Higher ed after the pandemic will require schools to step away from the herd

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With the high school graduating Class of 2021 in the throes of the college application process — Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are next week — teenagers and their parents are being inundated with messages from colleges about the purported uniqueness of each campus.

But think about it: No one sends high school students a glossy brochure explaining that the top liberal arts colleges are pretty similar. Or a viewbook about engineering co-op programs that says here are a couple of good options for you.

For the most part, however, colleges are eerily similar in their vision: the residential, place-based experience is so ingrained in our minds because it is the model adopted by thousands of higher-education institutions in the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of this standard model — one that is likely to spark a major shift in higher education in the decade ahead.

Not One Model, but Many

The pivot to remote education at many colleges has greatly diminished the uniqueness of a residential campus model.

  • For one, differentiating your institution’s brand from another college’s is difficult when everyone is at home learning online. On Zoom, Econ 101 at one college is pretty similar to that of another.
  • Also, replicating the networks that students and faculty form on a physical campus is hard to do online. And often it’s that socialization aspect of college that families are paying for, not what happens in the four walls of a classroom.

Why it matters: The pandemic has wreaked havoc on institutional budgets built on students learning and living on a campus, 24/7.

  • Without the revenue from room and board, auxiliary services like coffee shops, bookstores, and athletics — as well as lower enrollment overall — McKinsey estimates the cumulative deficit of four-year colleges alone will be $118 billion next year.
  • The economic fallout of the pandemic for higher ed has revealed the need for colleges to have diversified revenue streams, and thus a diversity of “products” that provide a clear return on investment to learners.

While students will return to physical campuses en masse one day, the new normal in higher education is likely to be a mix of online and in-person.

  • COVID-19 has accelerated broader shifts in the economy resulting in the need for working adults to access additional education.
  • The fiscal and demographic realities on the near horizon call for greater differentiation with the development of distinctive pathways and services for learners throughout their lifetime.

“We need to adopt the notion that innovation is more important than tradition,” Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, told me.

Since March, I have interviewed more than 100 college leaders and faculty members — from presidents and provosts to chief enrollment and marketing officers and deans as well as professors in more than a dozen academic disciplines. In addition, I talked with people outside of higher education, including those who hire college graduates, and with Burning Glass Technologies, which tracks the job market in real time, I studied what the workforce might look like post-pandemic (more on that in a future newsletter).

What’s different now: Unlike recent disruptive events — namely the 2008 Great Recession — the coronavirus has impacted nearly every corner of campus and every student in some way.

  • Among students, COVID-19 has affected the emotional and mental preparedness to return to campus for nearly half of students, and for one-third of them, their academic preparedness, according to McKinsey.
  • The challenge for colleges as they plan for a post pandemic future is to set themselves apart as whole institutions rather than stake their future on a handful of new academic programs, a revised recruitment strategy, or a bolstered set of online offerings.

What’s next: New models will take hold, although none in the same way as the legacy, four-year residential model has in the U.S. Among the possible models:

  • Immersive hybrid, where colleges determine which experiences are best served in the physical space and those that can be better delivered in the digital space. Think of taking classes online but meeting with faculty members in person.
  • Flexible pathway, which offers a variety of routes to a degree. Universities might become true transfer institutions from two-year colleges or offer a low-residency option so that students spend less time on campus and more working at an internship or on research project.
  • Continual learning, a model that reimagines higher education as a platform for lifelong learning where students — or really “learners” — move in and out of a school’s curriculum throughout their lives to gain and update their knowledge as needed.

The bottom line: Whatever models emerge, they need to provide value for the money spent with three basic attributes: affordability, functionality, and emotional.

  • Read more: a 6-part white paper I authored on how colleges and universities are evolving during COVID-19, underwritten by Salesforce.

? About Those Tuition Discounts

A new report released yesterday from Moody’s Investors Service illustrates just how tough the pricing environment is for colleges — offering bad news for campuses but potentially some good news for cash-strapped students and parents.

  • 60% of public universities expect a drop in “net tuition revenue” next year.
  • 75% of privates are projected to see their net-tution revenue fall.

Why it matters: There’s been lots of discussion about how college enrollment is down this fall and what that means for colleges. But in many ways, net tuition is an even more important metric. Colleges can increase their enrollment by chasing students and offering them tuition discounts — essentially coupons to enroll. When colleges do that, however, it means they are forgoing revenue.

  • The money that actually comes in the door after colleges offer discounts (what’s often called institutional merit aid) is net tuition revenue.

Behind the numbers: 87%. That’s the percentage of small colleges projected to see a decline in net tuition revenue next year, putting even more pressure on those places with tiny enrollments.

Bottom line: While a decline in net tuition revenue is a bad sign for colleges, it often means bigger discounts for students. So this might be the year that you can secure a larger financial aid package, especially from those places that need students.

But, but, but.…declining tuition revenue is a double-edged sword for students because it also means that colleges have less cash to invest in new academic programs, faculty, and facilities.


Blurring the lines of the university
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, joined me and my co-host, Michael Horn, on the FutureU podcast to discuss the perilous state of higher education and how in the aftermath of COVID-19 the distinction between learning online and on campus may fade. (futureupodcast.wordpress.com)

Niche Sports Are No Longer an Ivy League Admissions Plan
If you read Chapter 5 in my book “Who Gets In and Why,” — or even if you didn’t — you need to check out this piece about the maddness in Connecticut to shepherd kids to college through competitive youth sports and whether it’s become self-defeating. (www.theatlantic.com)

‎The College Admissions Game
I joined Tom McGrath, the former editor of Philadelphia Magazine, on his new podcast to talk about my year inside college admissions. (podcasts.apple.com)

Until next time, Cheers — 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...