Two ways COVID-19 will permanently reshape higher education

Posted by Larry Grey on Mar 16, 2020 6:19:27 PM

"May you live in interesting times"

This (purported) Chinese curse seems appropriate to the impact of coronavirus.  

Within the past hour:

  • My local community issued a “shelter in place” order for the next 3 weeks
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped almost 3,000 points
  • The U.S. President estimated that the outbreak might not subside for 5-6 months.  

Outside of our health care system, our education system is one of the areas most dramatically affected by coronavirus.

  • Classes are cancelled. 
  • In progress study abroad programs are terminated and students are brought home.
  • Dorms and apartments are emptied. 

As this occurs, institutions are rushing to implement plans that allow students to continue their education while meeting the public health demands.

Once the crisis has subsided, what are the longer-term impacts to the higher education industry?

1.  Online learning will be pervasive

Right now the vast majority of schools have cancelled all classes and are making plans for providing instruction virtually.  This will require a significant investment across the industry in technology, processes, and a change in culture.

Educause has put together an excellent resource page to help institutions make plans related to the virus. Within this post, the content linked from two institutions jumped out at me.

Both of these institutions created a roadmap for moving curriculum and instruction online from a faculty perspective:

  • How each task should be moved to an online format
  • What tools are most appropriate to use for performing those tasks
  • What resources are available to faculty as they apply those tools to those tasks

As faculty go through these steps, they are (1) learning how to teach and grade remotely, (2) doing the heavy lifting in moving curriculum to a new format, and (3) changing the culture as it relates to remote education.

Because of the current investment, institutions will look for ways to leverage that investment after the current crisis.  Also, because of the convenience of online learning, students' expectations will change as it relates to its availability.  The dynamic is identical to that described in this article about COVID-19 and working from home.

2.  Higher Education enrollment will see a significant uptick

One unfortunate impact of social distancing practices is that many people will not be able to work:

  • Their place of business is closed
  • They are quarantined
  • They cannot find appropriate child care
  • Their employer is affected by businesses that are closed

However, college enrollment increases when people are out of work.  As noted by Community College Review:

“While a struggling economy certainly forces extra pressures on young students seeking funds for loans and tuition costs, the enrollment rates for colleges continues to soar. In fact, according to data from the Department of Education, community college enrolment increased by ten percent in the course of just six years, from 2000 to 2006.”

However, Inside Higher Education finds that:

“More students enrolled in college when the recession began, new data from the National Student Clearinghouse show, but a smaller percentage graduated within six years.”

This means many people out of work due to coronavirus will enroll in classes causing an increase in enrollment.  And, although student success rates for these new students were lower in the last downturn, they were mostly older, nontraditional students who needed to enter the workforce when the economy improved.

Fortunately, institutions have and will continue to make significant improvement in their ability to support remote learning and nontraditional students.  This means that student success rates should hold while enrollment increases.