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Good afternoon. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and staying strong.

A month ago today — March 5 — I was in South Florida speaking to faculty members at Miami-Dade College who gathered for a day of professional development. The topic of my talk: the necessity of integrating soft skills into professional education to better prepare students for the future of work.

The only outward sign that something was different was that we bumped elbows instead of shaking hands.

Now, after a month unlike anything that American higher education has ever experienced (or any of us for that matter), colleges and universities are preparing scenarios that will shape not only the next six months, but also the next several years — and in some cases their very survival.

In the last week, I’ve talked with dozens of college presidents, CFOs, professors, and administrators, and hosted two virtual office hours, including one for more than 2,000 high-school students, parents, and counselors (more of those coming this week. See announcement below).

From those conversations and the online gatherings, three questions keep emerging that higher-education leaders will need to answer in the coming weeks…

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Will campuses return to normal in the fall?

Higher education, like most sectors of the economy, has been slow to come around to our new reality. At first, colleges moved spring classes online for a few weeks. Then they canceled the spring semester. Then they canceled commencement and moved the deadline for freshman deposits to June 1.

Only now are colleges beginning to talk about the fall.

Whether campuses will roar back to life come September was by far the top question asked in the two virtual events I moderated last week (in Zoom webinars, the audience can “upvote” questions).

The big picture: 36% of college presidents think serious disruption awaits campuses in the fall, according to a survey in late March by American Association of Colleges and Universities and ABC Insights.

If campuses open up in September, the big worry is a fall surge in coronavirus cases, and a repeat of this spring: a scramble to send students home and move courses online.

  • The fast pivot to remote education wasn’t ideal this spring, but students and parents were willing to cut colleges a break because no one had really planned for what happens in a global pandemic.
  • If the fall semester is disrupted, however, students and parents will be much less patient with colleges and more demanding about what they expect for their tuition dollars.

“What I would predict is that we are going to be making our decision on whether we are going to be residential or in a remote learning situation by X date, so all students and faculty and staff can be prepared for that.” — Chris Gruber, dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College

The options:

  • The fall is online, although an announcement on that front really needs to come in June or July, not August.
  • A delayed opening, with a compressed fall semester.
  • “Low residency,” where small cohorts of students cycle through campus at any one time, remain sequestered, and are tested often.
  • A smaller student body, where those who have tested positive for Covid-19 are allowed to return and everyone else joins classes remotely.

Yes, yes, yes….all of those options have issues, and some might be unworkable and expensive, but everything seems to be on the table right now, and much of it depends on the availability of testing and some kind of treatment short of a vaccine.

Photo by Shubham Sharan on Unsplash

Will students pay F2F prices for online?

Unless you’re an undergraduate at a college with extensive experience and resources in online education, such as Arizona State University or the University of Central Florida, chances are remote education was something “duct taped” together this spring.

Even at ASU and UCF, faculty members accustomed to teaching face-to-face (F2F) have struggled with the quick pivot online.

Behind the scenes: Privately, many college officials will admit that charging regular tuition to students expecting a face-to-face experience but getting an online one won’t fly in the fall. But even if colleges are online, they still have the overhead associated with residential campuses, and in many cases have new costs attributed to moving online.

Right now, “cash is king,” said Deloitte’s Tim Hurley. Hurley and his colleague Scott Friedman joined Michael Horn and me on the latest episode of the Future U podcast. The advice for campus leaders from Hurley and Friedman:

  • Create weekly forecasts to track revenue and expenses for at least 13 weeks.
  • Seek out opportunities to bring in revenue and help the community. Hurley pointed to the State University of New York (SUNY), which is opening facilities to serve as temporary hospitals and housing health-care professionals.
  • The $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress recently includes some $14 billion for higher education. To see how that money might be distributed, check out this nifty visualization my partners at Open Campus put together.

We’ll see. While many campus CFOs are running scenarios, no one yet seems to have come up with a discounted price that gives students some sort of tuition break while continuing to run a campus that one day will return to normal.

The bottom line: Campuses with existing online operations and scores of instructional designers can spend this summer remaking their face-to-face classes. Ultimately, they will have more pricing power than other colleges that offer slightly better online classes in the fall than they are this spring.

What will enrollment look like in the fall?

In the “Moneyball era,” colleges have depended on sophisticated data models to determine which admitted students would enroll, how much they would cost in financial aid, and which undergraduates would return and eventually graduate.

In the Covid-19 era, those models are mostly useless. Colleges are flying without instruments into the fall with more questions than answers.

  • Deferrals. Colleges grant deferrals for admission on a case-by-case basis. Typically, schools receive only a handful of requests a year. Most campuses aren’t prepared to handle hundreds of such requests this year. What’s likely to happen is that students who got into a selective college won’t risk giving up that admissions ticket if their families can afford it. But expect the number of requests to take a year off to increase among less selective colleges, especially for families whose financial situations have changed significantly.
  • Financial aid. Some 10 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in just the last two weeks. This is the season when colleges are typically finalizing their financial aid offers. Expect lots of appeals in the coming weeks. The challenge for colleges will be to balance their need to meet enrollment goals with keeping their financial-aid budgets in check.
  • Community colleges. As tuition prices have increased in recent years, families who traditionally would have only looked at four-year colleges started to consider two-year institutions as well. Indeed, some 25% of students from households earning $100,000 or more now attend community colleges, up from 12 percent just five years ago, according to an annual survey by Sallie Mae. Look for enrollment in community colleges to increase both as a cost-saving move by families and also because students might want to stay closer to home.

Bigger picture: The campuses that will survive Covid-19 and thrive afterwards are those that develop offerings for students who might not want a traditional, on-campus degree right now.

Think gap years, short courses instead of full-scale academic programs, certificates instead of degrees, and a less expensive, no-frills experience. This is the time for colleges to reconsider their “product offerings” and meet their students where they are.

There will always be a market for the traditional, four-year residential experience (and the traditional graduate one, too), but those markets will be squeezed in the coming years. What else can you offer learners in this new environment?

Virtual Office Hours

Watch recordings of last week’s office hours:

For high-school students and parents, here is an on-demand recording of a webcast with admissions deans from Davidson and UCLA as well as the chief operating officer of ACT.

For college officials, here is an on-demand recording of a virtual event I moderated for The Chronicle of Higher Education on admissions in the Covid-19 era that focused on a survey of more than 7,000 prospective students.

High-school students, parents, counselors, and admissions officers…join me for two more online office hours this coming week.

Tuesday, April 7 at 9 p.m. ET. We’ll focus on financial aid issues as well as admissions questions with:

  • Rachelle Feldman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Ronné Turner, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Ellen Frishberg, William E. Schmidt Foundation

Register here for free.

Thursday, April 9 at 9 p.m. ET. We’ll discuss the revisions to the AP tests this spring along with admissions issues facing juniors. Joining me will be the College Board’s Trevor Packer plus two admissions deans.

Register here for free.

One last thought…

During that speech in Miami last month, I showed a slide that is a familiar one in my talks.

The only “hard” skill in the top 5 is Microsoft Excel. Perhaps now it’s Zoom.

The slide comes from a study by Burning Glass of the most common baseline skills employers ask for in job ads. Mostly employers want soft skills they don’t think come embedded in the college degree. I can’t help to think about how this current situation is really exercising all of our muscles around soft skills as we deal with navigating the ambiguity of our jobs and lives.

Maybe the silver living of this crisis is that students will become more resilient.

Stay safe and stay strong — 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...