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V3I2: Innovate or Dissipate

By: Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU

Driving home the other day, I was reminded of the dire budget situation many, if not all, colleges are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which I had just read about in the New York Times.

People who know me, know I approach everything I do as a scientist, particularly in evolutionary terms. A recurring thought during my drive home was that our institutions needed to adapt and evolve to meet the existential threat posed by the SARS-CoV2 virus, which likely will continue for another year or more, creating additional, longer term pressures.

And, it hit me, like a bumper sticker slogan: Innovate or Dissipate.

Declining enrollments, budget reductions, direct costs for dealing with the pandemic, and other challenges being experienced today by American higher education are not too dissimilar from previous such threats, except the impacts of the pandemic are likely to last for years, if not decades, and potentially be more negatively impactful, absent a strategic approach to deal with the same now.

The drumbeat of institutions reducing their footprints, closing, merging, or forming confederated partnerships, which started well before the pandemic, has become more urgent and incessant. Then, as now, higher education had to pivot to innovations to deal with threats. We know from experiences with various segments of our economy that innovations without intentionality is a fool’s errand.

Innovations in higher education require being outcomes driven, i.e., focused on student success and closing equity gaps. Data from multiple colleges and universities, for example, Georgia State University, suggest that innovative and intentional strategies that address equity gaps in education result in significantly better overall outcomes in student success. These outcomes also create a compelling value proposition to the students, parents, alumni, the public, and other key stakeholders, thus, potentially resulting in attracting more students.

Because the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be longer lasting, higher education will need to reengineer itself, while retaining its fundamental purpose, i.e., ensuring student success and closing equity gaps. The reengineering will require reanalysis of institutional mission such that it is aligned with new business models, innovation, and risk-taking without jeopardizing core operations, and cogent communications strategy. It will require adaptability, patience, and perseverance.

Innovative and intentional strategies must be comprehensive, adaptable, data- and evidence-informed, and include a portfolio of approaches requiring the collaborative commitment and engagement of every member and every component of campus to identify and solve the challenges created by the pandemic.

Successful strategies require a scan of the ecosystem in which the institution operates, taking into account the internal and external milieu, and may include necessary market analyses, budget reductions, consolidation of educational programs resulting in a smaller footprint, partnerships with other educational institutions and/or private sector and non-profit program managers, and outsourcing of business and other services, to name a few approaches. However, all of these approaches must be undertaken with the future in mind, i.e., be flexible and allow for future growth, as budget pressures change or enrollments increase.

The strategies include use of data-informed predictive analytics and other digital tools to promote community and group interactions that ensures student learning outcomes by focusing on the fundamentals, including personalized education and services, intensive mentoring, intrusive advising and academic coaching, and experiential learning opportunities. Educational programs must inculcate combination of technical, cognitive skills and transferrable non-cognitive, core competencies, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. In addition, institutions must offer students help with financial aid and just-in-time grants, promote social networks, ensure food security, and provide housing, child- and health-care support, and mental health counseling.

Finally, strategies must include faculty support and resources, including professional development opportunities and modifying and managing the physical infrastructure and environment in which learning and other activities occur to ensure infections are either prevented or mitigated.

There are additional, looming demographic issues on the horizon, which may exacerbate the impacts of the extant pandemic situation. The fertility rate of the United States in 2020 is 1.779 births per woman, which is projected to drop next year to 1.6; normal population replacement requires a birth rate of 2.1. A recent study projects that this year America will have 300,000 to 500,000 fewer children due to the pandemic. Additionally, immigration into the United States is projected through this decade to be down 2.5 million. Instead of the projected 400 million residents in America by 2050, the Census Bureau predicts we will have only around 375 million. The reduction in births due to the economic recession of the last decade, combined with the significant reduction in birth rates due to the pandemic and fewer immigrants, means that fewer 18-year-old students will be entering college starting in 2025.

Institutions will need to plan for this new reality now or face extinction.

It will take innovative approaches to recruit and retain traditional students as we go forward in light of the demographic challenges noted above. Everyone is “fishing” for students from the same, small and diminishing pool. The competition will be intense. Similarly, absent a change in visa rules, international students will not be an offsetting source for our colleges, as had been the situation during past economic downturns. Even if American visa rules are changed, competition for international students from other countries is another factor that requires creative recruitment solutions.

Additionally, the non-traditional student population includes approximately 2 million veterans of the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, older individuals in the workforce wanting/needing to update their credentials, and almost 35 million individuals who did not complete college for various reasons. These non-traditional, often part time, students are an outstanding pipeline for colleges and universities. Colleges will need to compete against corporate efforts, such as Google and Amazon’s offerings, create flexible pathways and construct and deploy learning communities, courses, and alternative credentialing, micro- and stacked-credentialing, badges, competency-based education, certificates, and non-traditional majors and degree offerings.

Addressing the challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and other concomitant issues will not be easy, which I wrote about in the last issue of The Beacon, but a single-minded pivot to adapt, innovate, and evolve may offer the path forward.




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