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.


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.

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