Higher Education after an Apocalypse by Cynthia Tweedell, Ph.D. Assistant Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness Ohio Christian University

Six months ago, we could not have imagined this.  It reads like a trailer for a cheap science fiction movie:  “A global pandemic shuts down the world economy, and people are left to take shelter for an indefinite period of time.  There is nowhere to hide.  No one can escape the effects of the VIRUS.”

But here we are.  And where will we be six months hence?  We have an opportunity to use this crisis to revive higher education and bring it out of the nineteenth century.  The pandemic could catapult us into a twenty-first-century of opportunities to combine the intimacy and excitement of face-to-face instruction with the accessibility of online education.  When everything is as it has never been before, we have an opportunity to recreate from the ground up.

Immediate Impact

When campuses shut down, colleges were scrambling to find alternative ways to deliver educational content and assure learning.  The simplest way to do that was to continue to meet the class using a live video streaming service.  Some colleges, where faculty had a great familiarity with online instruction utilizing a learning management system, put courses totally online with discussion forums and new assignments.  As with most disasters, the wealthier schools that already had sophisticated technology and well developed online platforms had a much smoother transition than schools that had very traditional processes and little or no online learning.  These are schools that were barely hanging on before the disaster hit and now may never recover.

The sudden changes also put students on an uneven playing field.  Many did not have access to a computer and the internet in their home. Many more had to share technology with others in the household who were also homeschooling or working remotely.   Some students had to take up full-time jobs to help support the family when some members got furloughed from their jobs. Some students went home to a crowded household with several family members living in a small space.  For them, finding the time and a quiet place to study became a problem.  Once again, the poor were most disadvantaged to weather the changes.

Accreditors and regulatory agencies were also scrambling to make accommodations for schools that are suddenly forced to operate outside their stipulations.  Schools that did not have approval for online courses had to get permission to deliver courses using alternative formats temporarily.  Schools were also requesting approval to allow students to take an entire semester of credit/no credit courses, which may have implications for financial aid, athletic eligibility, and licensure.

All of this comes amid a backdrop of distraction.  There is a fear of illness for ourselves and the ones we love.  There is a fear of financial ruin in the face of an unprecedented economic downturn.  Daily routines have been disrupted, and many students have to make do without all the things they left behind in their room at school.  Will they get a refund on their room and board, and if so, when?  Students, faculty, and staff are all questioning their assumptions about their career choices and life priorities.  Under this tension, people are not operating at full capacity.  

Long Term Impact

The pandemic will eventually get under control.  There will ultimately be a vaccination that will enable those with adequate health care to avoid this plague, while the poor will continue to struggle with its impact.  Historians will chronicle this period, and today’s children will talk about it with their grandchildren.  What will they say?  The world may be permanently changed.  But how?  Can we use this opportunity to revolutionize higher education?  Will large numbers of small, struggling schools finally close, and if so, what will replace them? Will there be a conglomeration of merged little schools and how will their individual missions be honored in the merger? This time is characterized by confusion and disorientation. 

Will students return to campus?  As always, they will return if they perceive we have something valuable to offer.  If we can walk them through this period of confusion and disorientation toward a sense of purpose and direction, they will return.  We will shepherd them through changing courses, changing majors, and changing career goals.  We will rewrite our classes to help them make sense of the terrible losses we have all suffered—not only lives, but jobs, plans, finances and opportuities.  We will grieve with them.

Will the residence halls fill up again?  Perhaps eventually, but it will take time before students and their families will feel it is safe to live in close contact with other students.  Suspicions will linger.  “If it happened once, it can happen again!”  Similar to the post-9/11 world, students may prefer to live at home and go to a college nearby, rather than travel a distance to a residential campus.

Will online education be the new norm?  Many students are getting a sudden taste of what it is like to take an online class.  My data indicate many do not like it.  But the online education many of them are experiencing is a very hastily prepared and awkwardly delivered model.  Some students will mistake this for what would be delivered under more deliberate circumstances and will turn away from future experiences in online learning.  My data indicate many online students prefer face-to-face.  However, more and more students are opting for online education, not because they prefer it, but because it is accessible.    There is every indication that schools with well-developed online programs will come out winners after this crisis.

And what about the staff?  As they get accustomed to working remotely, will they ever want to work on campus again?  Will working from home, which is already becoming more and more common, finally become the new norm? Indeed, if more and more students are online, does it make sense that staff also work remotely?

How will higher education change through all this?  Will this be the final death knell for institutions that are already struggling with decreasing enrollments?  It depends.  Here are some takeaways:

  • In times of economic downturns, when people become unemployed, higher education has always thrived. During the recession of 2008, enrollments in degree completion programs boomed.  
  • In times of sudden changes producing confusion and disorientation, higher education has always thrived. After 9/11, people suddenly were interested in new careers in security, disaster management, and criminal justice.
  • In times of chronic inequality, higher education has thrived as a great social equalizer.  A college education still increases the odds of overcoming poverty.
  • In times of profound social and economic change, America has always looked to its institutions of higher education to provide the intellectual backbone to promote the ingenuity it takes to rebuild a world.  After World War II, higher education institutions were home to the arts, science, and technology that made America thrive.

There is opportunity in this crisis.  Let’s not waste it.  Institutions that can adapt quickly using new technologies to provide distance education with a personal touch will thrive in the new world that will emerge after the pandemic.