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With daily signs of momentum in the effort to vaccinate adults in the U.S., we’re beginning to see the other side of this pandemic. And with that light at the end of the tunnel, plenty of predictions are emerging about what in higher ed will stick for the long run — from test-optional admissions to more online courses.

There’s no doubt the pandemic is a watershed moment in the history of higher ed — a turning point we’ll all reference for decades to come, much like we do with Morrill Land-Grant Acts, the GI Bill, the Higher Education Act, and the development of the internet.

But it might be some time before we understand the pandemic’s full impact. The truth about change is that we tend to overestimate its speed while underestimating its reach.

⚙️ Welcome…to Paul Fain, the author of a new Open Campus newsletter called The Job.

  • The Job is a weekly look at the connections between education and the American workforce. It comes out every Thursday.
  • Paul is a veteran of higher ed journalism. We worked together at The Chronicle of Higher Education in the early and mid-2000s before he went on to become an editor at Inside Higher Ed.
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The effects of the pandemic will live on in college applications for years to come.

The Pandemic’s Long Tail in Admissions

Among all aspects of higher education, admissions is perhaps the most tradition-bound due to its recruiting calendars and campus tours, common application deadlines, and rigid rating scales for assessing applicants.

What’s happening: The rule in admissions is that if you alter how you recruit or admit or enroll students — whatever you do — do so gradually. That way you know — or at least can guess — which lever you pulled had caused which shift in your enrollment model. The pandemic reshaped almost every dimension of admissions — and did so all at once. Admissions officials have been left trying to untangle cause and effect, as I wrote recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“We all have disparate pieces of information right now. We’re all measuring different things. It’s hard to make sense of it all. Some traditions and routines will survive, but they all won’t,” Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University since 1972, told me recently.

The big picture: Selective, elite colleges typically set the rules of engagement because they’re rich and inundated with applicants; colleges with fewer resources that educate the vast majority of undergraduates follow along where they can. The pandemic is no longer a crisis to be managed in the short term. Rather, it offers an opportunity to reform the way colleges handle admissions in the long run.

Driving the news: Nowhere is the virus’s impact more apparent than in how it is shaping the future of testing.

  • Already dozens of colleges have announced an extension of test-optional policies for a second admissions cycle, including the entire Ivy League, Stanford University, and the University of Texas at Austin.
  • It’s clear the SAT and the ACT will not return to their pre-pandemic prominence. Even the ACT’s chief executive admitted as much in a recent blog post.

How it works: Without test scores to consider, most admissions offices are leaning into two other measures: the rigor of the classes that applicants took in high school and their grades in them.

  • Campuses are also digging into data on students who enrolled and looking back on their high-school performance.
  • Colleges receive applications from several thousand high schools, not tens of thousands. As a result, when a college enrolls a significant number of graduates from a particular high school — say, 10 students over the course of several years — it can track the grade-point averages and eventual degree completions of those students from that school.
  • Application readers at the University of Washington, for instance, use a GPA-comparison tool for nearly every high school in the state, as well as many outside the state. The tool compares the average GPA of prior students who enrolled from a specific high school and then their GPA after freshman year at the university.

What’s next: Some colleges will remain test-optional when the pandemic is over, but how far up the pecking order will that change stick? And will applicants trust colleges enough to judge them without test scores to stop taking the exams entirely?

  • To determine whether to stay test-optional for the long run, colleges are trying to determine if test scores are just noise in an application already crowded with grades, activities, and recommendations, or whether they really send a useful signal.
  • Case in point: 93% of test-optional applicants to Georgia Tech took calculus in high school, which isn’t covered by the SAT’s math section per se. So do grades or test scores send a better signal in those circumstances?

What we’re waiting for: How much information will the new class of test-optional colleges share about the applicants they accepted this spring?

  • Releasing too many details is a double-edged sword for colleges.
  • If a college accepted a high proportion of students without test scores, it could encourage another surge of applications next year and tax the admissions staff once again.
  • But if it accepted too few, it risks the wrath of critics who will question its commitment to really being test-optional and to equity (test scores are highly correlated with family wealth).

Bottom line: The pandemic will have a very long tail in admissions. Many parts of applicants’ files are baked long before they begin the college search — from the courses they take (or don’t take) in eighth grade, to the activities they start in elementary school, to the teachers they get to know as freshmen. As long as this generation of students makes choices about what they do or don’t do in school based on their experience this past year, the effects of the pandemic will live on in college applications for years to come.

Rapid changes common in the consumer sector don’t often work in higher ed.

Radical Incrementalism

After a year of living through the pandemic, 2012 probably seems like it was two decades ago rather than nearly one.

For higher ed, 2012 was the year when technology was seen as the great “disrupter” to the traditional residential face-to-face model whose financial sustainability was under stain by the continuing impact of the Great Recession.

? As we hear about all the post-pandemic predictions for higher ed, I’m often reminded of the predictions that were made in 2012 that didn’t quite turn out as expected.

Background: 2012 was the “year of the MOOC” or the massive open online course, according to the New York Times. It was also when predictions started to emerge that a significant number of colleges would close in the coming years.

  • Neither came true, of course. MOOCs didn’t put traditional colleges out of business.
  • 20 nonprofit colleges closed their doors in 2016–17, up from an average of five a year over the previous six years, but still much smaller than the number predicted over the course of the decade.

What’s happening: The biggest themes of higher ed coverage in 2012 — disruption and closures — seem to have returned in 2021.

  • One of the early MOOC providers, Coursera, filed paperwork this month to become a publicly traded company selling shares on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol COUR.
  • But the Coursera of 2021 is not the Coursera of 2012. Education is now a lifelong need, rather than something we experience only episodically — stopping something else to “go back to school.” As a result, Coursera is looking to fill the demand for individual classes to learn specific skills, that over time, can be stacked on top of one another to earn a credential.
  • In looking through Coursera’s filings, what becomes clear is that one of the most promising pieces of its business is the short course and stackable credentials.
  • After the pandemic, the question is whether traditional colleges and universities will follow suit and move to offering more individual classes instead of entire academic programs or rethink their degree offerings to give more flexibility to students to earn micro-credentials that can add up over time to a degree.

Here’s another headline that reminds us of 2012: Mills College announces plan to close, triggering debate about other schools’ futures

What’s next: The uniqueness of a residential campus in a specific geographic location — one of the strengths of small colleges — was diminished by remote education. It’s been difficult to differentiate an institution’s brand from another college’s when everyone is at home learning online.

  • Whether small colleges survive in the coming years is largely dependent on sustaining their residential model after the pandemic and proving their value to skeptical consumers frustrated with educational institutions after a year of remote learning.

Where the two story lines converge: One business model for small colleges going forward is to offer industry-recognized credentials — say, for example, in software that is common in many of today’s jobs like a Salesforce certification — in addition to their traditional degrees. This is where the development of short courses by colleges themselves or outside entities can be useful to providing more value to the undergraduate degree.

Something to remember: The rapid changes that are common in the consumer and tech sectors don’t often work as well in higher ed. I’m reminded of an op-ed Matthew Pittinsky, the CEO of Parchment and co-founder of Blackboard, wrote in TechCrunch in 2014.

  • “While there are big, systematic changes that technology is bringing to education, the way that change manifests itself is typically incremental,” according to Pittinsky. “This radical incrementalist model can be a more palatable alternative in the academic world, with its shared governance and traditional values.”

Last week, I asked Pittinsky if this “radical incrementalist” model is just as relevant post-pandemic as it was after the disruption discussion of 2012. Here’s what he told me:

“The basic argument is as true as ever. Not simply that big thematic changes take a lot longer, but that they manifest through less “sexy” building block or stepping stone enablers that deserve entrepreneur attention, and to a certain extent it takes longer with incremental steps for good reason; traditional higher ed’s role of creating, preserving and disseminating knowledge.”


2 Former U.S. Education Secretaries Weigh In on Higher Ed
In the newest FutureU podcast, we interview John King, an Education Secretary in the Obama Administration, and Margaret Spellings, who held the role during part of the Bush Administration. Spellings talks about what she described as “the pros” President Biden installed at the Education Department; King weighs in on the agenda the department should pursue over the next four years; and in a rare moment of disagreement by the two secretaries, they discuss debt forgiveness. (

Paying for College a Year Into the Pandemic
College students face continued economic hardship as a result of the pandemic, according to a national survey of more than 11,000 full and part-time students by Course Hero. The challenge of paying for internet access and computer equipment has grown since last March. More than 60% of respondents now report that food and rent remain their top two financial needs. (

Upward Mobility Among the Educational Elite
A new study on how Harvard was for much of 20th century nothing more than a club for rich prep-school kids illustrates that simply enrolling more low-income students doesn’t alone shift social mobility. What happens outside class at elite institutions, namely in “clubs,” is more important to success after college than academics. Even randomly assigning roommates and giving low-income students “exposure to high-status peers” doesn’t move the needle on membership in these clubs. (

Decline in Enrollment in 2020 Smaller than Earlier Projected
The number of students enrolling in college immediately after high-school declined by 6.8% in 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While it’s a drop of historical proportions, it’s not as bad as the 21.7% estimate the organization provided in December. (

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

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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...