President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for National Airport in 1940.

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On Saturday, the image above popped up as a “memory” on my phone.

It was from a year ago — 10:25 a.m. on March 6, 2020. I was returning on an early morning flight from Dallas Love Field to Washington National Airport.

This picture is looking out on the tarmac from the original terminal building at DCA, which connects Terminal A to a newer wing of the airport. It’s one of my favorite places to sit because it’s usually pretty quiet and provides a great vista of the nation’s capital city in the distance.

March 6, 2020 was the last time I flew.

This week, you’ll probably hear a lot of “year ago” stories. According to Wired, the official “anniversary day” of the coronavirus pandemic is tomorrow, March 11th.

Journalists love anniversaries for the opportunity to look back or use the opportunity as a peg for how life has changed. I’ll have a piece about the new admissions landscape in The Chronicle of Higher Education later this week (and we’ll take a deeper dive on that subject in a future edition of this newsletter, too).

While admissions has been on my mind this past year because of the book, so too has higher ed and the changes from this Corona-year that are likely to stick in the long run.

Five Corona-Year Shifts for Higher Ed

1. An emphasis on value

Last fall, while on yet another webinar, this one with Scott Galloway, the chat discussion in Zoom caught my attention. There were lots of questions and comments from parents about the scarcity of opportunities for this generation of high-school students.

  • Many wondered how we ended up with such a narrow pathway to a good job and a good life that required a college degree — and one from only a selective institution in their minds.

What’s happening: The evidence is overwhelming that a college degree is worth more in the job market over a lifetime compared to a high-school diploma (although the value of a college degree has stagnated). There are also plenty of caveats when it comes to the college degree: where will you go and what will you major in and how much debt will you take on, and most of all, will you graduate?

  • The price of going to any college, for any degree has been under scrutiny since at least the Great Recession.
  • The value of a degree shows up as a hot topic in polling. We also see the focus on ROI in the flight away from the humanities, even at elite colleges, as well as in the rise in applications to a small set of brand-name institutions.
  • A year of Zoom U. — typically without the corresponding reduction in tuition — has caused students and their families to question what they’re really paying for. That won’t end with the vaccine.
  • The push for free community college in some states, as well as debt forgiveness at the federal level, will put even more pressure on college prices and lead to more discussions about value in the years to come.

What’s next: Parents who pay the bills are changing. Today’s parents, Generation X, are in a very different place financially than baby boomers were when their children were in high school. And just wait for the Millennials, many of whom are now in their 30s. They own a share of national wealth that is about a quarter of what boomers owned at the same age.

2. Hybrid everywhere

The abrupt shift to remote learning caused professors who were reluctant to teach online or to even experiment with their pedagogy in a virtual environment to change their approaches almost overnight. The result last spring was a disaster in the delivery of some courses at many universities.

  • But over the summer and the fall, things seemed to improve and faculty members discovered new ways of engaging students by mixing in-person and face-to-face instruction.

Also, campuses found new ways to dispatch campus services. Yes, institutions found many student-facing activities needed to be delivered in-person, but others are actually better done online.

What’s next: The expectation now among a generation of learners is a college experience that combines the best of online with the elements of the residential campus that are core to development of students.

  • No longer will we talk about higher ed as a binary choice: online or in-person.
  • Now, it’s also a hybrid experience that’s digital and residential.
  • Expect interesting conversations on campuses over the next few years as colleges figure out what’s core to the face-to-face experience and what can be moved online.
3. A flexible experience

Hybrid is just one tactic in an overall approach that provides a more flexible experience to students.

  • Right now, most traditional colleges aimed at serving the teenager out of high school provide a single option for enrollment: a full-time calendar that starts around September, a few breaks throughout the fall, winter, and spring, and then wrapping up around May.

What’s happening: The traditional, full-time option won’t go away. But the experience of this year where colleges had to rethink their calendars — and who was on campus and when — offers a playbook for creating new “products,“ different pathways to a degree.

  • Don’t expect colleges to offer a shelf-full of various options, but in addition to the traditional experience there could be more 2+2 pathways with community colleges or low-residency options that allow students to work at internships or on research projects away from campus.
  • But on some campuses we might see more options, especially where technology allows students to learn basically anytime, anywhere and mix-and-match their choices on the way to earning a degree.

Bottom line: No matter what, the traditional academic calendar is a thing of the past.

4. When scale matters

If you dig into the numbers from the Common App on the institutions that witnessed growth in their applications this year, a few things stick. Here’s one big thing I noticed: Larger institutions saw the largest uptick in applications — up 16% at those with more than 20,000 students and 10% at campuses with more than 10,000 students.

Context: The U.S. higher education market is big and broad.

  • Colleges under 1,000 students make up about 40% of the overall market (and they were the only ones that saw a drop in applications).
  • Trends over the past decade show that scale matters in attracting students, research dollars, and donors — unless you’re a small college sitting on a huge endowment.

What’s next: Not every college wants to be big, nor should they need to be to survive.

  • The question most smaller colleges will need to ask coming out of the pandemic is where does scale matter and how can they achieve the benefits of scale.
  • Among the questions they’ll be asking: Do we really need to run our own technology shop? Can we link together some of our academic departments with other colleges to achieve a sustainable size in disciplines where we aren’t known? Can we grow online programs or build summer options so that we serve more students outside of our core academic product?
5. The cost of equity

Last summer, as the protests following the killing of George Floyd intensified, I talked with dozens of college presidents, provosts, and faculty members about the role higher ed plays in social mobility.

  • They know their institutions need to change, but they also know that transformation comes at a cost.
  • Some of that is financial. They need to hire faculty members with the lived experiences of the students in the classroom. They also must find dollars for financial-aid and build support services to help students who have historically been underrepresented in higher ed.

Between the lines: It’s not just money. This is also about changing the cultures and traditions of higher ed.

  • Tenure policies, for instance, often mean the teaching workforce doesn’t reflect the students in the classroom. Tenure is like a medieval guild and once professors are in it they don’t want to give it up.
  • There are other tradeoffs institutions are unwilling to make. Elite universities, for instance, won’t grow the pie by admitting more students.

Bottom line: Out of all the shifts from the pandemic, the road institutions travel to better reflect society or the states they serve will be the one with the most detours and dead ends. It will require money and a willingness to challenge important stakeholders, including faculty, alumni, and donors. So far, that’s a road institutional leaders have been reluctant to take.

What do you think are the corona-year shifts likely to stick for the long run? Hit reply or drop me a note and I’ll feature some responses in a forthcoming edition.


Making Student Success Matter
The graduation rate at Georgia State University has risen more than 23 percentage points in less than two decades, making it a national model for student success. On the latest episode of Future U, Georgia State’s president, Mark Becker, joins us to talk about the need to be intentional about student success, have a centralized data warehouse, and use technology to rethink processes, not just continue to do work the old way. (

Customizing the Degree
Jobs in data science and analytics are among the 20 fastest-growing careers over the next decade. The problem in meeting that demand, however, is that traditional job ads often fall short when recruiting college students who might possess broad competencies to do a job but are missing specialized skills for certain roles. This is where deeper partnerships between industry and universities can help. (

The Ill-Fated Chancellor
In Cecil Staton’s three years as East Carolina University’s leader, football fans revolted, enrollment dropped, and an anonymous dossier questioned his hiring as “gross negligence.” What does his tenure say about ECU’s future? (

⏳ One last chance to sign up for my new course on the college search for families of 9th, 10th, and 11th graders: I’ve teamed up with Road2College for the three-part series. The course started last month, but if you sign up now you’ll get access to the recording from the first session and then be able to join us live on 3/21 when Brandon Busteed talks about research on finding the magic in college.

? More details here

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...