-19. According to a 2017 study by the National Bureau for Economic Research, if students’ parents are in the top 1 percent of the income distribution, they’re 77 times (no, that’s not a misprint) more likely to end up in the Ivy League than they are if their parents are in the bottom 20 percent. Despite massive endowments and yearly eight and nine figure revenue surpluses, these institutions simply do not admit a meaningful number of needy students and that may get even worse after the pandemic subsides.

Outside of this caste system, the reality is that much will change whether institutions play along or not. To be clear, this is not speculation. It reflects changes that were already in play, but that have been catalyzed like gasoline on a fire. What can we be confident about?

In the coming years, higher education will:

  • Be smaller, with fewer institutions overall
  • Be dominated by a rich and powerful “cabal” at the top
  • Be redefined by blockbuster partnerships with industry
  • Include non-accredited post-secondary options
  • Be much more discretionary for a vast majority of Americans
  • Operate with less public funding
  • Be less diverse, with fewer students of color, poor students and international students (African American enrollment declined 13% from 2018 to 2019)
  • Manage finance with actual P&L rather than expense budgets (and move to more variable vs. fixed costs)
  • Be less bureaucratic
  • Be less dependent on tuition
  • Be staffed by even more contingent workers
  • Be market driven and move to more “small bite” programs rather than formal degrees
  • Have less face to face interaction, even on residential campuses for both instruction and services
  • Be less calendar-focused, with more flexible, multiple length academic terms
  • Be brutally competitive in a retail context
  • Be much more open to innovation for those institutions that survive
  • Be customer driven (and dependent on a compelling value proposition)
  • Be in a constant state of flux

The simple reality on the consumer side is that what used to be a compelling ROI for college degrees is now only marginally positive, and for a substantial number of students with crippling debt, actually negative. Families in the 1% will still broadly subscribe to a residential college experience, with the end credential being a degree. Everyone else will look for alternatives that make much more sense in terms of time, money, and a path to employment.

ImprovementsOn the other hand, although the outlook for much of traditional higher education is gloomy, the future for post-secondary education is quite bright. And the future for institutions that have the courage and chutzpa to make really bold bets on a fundamentally different future will not only survive, but thrive. In the process, we will see more disruption and innovation in higher education than ever before in its long and impressive history. The closest industry example may be banking, which has moved to a technology driven, hybrid business model in which the majority of transactions are now initiated by customers using various forms of networked technology, with a modest brick and mortar presence for some services, customer support, and as a means of maintaining brand loyalty.

The Opportunity

As noted previously, the rich and powerful of higher education will broadly get richer and more powerful, and will benefit from game changing industry partnerships, robust revenue streams and access to capital. The elites will benefit from exclusivity and legacy reputations while the “upstarts” will benefit from scale, access, and affordability.

Within the vast remainder of colleges and universities, institutions that choose to see themselves as leaders in the move toward a redefined future, there will be an incredible opportunity to create an experience that is student-centric, entrepreneurial, flexible, driven by compelling partnerships and learning experiences, and based on the needs of customers and employers, rather than on the needs of the institution. And the most successful institutions will be those that can solve the critical challenge of creating a highly engaging, social, and “human” environment in the midst of less face to face interaction. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review noted, “digital transformation is now risk-mitigation.” One other likely change for enlightened colleges will be a move from the “one and done” model of enrolling, completing a degree, and disappearing, to a series of educational experiences that keep graduates connected to their schools through short-term, just-in-time programs over a lifetime. These programs are likely to be affiliated with industry and fall under “demand driven education,” which will, for enlightened colleges, finally bridge the higher education-industry divide.

Although, relatively speaking, those that thrive will be niche players, the massive contraction in institutions overall will eventually help to realign supply and demand, creating space for small to midsize institutions who compete on their value proposition and redefined financial models. Three to five years from now it will be basically impossible for mediocre colleges and universities, public or private, to compete. The majority of the student market will pay for remote/online learning or local campus based/hybrid options, but only if it is a high-quality experience and only if it is affordable. They will no longer pay exorbitant prices for mediocrity. Of the pool of institutions that operate today with an exclusive admissions model, i.e., they accept fewer students than apply, roughly the bottom third will effectively become open admissions models and even that will not meet admissions targets for all of them. The middle third will become much less exclusive, and the top third will still turn away far more students than they accept, but their typical student profile will shift from creme de la creme to creme.

Lastly, as simple as this is, regardless of sector, institutions that find a way to offer shorter, cheaper, high quality programs and credentials that lead directly to employment opportunities, will be in high demand over the next several years as we work our way out of an economic depression. The double whammy facing higher education is not just the logistical nightmare of COVID-19 and the sudden crash in value of the educational experience for students; the economic calamity will put any kind of traditional higher education out of reach for tens of millions of families for the foreseeable future. Access will actually increase, but not for traditional, residential higher education and degree programs, as many students shift to more affordable, mass-market options.

 

 

New Webinar Series: Stronger, Safer–The New Normal

Image credit: Neil Patel

Register here for free sessions beginning the week of May 11th.

Noted higher education experts Dr. Wallace Pond, Yolanda Gallegos, and Anthony Bieda are offering a new, free webinar series dedicated to surviving and thriving through the current crisis. The series was designed for higher education, providing content that applies broadly across all sectors of post-secondary education, with a particular focus on private sector schools. Webinars are currently scheduled starting the week of May 11 through the end of June, with more to come after that!

The series covers everything from the nuts and bolts of the CARES Act and regulatory & accreditation issues, to critically important subjects such as change and crisis management, leadership, and wellbeing in a time of overwhelming stress.

You can register for any combination or all of the sessions at no cost, thanks to support from the Kentucky Association of Career Colleges and Schools (KACCS). Each session will be offered twice, on different days and different times to ensure the most flexibility for attendees.

Feel free to share this notice with anyone who has an interest in effectively managing the transition from the acute phase we are in now to the coming new normal.

Profile of Presenters

Pond

Wallace K. Pond, Ph.D.

Dr. Pond, Education Practice Partner at Top Gun Ventures and founder, WallaceKPond.com, has been a mission-driven educator and leader for over 30 years. For the last 20 years, Wallace has been a senior leader in higher education, holding both campus and system level positions overseeing single and large, multi-campus and online institutions of higher education in the US and internationally. He has served as chancellor, president, COO, CEO, CAO (Chief Academic Officer), and board member, bringing exceptional value as a strategic-servant leader through extensive experience and acumen in strategic planning, change management, crisis management/turn around, organizational design and development, P&L, human capital development, innovation, new programs, and deep operational expertise among other areas of impact.

Dr. Pond provides thought leadership and high-impact consulting across a variety of educational and leadership topics including strategy, innovation, healthy organizational culture, executive coaching, change and crisis management and other high ROI areas. You can learn more at http://www.wallacekpond.com.

Gallegos

Yolanda Gallegos, Esq.

Ms. Gallegos has represented private sector institutions for more than 30 years focused on guiding schools through critical events including governmental and accreditor investigations, corporate expansions and downsizing, and operational adjustments required in response to regulatory changes. She has served as an expert witness in federal and state courts on matters related to the regulation of student financial aid and is a frequent speaker and writer on a variety of regulatory topics affecting higher education including her chapter on the Violence Against Woman Act regulations (Thomson Reuters: Emerging Issues in College and University Security.) She has successfully defended dozens of institutions in program reviews and audits before the U.S. Department of Education. She has extensive experience in accreditation and state licensing. She received her J.D. from the University Of New Mexico School of Law and her LLM in Advocacy from Georgetown University Law Center. She is a member of both the bars of the District of Columbia and New Mexico and is a recipient of the D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year award for her refugee advocacy.

Ms. Gallegos offers professional fee-based consultation on legal and regulatory matters. Contact her at yolanda@gallegoslegalgroup.com

Bieda

Anthony S. Bieda, MBA

Mr. Bieda is Ex. Dir. of KACCS and CEO of ASB34 Policy Resources, a public policy and organizational communications firm. He has more than 40 years’ experience in communications and public policy, including telecommunications, proprietary and public higher education and public lands/natural resources. He is former Executive-In-Charge of ACICS; Asst. County Administrator of Lane County, OR; Asst. Vice President for Government Affairs, Arizona Board of Regents; and Director of Public Relations for U S West – Arizona. He earned a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Northern Colorado, an MBA in accounting and finance from Regis College, and completed coursework toward his Ph.D. in public policy at George Mason University.

Mr. Bieda offers professional fee-based consultation on regulatory and accreditation compliance, government relations and organizational communications. Contact him at anthonysb34@msn.com.

Want to Save the Staggering Cost of a Failed Executive Hire? Follow These Best Practices

Image credit: Business 2 Community

Over the last four months, I have conducted nearly 50 interviews with folks who have been directly involved in executive search, in some cases for decades. These include executives, private equity partners, hiring managers, board members, and executive search professionals. Collectively they have hired hundreds of senior leaders across multiple organizational contexts and provide a rich source of information about what has worked well and not so well in the process of hiring executives.

The participants were quite candid, even when discussing the shortcomings in their own hiring processes, both those that were conducted internally and those supported by executive search firms. Those interviews, and my own experience with executive recruitment, have resulted in a fairly comprehensive and accurate picture of what works and what doesn’t relative to making successful hires (and avoiding mistakes). And this is not just an academic exercise. The cost of failed hires, both financial and organizationally, is shockingly high. You can see an analysis of the cost of such mistakes here.

To the question, What works or looks good when a search delivers value? (and conversely what doesn’t work or look good?), I found a number of commonalities, suggesting a high degree of shared experiences despite the diversity of interviewees and the organizations and industries in which they work. The list below reflects a consensus on what factors have supported successful search. Of course, the converse is also true. When these elements are not present or are not fully realized, that compromises the likelihood of a successful search. These practices broadly fall into pre-hire, hire, and post-hire phases.

Best Practices

The hiring organization actually knows what they need.

More people “confessed” to this internal short-coming than to any other problem, but reported when they took the time to figure it out, they were more likely to hire the right person.

The hiring organization devotes the necessary time and effort to the process.

As important as hiring is, it must receive the same focus, time, and resources dedicated to other initiatives.

The hiring organization is culturally ready to hire the right person.

When organizations get beyond their internal inertia, politics, and biases, they are more prepared to hire folks who aren’t status quo executives.

The search partner is an executive level expert in the industry/field in which the hire takes place and is involved from beginning to end (not just for the sale and at the end).

For searches supported by search firms, clients get much better results when the search partner is actually an executive level expert in the area being hired. That sounds obvious, but it’s actually rare.

The search partner is willing to push the hiring committee beyond the status quo.

Interviewees reported that they achieved the greatest results when an external search partner pulled them out of their comfort zone and/or old habits, both in creating spec sheets for a role, and in reaching out to the most dynamic candidates.

The search partner wants to learn about the hiring organization and the role being hired.

The entire process goes better, and the search partner is more effective, when he/she takes the time to really learn about the hiring organization.

Candidates are effectively screened relative to the specs before being presented.

In many cases, search firms do “paper” evaluations, then throw candidates over the wall to the client organization. Searches are much more effective when the search partner does extensive vetting before presenting candidates.

Candidates are thoroughly assessed for leadership style, org fit, etc.

Whether a search is being conducted internally or with a search partner, hires are much more likely to be successful if the vetting process goes beyond interviews and includes high quality assessments of a candidate’s leadership style, fit with other executives and organizational values, beliefs, etc.

Candidates are sourced from a broad and diverse pool, including outside of the industry.

Organizations often fish in the same pond over and over again, limiting the diversity and quality of potential executive hires (this is particularly acute in higher education). When they are willing to look to other industries and contexts, they tend to find the most game-changing candidates.

The search process delivers exceptional candidates that generate significant impact

Searches often only provide adequate candidates, but not game-changing candidates. As obvious as it sounds, successful searches result in hires that dramatically impact critical organizational outcomes.

The search partner can help the committee/board “sell” the hire within the organization.

Interestingly, multiple interviewees reported that a critical value add from search partners is assistance in presenting a finalist in compelling ways that generate broad-based internal support for the hire.

The hiring committee includes operations people, not just HR or hiring manager.

Second only to failure to fully understand what the organization needs in a new executive hire is the failure to include a broad enough set of constituents in the hiring process and decision to effectively assess a candidate’s ability to meet multiple, sometimes competing needs within an organization. When a committee includes internal customers, HR, colleagues, and others with a vested interest, the quality of the hiring decision tends to be much better, even if it takes slightly longer.

Hiring decisions are based on multiple, defensible data points.

A surprising number of hires end up being “gut level” decisions despite the huge financial and organizational implications. While intuition can be an element of the hiring decision, the most successful hires are based on a combination of data points such as interview ratings, psychometric and organimetric assessments, reference conversations, etc. as they relate to the position specifications.

Part of each interview was dedicated specifically to the participant’s experience with search firms and most (including those from search firms!) did not hold back on discussing what “bothered” them. At a high level, although most interviewees understand the retained search model, they don’t necessarily like it because they often felt taken advantage of by large firms that sold a customized, concierge product, but delivered a cut and paste commodity. The list below represents another area where there was consensus.

What bothers clients who contract with a search firm?

  • The dog and pony show at the beginning, delivered by the heavy hitters, who then disappear, handing off the search to “junior” staff
  • When search firms sell themselves instead of selling solutions to client needs
  • When search firms sell sizzle (or past success) and forget the steak
  • When updates and communications are with junior employees
  • When search firms use templates rather than custom materials
  • When search firms present candidates that have failed elsewhere
  • When search firms don’t take the time to learn about the client organization

Lastly, the interviews also provided some commonalities related to problems that consistently crop up in executive searches. These can occur in both internal and retained searches.

  • Committee/Board isn’t strong enough to go a new direction
  • Search specs don’t align with internal politics/culture or don’t include a broad enough perspective
  • Daily grind gets in the way of both careful due diligence and future/strategic thinking
  • Search firms are too busy/have too many clients
  • Organizations feel obligated to hire someone even if none of the finalists meet all the requirements

In short, there was a fair amount of shared opinion across the folks I interviewed, with common experience around the factors that lead to good search outcomes and those that compromise good outcomes. Whether a search is conducted internally or with the assistance of a search partner, when it fails, it is painfully expensive, in both time and money, to all involved. Fortunately, there are some hard-earned lessons shared in this article that we can use to increase the likelihood of getting the right execs in the right roles. The most critical are: Knowing what you need; dedicating the necessary time, care, and resources to the search; hiring partners that are executive level experts for the role being hired (and who won’t pawn the search off on junior employees); and being willing to hire non-status quo candidates who might require the organization to stretch, but who will return high-impact results.

A Note for After the Hire

Although this was a less emphasized element of the interviews, best-practices don’t end when a candidate signs an offer letter. To the contrary, it is actually one of the more critical phases of hiring. For example, the folks I spoke to said that one of the most important elements of hiring a new executive is an effective on-boarding process. However, almost all said that their own organizations fell short on this count! Other opportunities include executive coaching, which is separate from on-boarding, and an evaluation of the hiring process itself. It is a perfect opportunity to assess what worked well, what can be improved, etc., while the process is still fresh in the minds of the hiring committee.

The New Normal

While much of what was learned from the many folks who contributed to this article still applies in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, there are clearly a few “curveballs” that have to be effectively addressed. One is the difficulty in conducting face to face interviews. Another is simply hiring in the midst of a crisis, which will require candidates who are a good match under the circumstances, not just for “normal times.” It may very well be that some organizations will have to make hiring decisions in the absence of meeting candidates face to face, or possibly the in person interview is reserved only for a finalist as a means of confirming a de facto hiring decision. In either case, hiring organizations will need to leverage tools that provide deeper insight into candidates than under the “normal” conditions of the past. Examples might include using particular psychometric and organimetric instruments and/or more creative use of existing due diligence processes. For example, rather than the customary (and often superficial discussions with references), a hiring organization or partner search firm might conduct a 360 review with candidate evaluators comprised of previous colleagues and supervisors. Regardless, successful executive recruitment will require new thinking.

Footnote

Because most of my experience has been in the education space, I have some additional insights to executive searches in those institutions. As it relates to traditional higher education, executive hiring decisions tend to be far more driven by politics and culture than in private sector companies that tend to be more agnostic about a candidate’s background, while being evangelical about desired performance. Colleges and universities are unfortunately often more concerned about checking all the boxes related to optics and varied constituencies, even at the expense of future performance on the part of the executive. As a result, they are generally good at creating the appearance of a thorough process, with broad-based input and “proper governance,” but such searches often sacrifice best practices behind the scenes, particularly when they involve traditional search firms, which are often co-conspirators in preserving the status quo.

What Higher Education Executive Teams Need to Know and Be Able to Do in Order to Survive and Thrive

Image credit: Industry Week

Over the last few months I’ve been engaged in conversations about higher education leadership with board trustees, recruiting firms, executives, accreditors, professional organizations, and others with a vested interest in the effectiveness of executive leadership in colleges and universities. There is a strong consensus that the last decade has produced significant failures of leadership across higher education, but there is even stronger consensus that most college C-Suites are woefully unprepared for the challenges presented by the current COVID-19 crisis. Ironically, traditional leaders are really good at “emergency” measures like cutting budgets and laying people off, but they’re lousy at building sustainability through transformation.

Before the Corona pandemic, colleges and universities needed dynamic, game-changing leaders who could empower entire organizations to innovate—to shift from the traditional “fail-safe” cultures of the last century to “safe to fail” environments in which an entrepreneurial spirit prevailed and status quo gave way to transformation. Now, of course, colleges need all that from their executives (and trustees) AND the ability to skillfully navigate an acute, existential crisis. To mix metaphors, if the last ten years were death by a thousand paper cuts, the current state will be a ruthless “culling of the herd,” with the weakest institutions failing to open again in the fall or next spring and many others closing or merging in the next few years.  Executive teams that have never had a meeting on “cash management,” are now doing so daily. Previously “exclusive” institutions who turned away students will find themselves in a de facto “open enrollment” world in a scramble to hit admissions targets, without the normal systems and resources required of that more challenging student demographic. Worse, they will find other institutions poaching both their existing and new students.

Importantly, the current reality requires that we think not just about the knowledge, skills, abilities and orientation of the CEO, but of the entire executive team, and how they work together.

So, what does a high performing university or college cabinet look like in the current circumstances?

First, it absolutely must be a high functioning team. As Patrick Lencioni discovered in his work with senior teams in thousands of organizations, teamwork may be the single greatest competitive advantage any organization can have. It can’t be commoditized and it can’t be bought. As I’ve noted in a previous article, healthy, high functioning teams, even if comprised of lower caliber members, will consistently out-perform even the most capable individuals.

Second, the executive team must collectively meet all of the leadership needs of the institution. It ultimately doesn’t matter which team members have which profiles (the Game Changer Index is a good model), but it is essential that together, an executive team operates without major blind spots and that each member plays to her or his strengths, being supported by others where their interest or aptitude is less pronounced.

Within given roles, the kinds of skills and abilities that produce outsized results in hyper-change, complex, and ambiguous environments, are not what they were, even ten years ago. At the executive level, all leaders must have at least some strategic insight, financial literacy*, and must be able to, if not lead, then at least support, change. Executive level leadership today also requires the ability to leverage human capital, to achieve success through others, to embrace innovation through risk and entrepreneurialism, and it really helps to have some meaningful level of passion and energy. In the context of the current COVID-19 crisis, it is also essential that executives have a plan and speak with one voice. What employees need during a crisis is somewhat different than during “normal” times and executives must be able to instill trust, show compassion, project stability, and offer hope, all in addition to running the daily business and managing the extant crisis!

*Unfortunately, very few college executives are skilled P&L managers. In fact, most CEOs confuse budgets (and expense management) with P&L. In the current environment, any institution whose cabinet level executives understand and can manage profit and loss are at a significant advantage to those who cannot. I have led training exercises with executive teams in which not a single person other than the CFO had ever received any instruction on P&L.

The table below is an incomplete list, but illustrates a number of competencies and orientations that are critical, but rarely exist in college cabinets today. Each column represents the executive leader of that functional area.

ExecTeamTable2

To be clear, all executives would benefit from high levels of expertise or orientation in all areas. Having said that, within a given functional domain, for political/cultural/operational reasons, leaders will achieve greater success if they can leverage given competencies more relevant to those respective functional areas. For example, both Provosts and Admissions VPs would benefit from strong business development skills, but that is likely to be more critical for a provost.

In short, required C-Suite skill sets, experience, traits, and aptitudes are not what they used to be—even before COVID-19. And the extent to which a given institution will survive and thrive going forward is inextricably tied to the quality of its collective leadership, which can either be developed or hired, but it cannot be ignored.

The Leadership Crisis in Higher Education

Image credit: CEO Magazine

As I have written in previous articles, higher education in the U.S. was in the midst of an eight-year decline in enrollment, which had precipitated nearly 1,300 closures, many mergers, and a situation in which over a quarter of private, nonprofit institutions were technically insolvent, even before the wrenching COVID-19 crisis. The Corona virus pandemic will accelerate the decline and increase institutional failures across higher education over the next couple of years. Even in the short term, some material number of schools simply won’t reopen their campuses even when the current crisis subsides, and those who thought they were on solid footing, will suddenly realize they are at risk in the new normal. In short, as the weakest institutions fall off the bottom of the list, the deck will reshuffle with previously less vulnerable institutions facing their own existential reality. Most all colleges will become less exclusive, which is probably not a bad outcome.

It is clear that the precipitous, nearly decade long, contraction of higher education, both in terms of the size of the industry and its relevance in the public eye, has been driven by multiple external factors beyond the control of college and university administrations, including everything from demographics to economics. But it is also clear that generally speaking, higher education has suffered from a collective, catastrophic failure of leadership. Although there are exceptions, both the executive and board leadership in a majority of American institutions of higher education, regardless of sector (public, private, community college, career college, etc.), have broadly failed to respond to, or even understand, the fundamental market, political, financial, and demographic changes that have wreaked havoc across most all of American higher education. While college and university leaders have dottered around the edges of incremental change, addressing symptoms rather than causes, the sands under their feet have shifted so dramatically that much of what exists in terms of financial and operational models in many IHEs today is wholly irrational and unsustainable. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed, with ferocity, the underlying weakness and neglect that was already present. An analogue is what happened in retail, with thousands of retailers simply going away in the face of changing consumer habits and disruptive competitors.

How could so much of higher education leadership fail so miserably?

First, even worse than retail or other industries, the culture in higher education has never supported transformative thinking or change and the leadership typically incubated by colleges and universities has never developed the skills or attitudes required to lead in complex, hyper-change environments. Even basic concepts like return on investment or P&L or urgency or accountability are often foreign to higher education, let alone the requisites for surviving and thriving through paradigm-shifting change such as innovation, entrepreneurialism, quick action, risk-taking, emotional intelligence, empowering human capital, etc. In fact, with the exception of a handful of institutions (ironically, mostly large and public), leaders who have the abilities, skills, and orientation to lead effectively in complex, ambiguous, and even volatile environments are deeply threatening to typical higher education institutions which are heavily invested in the status quo and anachronisms that support institutional priorities rather than students, who, by the way, are increasingly seeing college as discretionary. Everything from class schedules to curriculum and degree requirements to faculty rank and tenure to research agendas to the absurd inputs that drive university rankings have almost nothing to do with market realities or value proposition or learning theory or supporting diversity and inclusion or social mobility for students or even graduation and employment!

In most cases, the profound leadership failures in the C-suites of higher education over the last couple of decades are not a result of malfeasance on the part of executives. They are the result of leaders who are simply ill-equipped to meet the challenges they actually face vs. the leadership challenges that academic leaders were groomed to face from a previous era. Evidence of this fundamental mismatch can be found in the implosion of the average president tenure just 15 years go from about 12 years to less than six today, with the number being closer to three if we include interim placements. Unfortunately, the traditional executive search process makes the situation worse by regularly delivering candidates with anachronistic skills and wholly inadequate leadership profiles.

And this failure to acknowledge and address the profound challenges that IHEs have been facing for years includes typical college boards as well, whose membership is rarely based on the experience, skills, and orientation that would actually benefit the institutions they oversee, but rather on cozy relationships, politics, fund raising, favors, political appointments, program affiliations, alumni status, etc. Even the most loyal and dedicated trustees (and there are many) are simply not capable of bringing value to the hard and critical conversations around strategy, accountability, transformative change, redefinition, alternative business models and revenue streams, etc. that, for the most part aren’t happening anyway! In short, most boards, even if they do possess relevant expertise on the part of some trustees are either too polite to engage in tough discussions or too dysfunctional to embrace healthy conflict. And because most boards have a preponderance of “insiders,” it is almost impossible for them to break the “group think” dynamic that allows so many institutions to weave their way down the road to oblivion.

The leadership failure that is compromising higher education in general is exacerbated by a triad of regulatory and accreditation oversight that also values predictability, control, and the status quo over innovation, creativity and transformative change. In fact, it is very difficult for colleges and universities to experiment even in limited ways with the “sacred” in higher education such as how credit is awarded and transferred, how students demonstrate subject mastery, what qualifies for financial aid, new delivery models and even true absurdities such as “contact hours” vs. competency. It remains to be seen if some of the regulatory breakthroughs necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis will be sustained in the new normal or if regulators will go back to the century old command and control structure on which oversight has been based (and which has crippled innovation).

It also remains to be seen if the current crisis is the “dislodging” even that Robert Zemsky at the University of Pennsylvania suggests is required for fundamental change in higher education. The eight-year decline and over 1,200 closures was not enough to jar the complacency that was still in place across much of higher education just a few months ago, so we shall see. Unfortunately, the weakened state of many institutions before the COVID-19 crisis will create overwhelming leadership challenges going forward, even for those leaders and boards who would otherwise be up to the task. Even great leaders will fail in the future in the face of what have become insurmountable challenges. While it’s impossible to know what number of closed institutions would still be open or what number of those that will not survive going forward would have been saved had there not been such egregious failures of leadership, what is clear is that higher education is already bifurcating and the institutions that were thriving despite the eight year contraction all have one very critical thing in common: Executive and board leadership that had the vision, capacity, and perseverance to meet foundational challenges head on with innovation, courage, and a willingness to question even the sacred in the interest of creating a sustainable future. They all have also figured out that student enrollment decisions are discretionary and that the value of choosing their institution over another must be compelling. The value proposition does not have to be the same. It just has to meet the needs of a large enough part of the market such that whatever challenges a given institution faces, meeting sustainable enrollment targets isn’t one of them.

On a sobering final note, the impending collapse of state funding will render many public institutions not only insolvent, but unable to deliver even basic services. Although public institutions have escaped outright bankruptcy and closure over the last decade, that will change with the COVID-19 crisis as we begin to see the first closures and continued mergers within public systems. Many states, as their tax receipts fall well below even the levels of  the great recession, have already begun to “claw back” previously allocated funds for the current fiscal year. In the coming year, many state universities (particularly mid-tier institutions) and community colleges will see the greatest cuts in funding in their entire histories and will simply be unable to operate in any way approximating “normal.” This reality will exceed the capacity of even the most capable leaders and the priority will shift to mothballing facilities, eliminating academic majors and sports teams, shuttering learning sites, and in some cases, entire campuses. The saving grace for some flagship universities is that due to declining funding over many years, they have built revenue models that are far less dependent on actual state appropriations. Some of these universities received less than 10% of their operating budgets from state legislatures even before the current crisis. While they will also struggle significantly, the threat for them will be less existential, though no less challenging for their leadership.

Footnote

Although I have written articles (and a book) that have been critical of American education, this article is the most direct critique I have written about the broad-based failure of leadership in higher education. I would add that it is also a moral failure as well. Both executive leaders and trustees, entrusted with the responsibility to protect the institutions they lead, have, in thousands of cases, been unable to find the courage to abandon the familiar and embrace the bold, audacious thinking that is required of transformative change. I wish to be clear that my critique is in no way a personal attack on the thousands of individuals who have, in some cases, dedicated their entire professional lives to serving educational institutions and the people in them—as I have. One can be well-meaning and even passionate, and still unable to meet the huge leadership challenges presented by shifting paradigms and crisis. And for those higher education leaders who were “brought up” through the ranks of traditional colleges and universities before becoming a president or chancellor, you were set up. Your leadership development was wholly inadequate for the challenge of today’s reality. Lastly, and unfortunately, many capable leaders have been ill-served and even sabotaged by boards who themselves did not have the vision or the courage to support an entrepreneurial spirit, risk-taking, and innovation, let alone the kind of transformational change necessary to survive and thrive in the recent past and current reality.

The last decade was a slow drip decline. COVID-19 will be quick, ruthless and indiscriminate in its remaking of the higher education landscape. Although there are many unknowns about the future of higher education, one thing is indisputable: The quality and effectiveness of leadership itself has become an existential issue (and competitive advantage). To thrive in the new normal, institutions must have leadership, executive and board level, that is up to the task.

What to Expect in the Fall For Higher Education and Its Students

Image credit Gerd Altmann

While heads are still spinning from the acute onset of the COVID-19 crisis, it is already time to be thinking about the coming fall semester. It seems likely that colleges and universities will stay closed for on campus/face to face activities through the summer, but some kind of transitional operations may be possible in the fall. Maintaining closures through the summer may actually be a blessing, allowing maxed out staff, faculty, and administrators time and space to better prepare.

A way to think about the process is that we are currently still in the acute phase of the pandemic, which will be followed by a transition phase and finally the new normal. That applies to the pandemic itself and to how we live and operate as well.

So what can we expect between now and early fall?

  • Some institutions, who were already experiencing financial exigency, will not re-open.
  • Virtually all institutions will experience steep declines in revenue and similar declines in enrollment.
  • All will have incurred new costs.
  • Some material number of students will continue to go to school, but will shift to less expensive, more flexible, and more efficient options. Many will choose local and online options–and that will extend far into the future.
  • We may see the end of the traditional (agrarian) academic calendar, with shorter terms, late starts, etc. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

We’ve also been able to identify the likely characteristics of institutions that will successfully manage the crisis, which means getting through the acute and transition phases and still be around for the new normal. Some short, mid, and long-term examples are below.

Short to Mid Term

  • Can limit attrition of existing students
  • Can Limit misses to new enrollment targets
  • Establish a much leaner expense model (based on values and strategy)
  • Are highly effective with cash management
  • Have reprioritized necessary vs. discretionary
  • Plan for worst-case, with optimistic fall-back options (it is quite possible that the fall term will also be fully delivered at a distance)
  • Have leadership that instills confidence

Long Term

  • Have a clear value proposition that differentiates them from the competition
  • Have preserved or established a deep sense of community
  • Can pivot from initial crisis management and transition to new normal operations
  • Have maintained or adopted values driven decision making
  • Can implement transformative change even if that means abandoning what once was “sacred” in the interest of survival
  • Have leadership that instills confidence

The most important key for success will be the ability to create an educational experience that is engaging and productive for students regardless of the delivery method. In other words, for almost all colleges and universities, post COVID, there will be far more instruction and services delivered remotely than before the crisis. Those that can make that increasingly hybrid experience user-friendly, social, engaging, rewarding, etc., independent of the mode of delivery, will attract and keep students.

For mid-tier, less exclusive, poorly endowed, broadly tuition-dependent institutions—which represents most of higher education—thriving in the new normal will require audacious thinking and a willingness to completely redefine themselves. That is not a strength of higher education, but the existential nature of the situation will push some fortunate institutions with the right leadership in that direction.

Even those institutions who do all the right things will have to start from a viable place. In other words, institutions who do not have the liquidity to bridge the gap, simply won’t survive regardless. Just last week we’ve seen announcements from half a dozen schools that are implementing teach-outs and will not reopen. And schools who thought they were operating from a position of strength, will have that notion challenged as their relative exclusively declines, gross applications decrease, and “yield” declines as well at the same time that endowments implode and new philanthropic giving evaporates.

We can also expect that “post-crisis,” a material number of students (and their families) will still choose to pursue a college education, but will no longer pay for an expensive residential experience, particularly if we don’t get to a new normal quickly that looks and feels close to what students got in the past. Even if that residential experience is close to what it used to be, many traditional aged students and their families will have reprioritized what matters to them. For many, an expensive college education will have become a highly discretionary expense. We can expect to see a fairly dramatic shift to other forms of post-secondary education such as industry-delivered training, boot camps, certificates and shorter length programs in general, which will put extreme pressure on small, liberal arts colleges and mid-tier publics in particular. It remains to be seen how community colleges will fare, but they could be the sector that benefits most if they can solve their long standing and near scandalous problem with program completion rates—and don’t go broke when state appropriations shrink dramatically, as they will for at least the next couple of years.

In short, the COVID 19 crisis will do with ruthless efficiency what the market could not. Despite the ongoing eight-year, slow drip decline in enrollment, very little of higher education has evolved in transformative ways. As a result, we will see a bifurcation of survivors. Those who have built the capacity to scale, serving large numbers of students at a reasonable cost, particularly at a distance, will fill one camp. The other, will be comprised of those institutions that have the financial and/or political resources to continue to serve a smaller, but still existing population of students who want a traditional, residential experience. A big swath of higher education in the middle is in for the greatest existential crisis since American “higher education” began in the 17th century.

Wildcards

There are also some “wildcards” to consider as institutions begin fighting for survival. There is no doubt that we will see institution level behaviors that we never have before (it’s already happening). Fierce competition from schools that aggressively market and discount in order to “poach” new and existing students will become common as restrictions on those behaviors were lifted just last year and colleges fight for every tuition paying student. The “gentlemen’s” agreements that were common in the past will evaporate as schools move into an era of “retail competition.”

Students can also expect:

  • Larger class sizes
  • More online/remote content
  • Difficulty getting classes they need for their majors
  • Entire programs being discontinued
  • Faculty and staff layoffs
  • Decreased hours and access to campus facilities and services (if you’re on a campus)
  • Increased fees

In short, as institutions move from the acute outbreak phase through a transition period, and ultimately get to a new normal, there will continue to be significant disruption. Some things will never go back to how they were, but schools that have the necessary leadership to engage hard decisions and transformative change, will be far more likely to still be around in some form for the new normal than those who do not.

An Important Note on Leadership

It is almost certain that the most successful passage from the acute phase, through a transitional period, then to the new normal will require highly effective leadership. And, while impactful leadership in crisis shares some elements of high level leadership under “normal” circumstances, the needs of employees are not the same. As research by Gallup reveals, what followers need most in a time of crisis are trust, compassion, stability, and hope. In the face of something as destabilizing as COVID-19, it is absolutely essential that leaders be as purposeful about meeting the emotional needs of their communities as they are about their operational interventions.

Turn the Boat Around and Go Downstream: Liberation in the Face of Crisis

The current situation is creating a great deal of dissonance for many of us, not just because of the scale of the COVID 19 crisis, but because the new way of operating is challenging our definitions of self and challenging our previous (often irrational) ways of being and feeling. I recently spoke to an executive who, despite being a high performer and checking all the boxes for “hard-working professional,” was unceremoniously laid off after 25 years of blemish free employment. The financial loss was almost secondary to the emotional trauma. Those of us “white collar” workers who are still employed, or employed in name only, are mostly at home and somewhat discombobulated by the change. All the normal markers of our professional lives have been turned upside down and the ways we have been validated and have validated ourselves are in flux or simply gone.

On the other hand, the reality is that much of how we have traditionally thought and behaved, particularly as it relates to our professional identities, was causing great harm. One of the fortunate ironies of the present reality, is that for many of us, it presents an opportunity, even if a forced opportunity, to reassess very important issues that we were previously “too busy” or too compromised to acknowledge.

Unfortunately, most of us have been acculturated to even attach our very self-worth to our work behaviors and accomplishments. Talk about a set up! By its nature, our work is transient and ultimately dependent on others. Not a particularly great dynamic for something as essential to our mental health and wellbeing as identity and self-worth! Many of us have made a Faustian pact with our work (and our employers) that demands continuous, high-level commitment on our part, with a specious (and no guarantees) return on investment over the long term. A job loss, for example, can cause serious financial stress, but it can only cause trauma if we have an unsustainable dependence on work for identity and self-esteem. We have been tricked into identifying with what we do rather than who we are!

See if some of these examples sound familiar:

  • Having a perpetual sense of urgency
  • Fearing that even temporary “low performance” could cost us our jobs
  • Confusing busy with productive
  • Exhaustion as a status symbol
  • Overachieving as professional validation
  • Working long hours as professional validation

Not only are those simply the wrong things on which to build one’s identity or self-worth, they aren’t even necessarily rational for professional success. For example, a sense of urgency can be valid and productive, but not everything is urgent! Overachieving can be rewarded and mutually beneficial, but it’s also a trap, because, by definition, you can’t always overachieve in the same way that everyone can’t be above average!

Here are some potential, much more sustainable alternatives

  • Having a perpetual sense of mindfulness
  • Achieving fewer, more important things
  • Self-care and compassion as a status symbol
  • Working fewer hours with higher purpose

Thankfully, the current situation, as truly difficult as it is in many ways, is also an opportunity to liberate ourselves from a host of self-imposed, and ultimately harmful, patterns of thinking and behaving. Not only are many of the things we have traditionally enslaved ourselves to bad for our sense of wellbeing, they aren’t even that great for professional success and they certainly aren’t sustainable over a lifetime! Maybe the biggest silver lining of the current crisis is that we can now give ourselves permission to be smarter and healthier, committing to thinking and behavior that provides purpose and human connection rather than unsustainable and unhealthy “bargains” that slowly drain us of spirit.

Footnote

For those of you who are continuing to work out in the real world, delivering supplies, taking care of the sick, keeping the lights on, stocking shelves, etc., thank you. We appreciate the risks you are taking on our behalf and are truly grateful.

What Should Colleges and Universities Be Doing Now?

Despite the unknowns, we’re getting slightly improving visibility into what the mid-term COVID-19 implications might be for higher education.

The Big Picture

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The coronavirus crisis has the potential to change higher education more than any recession in the past, including the Great Recession, which dealt a tremendous blow to our economy and to higher education.” It is not alarmist to believe that the ultimate effect on the economy could be closer to the Great Depression, with dramatic declines in GDP and historic levels of unemployment. There will also likely be enduring behavioral changes even after we are through the health emergency. Regardless, the impact, broadly and within higher education, will be severe and long lasting with as many as 20% of institutions failing to reopen over the summer or coming fall. On the other hand, this crisis may be the kind of “dislodging event” that finally moves a material number of colleges and universities to embrace truly transformative change and that is probably the most productive way to think about the current crisis.

Specifics

First, we know that enrollment will decrease again in the fall, taking us into the 9th consecutive year of decline. We just don’t know how much. A recent survey suggests that close to a fifth of all incoming freshman for Fall, 2020 are already reconsidering their decision to enroll in bachelor’s programs. We also know that some material number of already enrolled students will not return to school after this term because of negative changes in their own or their family’s financial health. Both new and existing international enrollment will also decline. Relatedly, based on data from the 2008 recession, we can expect a 25% or more decrease in operating revenue for typical institutions.

For nonprofit institutions, both new donations and existing endowments will decline precipitously (they already have). For public institutions, they can also expect material decreases in already anemic appropriations because tax receipts are cratering as most of the U.S. economy is shut down (New Jersey has already cut half of the funding destined for public colleges for the remainder of this year). For profit institutions will likely be hurt and benefit from opposite sides of the same coin. They have never had the benefit of endowments or state appropriations. On the other hand, because their financial model is more tuition-dependent than traditional institutions, they operate much more leanly with lower overhead and fewer extraneous expenses. They also tend to offer shorter programs with very specific paths to work, which may be more attractive to a growing number of students. Moreover, while proprietary institutions are not, in reality, more innovative than other sectors of higher ed, for a variety of reasons, they are able to make changes much more quickly, which is favorable under the circumstances.

The Opportunity

So, the 64 thousand (billion) dollar question is whether or not COVID-19 will finally push traditional higher education institutions into the 21st century. One of the fascinating things about the eight-year decline that was already a reality before COVID-19 is that very few institutions actually engaged in the necessary planning and transformative change necessary to address the foundational challenges facing the industry. What we’ve actually seen is a bifurcation which includes one camp that has made cautious, incremental changes in an attempt to forestall failure such as layoffs, delayed maintenance, increased institutional debt, a shift away from tenured faculty, etc., and another camp (about 1300 institutions) which has already failed, then merged with others institution or closed outright. Only a handful of the 5,000 plus Title IV eligible colleges and universities in the U.S. have meaningfully innovated for today’s reality, even before the COVID-19 crisis. The operative word for any efforts undertaken within higher ed now is sustainability. Every initiative, commitment, and decision should be vetted for its likely impact on sustainability, which includes both basic issues like academic efficiency and transformative ones like what business you’re in.

Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the current crisis could be the kind of dislodging event noted above that finally catalyzes transformational change in higher education, but only if approached collectively. Specifically, he notes, “such an event might promote reform because the various parts of our higher-education system, despite their distinct missions and organizational arrangements, are linked to one another.” Although he further notes that when organizations panic, they circle the wagons and do dumb things, and and we are at severe risk of that now.

So, what should colleges and universities be doing now?

  • Determine what values you really, truly believe in, and let those values guide everything else you do. Your actions in the midst of this crisis could define your institution for years to come.
  • Be purposeful about supporting and strengthening your community. You will need it.
  • Identify what operations, programs, and commitments are mission critical and what is discretionary. Much of what is discretionary might have to go based on your specific situation.
  • Prepare for lower fall enrollment now—estimate reductions of at least 20%.
  • Prepare for reductions in Fall 2020 revenue of at least 25%. If that turns out to be overstating the problem, then you’ll be in a stronger position.
  • Preserve liquidity—prioritize accounts payable and restructure any debt possible. Access credit lines now and open new ones if at all possible.
  • Identify any partnerships that will grow revenue, share expense, increase flexibility, etc.
  • Determine what new things you are doing now as a result of COVID-19 that you will continue to do in the fall because they are more efficient, flexible, sustainable, etc.
  • Revisit mission, vision, and strategy. Do they still apply?
  • Begin an intense dialog about what opportunities the current crisis provides for transformational change and sustainability—nothing is sacred or off the table.

And, the number one single most important thing any college or university can do is to make being a student as close to frictionless as possible. This is the time to eliminate all bureaucracy and the typical “run around” that students experience in most institutions. From application to graduation, it should be more easy to be a student than it ever has been in the history of higher education.

This is the time for leaders to find courage and creativity. Despite the stress, it is probably also the best opportunity for regenerative change you will ever have. An article from McKinsey provides a framework for how to think about the new normal from a financial perspective.

A Final Note

Transformative change will not be possible without the liberation to innovate from the entire regulatory triad of state, Education Department, and accreditors. The entities that oversee institutions of higher education MUST free those institutions to experiment and innovate without penalty—even as this relates to the most entrenched and highly controlled aspects of college operations. A good example is the recent Education Department blanket approval to put content online. In fact, if colleges and universities are to engage in the kind of transformative change that is necessary to meet the existential nature of the current crisis, then the regulatory and accreditation regime must not only facilitate that effort, but be an active partner in encouraging paradigm busting thinking related to program structure and delivery, partnerships, how credit is allocated, learning outcomes, credentials, and alternative ways of accomplishing virtually anything related to the delivery of education.

Regardless of when things get back to “normal,” they will not be the same. Those who can effectively navigate the new reality, preserving what still exists and makes sense, while embracing completely the changes and new ways of doing things, will not only “survive,” they will play a leadership role in finally moving higher education from its centuries old paradigms to something that not only works in the new normal, but that puts students at the center of the enterprise, while creating deeper value for all stakeholders.

Moody’s Downgrades Higher Education from Stable to Negative

Not surprisingly, the higher education crisis continues to worsen under the burden of COVID 19. We are currently in the first of three stages: Acute Outbreak, Recovery, New Normal. Unlike the rest of the economy, however, higher ed as an industry was already in an extended, eight-year decline. Late last week Moody’s downgraded their rating from “stable” to “negative” based on continued disruption in enrollment (and revenue), declining state support, endowment income and philanthropy, and reduced research grants and private-sector contracts. Additionally, most institutions are incurring incremental costs for moving content online, implementing COVID 19 safety protocols, mothballing facilities, and other related activities. The cancellation of the Division I basketball tournament (March Madness) has cost schools in that NCAA division more than a billion dollars alone!

Multiple institutions across the country that still have them are tapping (and tapping out) credit lines and/or issuing bonds to bolster their cash positions. Many more, however, had already exhausted credit lines before the new crisis and at least a quarter of private, nonprofits were already operating in the red, with layoffs, deferred maintenance, delayed accounts payable, and other “tricks” to keep enough cash to make payroll. It is inevitable that the current crisis will exacerbate and accelerate mergers and closures. However, it also presents an opportunity, if not requirement, to engage in something that higher education has never been very good at: transformational change.

So, how should we think about all of this?

First and foremost: As truly difficult and overwhelming as this current crisis is, it will get better. We don’t know how bad it will get or how long it will last, but it will end.

Second: Out of the wreckage will come better practices, stronger organizations, and new opportunities. There will be “winners” in the third stage, new normal.

Third: This is the time to find our humanity because the greatest costs of the crisis, for both health and economically, will be borne by people. We are all in this together.

On one hand we must be painfully honest about the depth and breadth of this crisis. There is much we don’t know, but we already do know is that:

  • More schools will close than would have.
  • Many people (millions) will be laid off, both in higher education and across the entire economy.
  • Many individuals will suffer severe financial hardship and some material number of students who could afford to attend school before COVID 19, will not be able to going forward.
  • Many businesses will fail and both families and commercial enterprises will be insolvent in fairly short order without cash flow.
  • And tragically, some substantial number of people will fall ill and some of those will die.

This is a truly unprecedented crisis and the fall out will be brutal. In the entire history of the United States, we have never, in effect, “shut down” the economy as we are doing now, for an extended period of time.

One interesting perspective, however, is that even though the situation for higher education continues to worsen, the entire economy is now in decline, so higher ed as an industry is no longer alone. That actually matters because we are seeing policy level responses that will benefit higher education that would not have happened in the absence of a national and global recession. Examples include reductions in regulatory burdens and unprecedented flexibility for institutions as well as protections for students relative to financial aid. One proposal currently under consideration in the Senate via the “CARE” act would protect students and institutions from having to return any financial aid even if classes are not being held or students are forced to drop out. Similarly, the bill would not count Spring 2019 financial aid against student caps or timelines and would also defer payment obligations for those with loans. It is reasonable to assume that some amount of the projected $1 trillion plus in stimulus and direct aid will find its way into higher education.

It is also almost certain that higher education will look and operate differently after we get through the current crisis. Some likely examples include:

  • Far fewer meetings and conferences will take place in person.
  • Many courses that were moved online will stay online or partially online.
  • Some “social distancing” will continue.
  • Overall enrollment will decline further, ensuring a 9th year of continued reduction, but learning options for students will be much more flexible.
  • The shift from “higher education” to “post-secondary” education, with many non-degree models being offered outside of colleges and universities will accelerate, although the growth of industry developed and delivered education will almost certainly slow as businesses recover over time from what will be a very deep recession.

While it is not possible to know with certainty at a societal level what things will look like when the current round of the novel corona virus burns itself out—or even when that will happen—there are some things we can assume with fairly high confidence.

  • Unemployment will soar. Some estimates put job losses at 3,000,000 to as many as 7,500,000 unemployed by this summer.
  • The recession (we are already in one) will be much deeper than 2008
  • The previous “recovery” was already weak for a majority of the population
  • Many businesses will not survive
  • New models will replace old models for everything (telemedicine, telecommuting, communications, virtual meetings, online education, retail, etc. will look much different and many things will not go back to how they were)
  • Travel will be comparatively limited and may not return to previous levels for years, if at all
  • Supply chains will get shorter and less global

Some Personal Thoughts

The current situation is probably causing more stress and anxiety than any other period in my lifetime, as well as the lifetimes of most people reading this article. Previous recessions and crises were qualitatively different. Even something like the Cuban Missile Crisis, existential though it was, was short lived and did not take out the global economy. Same for 9/11. And, we were already dealing with climate change, mass shootings, and frightening political divisiveness.

Yes, we need to think about and plan for the future. We need to advocate for ourselves and our families by aggressively protecting or pursuing employment and stretching out fiscal resources as far as possible, but the most positive element of this current terrible crisis is that it is so big and so pervasive that we are literally all in this together. The one saving grace is that unlike “traditional” recessions or even depressions, no one is exempt from the effects of the current crisis. As terrifying as the reality is, tens of millions of Americans will not suddenly be on the streets when they can’t pay rent, because that is not logistically possible. There is no mechanism to evict that many people and no place for us to go anyway!

We cannot individually stop the virus or the recession, but we can contribute to the effort. It is a fact that many of us will experience greater financial duress in the near to mid-term future than at any time in our lives simply because despite the headlines about the economic recovery that is now over, it was never a strong recovery for most of the population to begin with. And some number of us, very unfortunately, will do battle with COVID 19 itself.

For those of us who suddenly have more time because we are out of work or our work has changed, this is an opportunity to give ourselves permission to engage in beneficial activities that we would not have otherwise.

  • Read articles and books you couldn’t get to previously
  • Write articles and books you couldn’t previously
  • Take walks
  • Get to know your family members
  • Grow a garden
  • Work on your mental and physical health
  • Start a gratitude journal
  • Take extended breaks from the news

We don’t know for sure where we are headed, but it would be a shame to squander the opportunity that many of us have to pursue edifying and beneficial activities. Love yourself, love your family, and love your neighbor.