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How pandemic-era reforms could leave us better equipped to retain and graduate students

April 20, 2020

In 2012, investor-turned-philosopher Nassim Taleb coined the term “antifragile” to describe systems that get stronger when stressed. Unlike fragile systems that break, or robust systems that remain unchanged, antifragile systems actually improve when faced with challenges.

I’ve been thinking a lot about antifragility since the onset of the pandemic, notably because our immune systems are antifragile. When we get sick, our immune systems produce antibodies that make it less likely we will suffer from that same infection in the future, ultimately making us stronger. Another kind of antifragility can be found in laboratories where scientists and medical researchers rushing to produce treatments and vaccines use trial-and-error experimentation to make incremental improvements. Each failed trial results in learning that ultimately leads to a stronger outcome.

Higher ed as an antifragile system

Antifragile systems can be found all around us, once you know how to look for them. I believe that higher education is an antifragile system.

It seems increasingly likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will introduce disorder and financial uncertainty to higher education to a degree few of us have seen in our careers. This is the “stress” on the system. Many schools will struggle to make their classes, and budgets will shrink. Some schools will be forced to scale back on their missions, and others might even close.

Colleges and universities are working at a furious pace right now to preserve what can be saved of the spring semester and ensure that students are well-positioned to return in the fall. You are doing this for the good of your students, but you are also doing this to ensure the financial sustainability of your institutions in what is likely to be a bad recession. There is urgency to this work. Schools need revenue from returning students to remain solvent, and every retained student improves our fortunes ever so slightly. Student success and institutional financial health remain intertwined

How colleges are re-enrolling students for Fall 2020

So, what are institutions doing to reenroll students for the fall? I’ve been having conversations with senior leaders at EAB partners all over the country. Here are a handful of the most important actions they have told me they are taking:

  • Elimination of registration barriers. Schools are removing advising holds and raising account thresholds to allow students to register even if they owe balances.
  • Expansion of emergency grants. Alumni and others are being called on to contribute to emergency grant funds, and the distributors of these funds are getting more strategic about when and how to deploy these grants to students for maximum impact.
  • Enabling advisors with technology. Previously passive advising offices are now aggressively reaching out to students to ensure that their needs are being met. In doing so, they are learning how to use technologies like EAB Navigate to make this possible.
  • Adoption of long-term degree planning. Advisors are working with students who withdraw from the spring semester to create academic plans across multiple terms that show these students the correct courses they need to take to recover and carry through to graduation.
  • Identification of high-DFW courses. While this work is just beginning, schools are beginning to think about how to identify and improve completion rates in courses that fared poorly in the transition to a virtual learning environment.

In many cases, the changes being made right now are fixing issues that should have been addressed a long time ago, while other changes are producing innovations we would never have thought of before. But many leaders expect that the changes we make now to streamline the student experience will become permanent improvements. Advisors and instructors that are learning how to use technology in innovative ways will incorporate many of these practices into their normal routines. We aren’t going to lose the lessons we are now being forced to learn. This is what makes us antifragile.

Even antifragile systems can break if stressed enough, and the coming months and years will not be easy for higher education. But I have hope that in the long run our institutions will get stronger, and our students and society will be the beneficiaries.

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