“We’ve advanced ten years in the last ten months.”
This statement, from the Cleveland Institute of Art, captures the substantial changes college and university presidents and chiefs of staff led in crisis-filled 2020, often on an accelerated timeframe to respond to the evolving circumstances of the pandemic. As they continue to lead through crisis in 2021 and beyond, presidents and chiefs of staff must lock in practices from the pandemic that will sustain their institutions for the long-term.
On December 17 and 18, EAB hosted two working sessions on “Looking Back at the Fall and Looking Ahead to the Future” to offer insights and hear from college and university presidents and chiefs of staff on the coronavirus response, enrollment trends, and external partnerships. The working sessions included 66 presidents, presidential chiefs of staff, and other presidential strategic deputies from public and private colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.
Here are four practices to lock in far beyond the pandemic, based on examples shared during the sessions:
Preserve and expand benefits of rapid move to online instruction
While for many institutions, a full return to in-person instruction cannot come soon enough, presidents and chiefs of staff are now working to retain the benefits of online instruction, even as they look forward to resuming full in-person teaching and learning. Several institutions used the move to online instruction as a way to access new markets – for example, before the pandemic, the University of the Incarnate Word’s only online program was for adult learners, but the University is now embarking on a pilot program to offer various modalities for course delivery, including fully online instruction for traditional undergraduate students as well. In order to maintain flexibility for students who have stopped out, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County offers a program where students who are close to finishing their degree can do so remotely. In order to maintain flexibility for students who are unable to attend classes in person, such as students who are working full-time while taking classes, East Tennessee State University plans to encourage faculty to record all lectures and to offer an online option for courses when possible.
Grow inter-institutional partnerships to retain students and reduce access barriers
In order to better compete amid the enrollment challenges of the coming years and position themselves as driving regional economic recovery, many institutions, both public and private, are strengthening their partnerships with K-12 systems, community colleges, and other four-year institutions. University A* is investing time and funds into working with K-12 educators to teach coding and build STEM into the curriculum in early grades, with the hope that this will increase access to higher education down the line. In order to become more welcoming to transfer students, University B* has stopped doing one-off transfer agreements and has instead instituted a universal transfer agreement with all two-year colleges in its state. Mount St. Mary’s University is working on expanding outreach to local HBCUs, setting up exchange agreements and partnerships as the University has rapidly increased its share of students of color in recent years. Grace College is part of a new consortium in which nearly 70 institutions share courses and academic programs across campuses. The consortium offers students an incentive to stay at their home institution, allowing them to supplement existing courses on their campus with courses from other institutions to pursue a previously unoffered major or program.
Take action with tuition pricing and space utilization to ensure long-term financial sustainability
While addressing the immediate challenges of COVID-19, many presidents and chiefs of staff are planning for the long-term as well, making large and small changes to their institutions’ business models to boost efficiency and ensure financial sustainability. Missouri State University historically charged more tuition for online than in-person courses and did not charge a fee for online courses. To meet increased demand for online and increase equity between modalities, the University is adjusting its tuition model by charging the same rate for both online and in-person, with separate fees to pay for the unique infrastructure and student support needs in online courses. The increase in remote work among staff has also served as a catalyst for a look at campus space utilization as a way to increase efficiency and support financial sustainability. For example, University A* is assessing where it should continue to use space as it did pre-pandemic and where the University can free inefficiently used space for new purposes.
“Build with Legos” to be agile in a rapidly-changing environment
Presidents and chiefs of staff navigated their institutions through rapid change in 2020, breaking through traditional, long-standing practices in ways previously unthinkable. Widener University offered an analogy for all higher ed leaders to consider in order to maintain that sense of agility when making strategic decisions: are we “pouring concrete,” with cost-intensive, time-intensive, more permanent structures like new buildings on campus, or are we “building with Lego blocks,” with measures that can easily be taken apart or adjusted if necessary when the situation demands? Looking back on 2020 and ahead to 2021, presidents and chiefs of staff must continue to “build with Lego blocks” – being flexible in their strategic decision-making in order to preserve their institutions going forward.
*Note: “University A” and "University B" are pseudonyms for partner institutions that wished to remain anonymous.