COVID and the higher ed crucible

Change was coming to universities in the U.S., and then the virus hit. A year later, I look at this lost year as chance to reclaim our value by drawing distinctions.

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It’s hard to remember 2018—hell, it’s hard to remember last week during this pandemic—but at the time it was a banner headline for those of us in higher education. A Harvard business professor predicted 50% of U.S. universities would close in the next decade, a clickbait-worthy topline number if there ever was one.

As with many things, there is more nuance to the prediction, and the story is more complicated than a shock number would suggest. It’s a lesson in how framing skews the way we see data and trends, if nothing else. “Close” is doing a lot of work in this case, because some of those closures would be the result of mergers into larger institutions that can absorb more students. By sheer campus count? Sure, maybe half of colleges and universities in the U.S. close if the prediction is true. But that is different than halved capacity.

The headlines represent predictions, and predictions should not be taken as exercises in precision even if “50%” feels like a tangible number. As with anything trafficking in statistics, the general picture it paints by interpretation is enough to form impressions and tell us stories from the present and future even if the particulars aren’t exact. We are going to lose a lot of schools, and by extension a lot of choice. Abundance to more scarcity, that timeless Shakespearean economic drama.

But why?

A big part of the problem is that the growing scarcity for a college degree is mostly due to the demand side. Year-over-year, we are creating less 18-year-olds here in the U.S., which means less people wanting to start college. Now, not everyone goes to college, and that is well and good. But unless you can convince a growing number of people in a shrinking demographic to go to college, you have shrinking demand for seats in the face of excess capacity. Something has to give, and by 2026 or so we expect it to give. Ergo, schools closing. Some already have closed due to financial distress, others due to distress exacerbated by COVID.

At the same time this demographic bomb is gathering, colleges have been growing cost of attendance at a pace faster than financial aid can keep up, reaching levels that discourage people from enrolling. Growing the share of high school graduates choosing college is very difficult in that kind of environment. In the background, we’ve been undergoing generational cuts to public funding of higher ed, shifting burdens onto students and parents in the form of loans or hard cash. All this affects the other tool in an institution’s toolkit, which is to offer more perks as a way to be more competitive in an environment that features shrinking demand. Perks cost money, and that either comes via cost of attendance increase or budget cuts for colleges that already are running deficits in some cases. It’s a difficult place for universities to be if they already were suffering.

I worked for nearly a decade in newspapers before going back to school to enter higher ed. In conversations with colleagues, I constantly reference my old life as a way of understanding the forces converging on my new profession. It is difficult to look at the state of higher ed and not see the trajectory of the newspaper business.

  • Shrinking demand in the face of generational demographic change? Check.

  • Lack of ability to invest because of legacy costs and untouchable sacred programs that must be fed? Check.

  • An economic model built around information-as-commodity, one that is being disrupted by technology? Check

  • Pandemic? OK, three out of four ain’t bad.

Higher ed was on a collision course with this reality even before the pandemic. I started with 2018, and we are further down the road toward 2026. The past year has thrown gasoline on the fire. I write this today on the one-year anniversary of my own institution announcing it was closing for two weeks due to coronavirus. A day later it was the rest of spring semester. I still haven’t taught in person since March 11, 2020.

My institution figured out how to balance the books this past year, but the cost of attendance was relatively unchanged despite the bulk of classes happening on Zoom. The hard reality to this is that tuition cuts would have meant laying off a whole lot of human capital that represents the heartbeat of the university these students chose even if not fully understanding how and what their dollars fund. It is not a sustainable path, but one we chose for the year. It is also one we cannot continue with any kind of credibility.

If nothing else, the pandemic has made us all more aware of where the money goes and the delicate balance of it all. Professors are more aware of the financial and life challenges students are facing. Students are more aware of what professors are balancing while teaching at home. Staff are no longer as invisible; they literally are the only reason we are holding any of this together. Administrators are having to grapple with knowledge and communication gaps that were long there but easier to miss.

A year later, I’m trying to avoid all the anniversary coverage, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’ve altered the work of higher ed to meet the moment and what will stick. This experience has altered our perceptions and expectations for what college is in the U.S., and this will have implications for how we deal with the transformation that was already in progress.

One of the things the pandemic modality shift has made clear is that online education is really good at some things and terrible for others.

If you are dealing with an education or class style that is about information transmission, an online environment is fine even if it’s not everyone’s jam. I’m thinking here about a straight lecture course in particular. It’s not ideal or even preferable in my view, but just in terms of information delivery there is little difference between sitting in a lecture hall with 500 people and watching a lecture on Zoom. Asking a question is more difficult, of course, but in a class at that scale you are less likely to even ask one and the losses are at the margins. Size and scope breed a certain style of teaching, and that was the kind of thing that translated just fine depending on the institution.

This is one reason, I suspect, that public institutions that attract a lot of commuter students are doing more OK than others (your mileage may vary, particularly if you live in a state that is cutting higher ed funding for public schools). You were more likely pre-pandemic to have large classes with students balancing a lot of school and personal commitments such as work and family. In many cases, an online experience might actually be better because you’re there for the information, and the shift online for the pandemic might be a revelation to some students in those contexts.

As a teacher, what we lose in YouTubeU is more subtle. My laments are many, but the big one is missing out on the interactions before and after class, the conversations with students in office hours, those moments when a class turns into a mentoring relationship. There is a serendipity to making those things happen. It’s not magic so much as time + presence, and virtual video environments are clunky for making those moments. So while a video class is good for information transmission, it’s not great at the relationship-building that is core to a lot of what I think of as real college.

Lost interaction is lost mentoring. It’s lost relationship-building that leads to recommendation letters, internship opportunity pass-ons, networking with alumni, exploration of that major you didn’t know you wanted to try. It’s the secret sauce for an institution like mine, which boasts smaller classes and a more intimate education and mentoring experience. And it’s all wiped away in the past year.

So what do we say a year later?

It’s become clear to me that while the pandemic has accelerated some innovation in online education for some contexts, it likely is at least a temporary setback for moving more classes online, perhaps for a generation. One of the major threats to higher ed’s model other than the demographic shifts above is the possibility of a technology disruptor entering the square and changing the value proposition of college, the question of whether this in-person experience is worth the enormous cost when you can get it far cheaper from an online startup offering similar content. It is still possible, but my sense is the barrier for entry and grabbing market share is higher now that a whole raft of students on down to kindergarten are experiencing classes online. The allure of cheaper cost and roughly equivalent class content is going to have to battle the bad taste in the mouth that a lot of younger students have about online education. Not an impossible lift, but more proving to do.

A journalism colleague once told me he realized the internet had ended his career as he knew it when we stopped talking about “news” and started calling it “content.” The news lost differentiation between beats and topics, but it also lost differentiation from entertainment, blogs, tweets, YouTube videos and the like. The point was it got lumped into the same stew, and by virtue it lost its value proposition. I would say this has been the chief existential threat to traditional higher ed for more than a decade, that what I teach is no longer a unique experience but rather just content. Yes, the same information as other schools and professors, but how I package and shape their learning is unique. At first I worried that ZoomU was doing this, turning the experience into just another commodity. What I realized is the experience was lesser no matter how much I tried to make it great, and if the lessons are learned it was going to underline and reinforce the value of what I do in person.

Again, there are contexts where online school is more attractive. I could see Zoom setups thriving in public schools that enroll 20,000-plus students and have larger class sizes, that they move to a mixed model that allows for in-person and online ed to exist in tandem. Not everyone wants or needs the magic of in-person, much as I love it. And that’s good! But I teach at a residential university, and the pandemic has done nothing but show how overpriced we are if that is the new normal. And so it will not be the new normal here, nor should it be.

The real question is whether there is enough demand for my style to coexist in a land of Zoom classes. I say yes, but the larger question is whether my institution is able to articulate that value to people in ways that make them buy in. The one does not necessitate the other.

I think about this again in the context of my newspaper career. When news went online, it all started to look the same. Yes, local news in one community didn’t cover the same things as another community. But the beats and the topics were the same; the names and places were different, but the news story generation process was homogenous. We ended up with this weird paradox in internet news, that there was more content than ever but it looked the same from city to city. It didn’t reflect the diversity of a region, state or nation, and it betrayed a thorough lack of journalistic imagination for what news could be in a competitive online environment. This opened the door for people to graze the news from whatever source was offering it up for free or lived at the top of the Google News search.

Bland, boring, same as everyone else. Unsubscribe.

So instead what happened is new products ate their lunch. If you think about some of the unique challengers among the digital-only upstarts, they were doing something different by creating new beats or styles. Vox for explainer news, Deadspin to poke at ESPN’s style of access sports journalism, Slate to tell you want you didn’t expect to hear (oh #slatepitches, don’t ever change), The Root to give you perspective from an underserved community.

What I’m describing here for higher ed is something we can learn from the transformation of news once it realized it was selling information and that its local monopoly was lost. It is an emerging moment of differentiation, if we will seize it, and one that might strengthen our future collectively if we stop to think about our own unique value in a sea of choices. The big advantage we have in higher ed is we still have time to learn from the mistakes of the past, alter our trajectory, and invest in what makes us distinct and useful. It’s not the path newspapers took because they got drunk on their inflated sense of what people valued; it’s the path higher ed needs to take if it wants to avoid the same fate.

One of my dear colleagues here at Lehigh, Alan Snyder, has described the current marketing strategy for higher ed as institutions doing all the same things but talking about how distinct they are. I laughed and then winced the first time I heard the observation, because truth can still hurt even in 2021. Nobody wants to be just another member of the pack, but we are all chasing the same things. In that kind of market, demographic bombs do a lot of damage.

Differentiation creates more options, more realities for people to imagine a college experience that matches their needs and goals. If we want to increase the demand side of the equation, we have to stop doing the same things as all of our peer institutions. It might not save us all, but if 50% is in the ballpark of what the danger looks like, maybe we can whittle that down somewhat. I am not speaking of this even as someone who really likes their job and wants to continue doing it. Growing demand means bringing more into the fold, and it will force us to make new priorities to open up access and capture that group that suddenly is noticing us instead of taking a hard pass. That means more aid, more flexible programs, some reimagining of what we can be in higher ed. It means shaking off the atrophy that built up thanks to dealing with an inert market and built-in demand from an audience that lacked choice.

The risk one year later is that the choice is more stark for students, and that they are coming at this with wisdom earned from experience. It’s not just a question of ZoomU or in-person. Students have gotten the no-frills education at the with-frills price, and they rightfully should be asking how much unrelated prestige they are financing on the side and whether it is worth the cost. It might be dramatic to say 50% of institutions dead by 2028, but the pandemic is forcing us to ask questions about value and what we value. How we answer those questions will determine how close we get to that mark, and who wins or loses in the higher ed landscape to come.

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University? Did you like this? Please share and smash that subscribe button. Find him on Twitter at @jeremylittau.