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“The task at hand…is enormous, complex, and unprecedented in American higher education.”

That might sound like a line from a news article about how colleges and universities are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s actually something I wrote about colleges in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on September 16, 2005.

When Covid-19 started shutting down college campuses over the last two weeks, one of the first people I reached out to was Scott Cowen, the former president of Tulane University.

Before I get to that story, an announcement…

?I’m trying an experiment this week with my friends at Shindig: a NEXT virtual office hour. I’ll bring in an expert to talk about your most pressing questions right now related to higher ed and the coronavirus. Whether you’re a parent or a college leader, click here to tell me what’s on your mind. I’ll crowdsource the response to find a guest. Then join us Thursday, March 19, at 11 a.m. ET. Bookmark the event page here.

(Tulane’s president, Scott Cowen, before he evacuated campus after Hurricane Katrina.)

Triage Mode

I first met Scott Cowen on Labor Day in 2005, in a hotel suite in Houston. That’s where Tulane’s senior administration had set up shop after Katrina flooded the city.

When I arrived in the suite, the Tulane team was spread around the room. Small, impromptu meetings were happening almost everywhere I turned. Dressed in a yellow Tulane golf shirt, navy pants, and stocking feet, Cowen was sitting in an open spot on the floor flipping through a pink notebook of an ever-expanding list of tasks.

Like a hospital emergency room, Cowen and team were in triage mode.

  • Then, just as now, there is no playbook for what to do first, second, third, and so on.
  • Cowen split his team into working groups. As they met, sometimes multiple times a day, they tackled their immediate needs by the hour or by the day. They discussed risks on the horizon, arranged by the weeks and months ahead.
  • But, they also celebrated the previous day’s “wins,” no matter how small, in order to keep up their spirits.

3 things that should matter to colleges dealing with the coronavirus right now:

  1. Communication. Colleges have many constituencies and their ties to campus are of varying strength. The strongest, of course, are current students as well as faculty and staff. You can’t communicate with them enough and with every channel available to you. Just last night, I received an update from Arizona State University via a video message from the president, Michael Crow.
  2. Transparency. Colleges are often afraid to provide answers to questions until they have the complete picture. But this crisis is changing by the day, by the hour. No answer colleges give right now will be perfect. For example, students and parents are asking about refunds for the semester, particularly on room and board. “Tell them you’re keenly aware of the requests,” Cowen said, “but you can’t promise refunds until you know the full extent of the crisis.”
  3. Community. Just like after Katrina, students are spread all over the country, many back at home learning remotely. Help them build virtual communities to remain connected to the campus and to each other. Monitor those communities as much as possible to see what issues keep coming up. One big question now is how students will be graded. A few colleges have decided to make all courses this semester pass/fail. Expect more to follow in the coming days.

Go deeper: Michael Horn and I interviewed Cowen on our FutureU podcast this week. Listen here.

(A campus tour at Ohio State)

Virtual Admissions and Orientation

There’s never a good time for a crisis like this in higher ed, but for colleges and universities we’re in the midst of “yield season” for the incoming class.

This is like the end of a quarter for sales executives or Black Friday for retailers. It’s when colleges must close the deal with students and parents who might be weighing multiple offers. As a result, getting families on campus in these weeks is crucial and now that’s not going to happen.

  • While we tend to think the campus tour happens at the beginning of the college search, about a quarter of all campus visits by students occur at the end — in the month of April. Of those visits, about half of families are stepping on campus for the first time.

Those figures come from VisitDays, a company that helps colleges schedule student visits. I asked Sujoy Roy, the founder of VisitDays, how colleges should think about their spring admissions programs.

“It requires a change in mindset,” he told me. “The on-campus experience is about managing an event, while moving the experience online requires thinking about it as a production.”

Next on the calendar for potential disruption could be freshman orientation, a key event to stemming “summer melt.”

That would be especially true this year if incoming students don’t get to campus this spring, said Drew Magliozzi, founder and CEO of AdmitHub.

  • AdmitHub uses artificial intelligence to power chatbots that colleges use to answer students’ questions about campus policies and services. Many of those questions right now relate to Covid-19.
  • When many of AdmitHub’s customers asked for help with those questions, the company developed a resource that automatically answers them via web chat or text message. (The company is offering the resource for free to any K-12 school or higher-ed institution.)
  • So many students have so many questions right now “it’s important for schools to destigmatize the shame the most vunerable students have in asking for help,” Magliozzi told me. “Let students know that anyone can ask for help on anything.”

Go deeper: Sujoy Roy of VisitDays pointed me to this short, 15-minute webcast about how the University of Pittsburgh pivoted to virtual events.

(An empty Quinnipiac University in Connecticut)

What’s Next

Colleges are ramping up their scenario planning to figure out what to do about everything from the remainder of this semester to commencement.

In those scenarios, here are three things officials should be thinking about:

  1. Admissions. Some colleges have already shifted their May 1 deposit date to June 1. What other tools will schools use to manage their admissions pipeline in the months ahead? After the Great Recession in the fall of 2008, the lever some colleges used was early decision. Schools that traditionally filled maybe a quarter to one-third of their classes through ED boosted that proportion to upward of half in the fall of 2008. This time, look for colleges to build longer waitlists that they could keep going back to over the summer.
  2. Career services. The job market for college seniors has been strong for much of the last decade. Now career services will need to shift their focus to assist seniors navigating a job market where hiring freezes are already being put in place and widespread layoffs are likely to happen in the coming weeks.
  3. Enrollment. Higher ed enrollments tends to be countercyclical: they rise when the economy goes south. But our last experience with a big economic downturn like the one we’re likely to see is more than a decade old, when tuition prices were lower, state spending on higher ed was greater, and online education was still something mostly for-profit institutions did. Among the questions I have now:
  • Will the newly unemployed turn to colleges for training and education or alternative providers that have entered the market since 2008?
  • Will mega-institutions with national online footprints such as Arizona State, Western Governors, and Southern New Hampshire capture market share for adult students from smaller, regional institutions without an online presence?
  • What academic programs will prove resilient in coming year? Might students flock to public-health programs, for instance?


Alternative Routes to Gaining Skills

A new report from Opportunity@Work and Accenture has identified 71 million U.S. workers who were “skilled through alternative routes.” These are the education routes that could become more prevalent in a recession.

New to Working Remotely? These Resources Can Help

LinkedIn Learning has unlocked a number of courses related to working remotely from learning Zoom and BlueJeans to managing virtual teams.

The Quick Pivot to Remote Education

A provost at a regional public university and a faculty member at a private college talk about what it’s really like to turn a residential campus into a virtual one almost overnight.

Stay safe everyone — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...