By: Jeff Fox, President Emeritus, College of Southern Idaho, Twin Falls, Idaho
Recently, the CEO of a large corporation said her company has made more innovative improvements in six months than in the past 15 years as a result of figuring out how to conduct business during the pandemic. I was struck by the truth of that for higher education as well. Colleges and universities of all types have had to make innovative, creative changes to deliver educational content in the COVID landscape, and it has not been easy.
Unpacking the challenges would take volumes, but in brief, steady and reliable funding has been at risk. State allocations have been stagnant or diminishing for years now in many states in the NWCCU’s footprint. Add to this the impact COVID has had on enrollment revenue. Many families question sending their child to a residential campus because of the strong possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19 infection and campus closures. Consequently, many students are taking some time off by delaying going to school or by choosing a local option. Nationally, undergraduate enrollment has dropped by 2.5% (June). Moreover, on-campus life changes as schools adopt new rules for distancing and quarantine affecting class delivery modalities, dorms, Greek life, and competitive athletics. There has been uncertainty from the national collegiate athletic bodies postponing or even cancelling sports for the year. For schools where revenue from athletic events like football are a significant part of the annual budget, these actions carry serious financial consequences.
The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on faculty and staff, and many schools face reductions and lay offs of employees who were essential for a campus-based face-to-face enterprise but whose presence may not be so vital in online and hybrid environments. Additionally, stress and angst have led to an uptick in mental health issues for employees and students alike. For many schools the buildings once filled with the business of education are now underutilized or even empty. Indeed, in a “build it as we fly” scenario, institutions are redesigning systems of recruitment and registration, instructional delivery and assessment, and staffing.
Yet, colleges and universities are open. Institutions pivoted quickly when the pandemic hit in early spring, many shifting in-person classes to hybrid and online options. According to an October report in the Chronicle of Higher Education*, colleges and universities are offering a combination of hybrid (21%), primarily online (34%) or fully online (10%), a 65% total (June). Though some institutions saw a decline in fall enrollment, there are still near normal numbers in many schools. In addition to reacting quickly to develop online modalities for instruction, institutions restructured campus life, housing, and competitive events. Aside from increasing online instruction models, institutions modified offerings that are offered in person. Skills and lab classes meet in instructional environments designed for safety in the pandemic landscape. Similarly, sports, though limited, are still being played. In many ways, these responses are similar to the CEO’s comments. In a remarkably short time, higher education adapted and made creative and innovative changes driven by the pandemic-driven necessity to provide quality education in new ways.
One of the benefits of being accredited lies in using the requirements of Eligibility Requirements and Standards as tools to demonstrate mission fulfillment. “All roads lead to Rome” is an apt concept here. There are many ways to effectively teach and to demonstrate the attainment of educational outcomes. The goals and outcomes are clear, but the pathways, or roads, are manifold.
As higher education reforms itself out of necessity, and in spite of the challenges created by the pandemic, colleges and universities should consider this an opportunity for innovative development and delivery of educational content. I’d offer Wayne Gretsky’s apt advice: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” I suspect excellent best practices will emerge from this crisis. Schools will develop new ways of connecting the unassailable benefits of face-to-face education with the demonstrated practicality of hybrid and online instruction. Many institutions have committed to enhanced training for faculty, staff, and students to address the pandemic impacts, and faculty will lead innovation in teaching and evaluation. Institutions across the board and particularly residential campuses have transformed campus life. All of these actions suggest the future shape of higher education, and in this future, institutions will be able to use the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion in establishing the worth and value of higher education as our work moves into tomorrow.
Like responsive innovation from the business and corporate sectors, higher education institutions have a chance to make positive change. I suspect most changes will become a sort of normal in the future, and ultimately, we will be better institutions for the experience. As we entertain how to successfully deliver exceptional education in a myriad of new and evolved ways, we move into tomorrow.
*June, A. W. (2020, September 24). A First Look at Fall Enrollment Shows a 2.5% Dip Among Undergraduates. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com
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