There are two polar opposite narratives about the future of higher education that are both gaining traction at the moment. Apparently, either everything is going to change or nothing is going to change. Neither storyline is right, although neither one is completely wrong either.
One of these stories comes from a traditional academic perspective while the other comes from an EdTech perspective. Take a moment and think about the respective blind spots of each of those two perspectives. Guess which one arrives at “everything is going to change” and which one arrives at “nothing is going to change.” That’s the easy part. Too easy, in fact. That level of predictability is a strong indicator of motivated reasoning or some other cognitive bias.
But I digress. Here are the harder questions: How are each of these perspectives wrong and where are they each right?
The lasting effects of COVID-19
There’s a lot we don’t yet know of the effects of the pandemic on higher education beyond this year. But barring major policy changes at the Federal level, we can now begin to make some educated guesses.
First, some of the students who are taking the year off won’t come back. That could be a bigger change than it seems. While I haven’t yet seen reliable statistics on college deferments this year, the anecdotal reports I have heard range from 5% to 20%, depending on the type of college. (More expensive institutions that emphasize the value of their residential college experience seem to be getting hit a lot harder than access-oriented institutions that already had mature online programs.) On the upper end of the scale, twenty percent is a pretty big hit. We don’t know what the average will be.
But that’s not even the whole story. Deferment numbers only account for first-year students. They don’t reflect other types of gap years. Students in the middle of their college education may choose to take a year off for safety or financial reasons (or because they don’t believe they believe that they’re getting their money’s worth from COVID-disrupted education). The latter problem will end when the pandemic ends—if the students don’t become alienated from their college by the way it is handling the situation—but the former to problems will certainly have after-effects. The twin hammers of the pandemic and the recession have impacted the long-term wellbeing of college-going students and their families in ways that have yet to be reliably measured. We don’t know when these effects will tail off. The health crisis may be largely abated by fall of 2021—heaven help us if it isn’t—but the economic effects on many students and their families will almost certainly not be. Some students may have to delay or even cancel their plans for full-time college.
Second, many colleges and universities were already financially fragile and becoming more so before the pandemic hit us. Here again, there are polarized narratives, both of which are mostly but not completely wrong, and both of which look to be driven by motivated reasoning. For a good, level-headed, data-grounded analysis of the baseline situation, I recommend reading The College Stress Test, which was co-authored by my friend and colleague Susan Baldridge. The nub of it is that, while a significant number of colleges and universities are headed toward trouble, most were far from going out of business and had time to make course corrections before demographic changes put them in a financial position that would be hard to come back from. (I’ll have a little more to say about what “making course corrections means” later in this post.) But that was pre-COVID. These institutions have now experienced significant financial shocks, including both the loss of student tuition and the expense of trying to make their campuses as COVID-safe as possible. Many—though not all—are also likely to experience aftershocks as students and their families continue to grapple with the economic aftermath.
We don’t have the data yet on how much COVID will impact university budgets. It’s simply too early. (Also, there won’t be one global answer. Different schools in different niches with different management histories will be in very different situations.) But having talked to some friends who know a lot more about college finances than I do, I’m going to guess that the fat part of the bell curve of colleges will need to make budget cuts ranging from 15% to 30% over the next one to three years. (Institutions on the far left end of the bell curve were already financially unsound and will disappear, while those on the right end—the Harvards, MITs, and Stanfords of the world—will likely be OK.)
And what will be cut, exactly? Well, there’s really only one thing to cut at a college or university. People.
Having examined an unscientific sampling of annual college and university budgets, I estimate that between 60% and 80% of the total budget is payroll. (Teaching-oriented colleges tend to have a higher percentage than research universities.) It will be nearly impossible for institutions to make 15% to 30% cuts in their budgets without making painful decisions about laying off colleagues and shuttering or radically changing departments and programs. There just aren’t enough non-human costs to cut out of the budget.
But that’s a double-edged sword, because people are also the key to keeping the institution viable. People recruit students. People teach them. People keep them engaged and on track to graduate. If you cut the wrong people, then the programs which attract the most students may become less attractive. Or may not get seen by prospective students. Retention and graduation may rates drop. And trying to replace human support with software risks accelerating the decline if it is poorly conceived or executed. We are already seeing complaints by students in premium schools that they believe their online college experience is currently little different from for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix (which is meant as a pejorative by these students).
While the majority of colleges and institutions are far from doomed, they are also far from safe. Hard decisions lie ahead.
“Scale” is (mostly) not the answer
The ugly truth is that colleges and universities have been avoiding difficult conversations about organizational design and sustainability—which would require talking about hiring and firing decisions—for decades. The focus has consistently been about growing revenues using whatever they already have (or can borrow from an OPM). Everybody wants to talk about revenue. Some folks want to talk about tuition pricing and discounting. Nobody wants to talk about cost.
So what happened instead? Academia produced about 397 different versions of “sell more degrees on the internet!!!” The first gold rush was asynchronous online degrees about 15 years ago. That hit its limit. Apparently, billions of people in India and China aren’t lining up to earn an online degree in turfgrass management from a mid-tier four-year college that nobody who lives more than 150 miles from the campus has heard of. In fact, there aren’t hundreds of students lining up to take that turfgrass management program 1,000 or even 500 miles from that college. Some colleges grew enrollments during this period. Some proved to be sustainable, while others less so. The aforementioned University of Phoenix looked like it might reach half a million enrollments in 2010 before deflating down to a third of that size in 2016 (which, let’s be honest, is still pretty big).
The second gold rush was the MOOCs.
I’ll say this in defense of MOOCs: They still exist. Enough people find them useful that they are still being created and run. But they have faded into the background, as any purported silver bullet tends to do when it turns out to be just one arrow in the quiver.
The third gold rush was the Online Program Management (OPM) companies. This really started as an offshoot of the first gold rush but then mutated into something else. And like the others, it grew for a while. But it turns out that there’s a limit to the number of students who are willing to pay $40,000 for an MSW degree. And for each university offering such a degree, their geographical reach of their brand is limited. Even if they are one of the top brands in the world. Maybe they can enroll students from 300 miles away rather than 150. But 3,000 miles…? It turns out that if you live on the West Coast, chances are good that you’d rather go to Stanford rather than Harvard, and the reverse is true for East Coast residents. And apparently, the fact that students don’t have to leave their homes to take online programs from any university around the world doesn’t change this fact. So the easy gold in that vein has been largely mined, at least in the US.
A parallel wave to these has been the rise and falter of the so-called “mega-university.” First it was supposed to be Western Governor’s University (although University of Phoenix could make a good case for pride of place). Then it was going to be ASU. Then SNHU. They’ve all done well and are likely to grow more as they fill needs left by colleges and universities that are faltering. I wish them long life and happiness. But there is no evidence in sight that we will have a massive consolidation with a million or more students attending one university. The mega-university phenomenon could happen, but so far there’s no strong evidence to suggest that it will.
Each one of these efforts added an arrow to the quiver of strategies for meeting all educational needs of all learners while boosting the sustainability of the colleges and universities. (In the long run, these two goals will tend to line up with each other.) Each was a significant innovation in its own way. But arrows in the quiver are not the same as silver bullets. There are no silver bullets and there will not be any in the days to come.
Why online classes won’t fade away
There is a growth path for many of these schools, but it is neither an easy solution nor a quick fix. The reality is that many learners who are within these institutions’ geographical brand reach have educational needs that have not been met. In fact, there always have been. Some were never able to complete college for a variety of reasons. Others need graduate degrees. Increasingly, still others need something significant that’s less than a degree to help them move up or on in their careers. They need some chunk of knowledge that may or may not be wrapped up in an official certification of some kind. And now, we will have students who miss their window to go to full-time residential college due to COVID and its economic impact on their lives. These would-be students have jobs and families and other obligations in their lives. They will need more flexible educational opportunities. But not the same opportunities. The students that I just described are very different from each other. They will need different educational experiences and supports.
If colleges and universities that want to minimize the pain of cutting good people—and make no mistake; there will be painful cuts no matter what many of them do—then they will have to reach these students where they are. Reaching more students means increasing enrollments, which means increasing revenue, which means at least a chance at saving (or recovering) jobs. To do that, colleges and universities will need to build, improve, and differentiate their online college experiences.
This is an opportunity to grow not so much by scaling as by diversifying, and by rebalancing the academic portfolio. Some programs will no longer be viable and will need to go. Others will be important enough to the sustainability and mission of the institution that they will merit additional investment. Still others will need to be re-imagined.
But if colleges and universities can think through what their institutions should look like to serve their enduring missions while meeting new educational needs in new ways, then they can survive this difficult period. Eventually, they can learn how to thrive again with their academic souls intact.
Tech-enabled rather than tech-driven
The scenario I’m describing is different from both the academic arcadia in which every rare gem of a program is preserved in amber for the sake of its intrinsic natural beauty and from the EdTech fantasy of disrupted everything taught by Professor Skynet, sponsored by your good friends at Tinder.1
One challenge to this scenario is that delivering online education with quality is hard. Institutions that go this way will have to redirect a substantial portion of their limited and dwindling budgets to online course design experts, online student help and advising resources, various types of technology, and above all, to figuring out how all the pieces fit together into a journey that is navigable by the students.
Rather than aping the business world’s drive to “scale,” the imperative—and craft—that we ought to be copying from “industry” is their customer focus. Students aren’t exactly customers, but they aren’t exactly not customers either. I’m specifically thinking about the word “customer” as in “customer needs” and “customer experience.” What are the needs that would drive students the institution wants to reach to consider enrolling for a new credential program and/or a different educational experience? What educational experiences would fulfill those needs? How can those experiences be delivered so that they fit into those students lives, rather than forcing the students to contort their lives in order to accommodate their educational program?
How do students navigate from clicking the “buy” button (i.e, matriculating) to package delivery (i.e., being able to show up for the first day of class)? There is no USPS for them.2 How do they navigate their online class experience, with pieces in the LMS, pieces in the digital textbook, pieces in various add-on tools the instructor uses, and so on? How do they get help, stay on track, or find a new track if the one they’re on isn’t working for them?
To survive and thrive in the 21st Century, every college and university should be literally designed by academic stakeholders around their answers to these questions. EdTech can help with all of these problems but solve none of them.
From a user experience perspective, the design of even the traditional on-campus college experience is probably worse than going to the DMV. A day getting your driver’s license renewed may feel like it sucks four years out of your life. A traditional residential college degree requires four actual years of persistence navigating dysfunctional bureaucracies, completing administrative workflows that nobody has ever actually ever thought of as workflows, and bushwhacking through mazes of administrative and academic software that was (often poorly) designed to make somebody else’s life easier. Some of the reasons that many traditional college-aged, middle-class students have made it through this mess anyway are (1) they had college-educated parents who could help them, (2) they were raised by college-educated parents who taught them the tricks and games that have nothing to do with education but everything to do with navigating this kind of irrational world, (3) at 18 years old, they have the highest probability in their lives of having nothing better to do, and (4) if they can make it through the bureaucracy, the rest can be pretty great. (Also, (5) many colleges are apparently willing to burn through great academic employees who will almost literally kill themselves to help students succeed in a system that can feel like a performance art project on Kafka).
One huge reason why achievement gaps exist is that post-traditional students are less likely to have the time, skills, or family support needed to navigate the non-learning-related aspects of their college’s user experience. Likewise, college-educated professionals who are trying to get a credential in their “spare” time often have limited headroom or tolerance for navigating poorly designed administrative or course experiences.
The online education experience is often a lot worse. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. It should be better in some ways. Yes, there is magic in being on campus that is lost online (although there are many kinds of magic in the world). Yes, it is harder to do…well…anything that requires serious and sustained concentration while working from home, where your family and your job responsibilities are constantly pecking at you (as we are all discovering). But on the other hand, digital gives us an opportunity to discover, analyze, and respond to student needs and student problems with clarity and speed that are simply not possible in the analog world.
We could have truly student-centric institutions—not just in intention, and not just in philosophy, but in the fundamental way that a college or university makes decisions about every aspect of what it does, from the design of its academic programs to sealing the many cracks that can trip students up during their academic journeys. There would still be professors teaching. There would still be disciplines and courses. There would still be a university. But the academic experience could be continually refined and improved with the level of obsession that a company like Apple puts into improving every aspect of their customer experience. Gaining that kind of reputation is how colleges and universities can attract students who otherwise might not come and keep them coming back for twenty or forty years instead of two or four.
We have to push through the current pain, through the hard decisions, through the reimagining, and through the redesigning and reimplementation if academia is going to survive with its soul intact. This is a lot like climate change. We have a little time, but not a lot of time. We won’t necessarily fall off a cliff, but we can start rolling downhill fast. And there is a cliff at the bottom of that hill. Technology is essential, but it is not magical and will not save us by itself. And pretending the problem doesn’t exist or will magically go away certainly won’t help. We all have to take responsibility and start changing the ways in which we go about our lives, both individually and, most importantly, collectively.
Most colleges and universities will not die off in the next three years. But many are unhealthy, will have to make painful cuts, and could put themselves into death spirals if those cuts are made without a clear vision of a healthy future state that their stakeholders can work toward together.
As we are being reminded every day by the news, the future is in our hands.