Higher education can’t (and shouldn’t) erase 2020

Like almost every sector of American life, higher education is probably happy to be rid of 2020 and looking fondly at the prospect of some semblance of normalcy in 2021. But let’s look to a time before there were stimulus checks and mask mandates...  

A freeze on student loan payments represented one of the first nationwide actions to offset the pandemic’s impact, but it also set the stage for the challenges higher ed would face for the rest of the calendar year. Managing unwieldy loan payments quickly gave way to calls for refunds, which set the stage for one of the most tumultuous enrollment seasons colleges and universities have ever experienced. 

What normalcy looks like is relative, of course, but many pundits increasingly believe the promise of speedy vaccine distribution should help universities look and feel more like 2019 by the time freshmen descend on college campuses for the start of the 2021-22 academic year. 

But the more appropriate question at this point probably isn’t when things will go back to normal as much as it is if they can ever go back to normal. Most people feel they need some form of postsecondary training these days to find gainful employment, but if this Fall’s enrollment trends tell us anything, it’s that colleges need students more than students need any given college. When push came to shove, a shocking percentage of students were willing to put off the investment in themselves for a year. In that process, they revealed just how far institutions were willing to bend to keep tuition revenue – and in some cases the entire institution’s finances – from utterly collapsing. 

So while we ache for the ‘normalcy’ we felt in 2019, going back to the old days is not a given. In order to succeed in the future, schools will need to take a hard, honest look at the road ahead. Here are a handful of new realities colleges and universities will need to take into account in light of the virtual revolution that the pandemic brought on the nation’s higher education sector. 

The percent of students enrolling in purely brick-and-mortar programs will continue its decline.  
Online enrollment (in at least some courses) has been on the rise for years. Though recent surveys show students reporting that remote learning is far less superior than in-person instruction, this can be explained, in part, by how schools were rapidly forced to integrate Zoom-based course delivery than any general failure of remote learning. Imagine going to a bank to make a deposit or cash a check to understand why students will probably not want to spend time commuting or physically interacting with instructors when a far simpler and more frictionless option exists. 

Don’t be surprised if more colleges start splitting out room and board when pitching education affordability.  
For most families, paying for college is anything but affordable. Many families learned over this past year that a college education and college experience are two different things. One of the easiest and fastest ways for colleges to optically drive down the cost of an education is to get consumers focused on the affordability of instruction (tuition and fees) while counseling them to responsibly minimize debt for indirect costs, like room and board. 

Students will increasingly want “proof” of quality for the price they pay. 
This past spring, many institutions signaled they wouldn’t offer refunds for canceled semesters, and it didn’t sit well with students. When schools announced they were going virtual for the following fall term, yet still planning on charging the same tuition rates, it created a great deal of backlash. When some institutions started discounting tuition in response, they set in motion the precedent that online course delivery was different. At the same time (and for the first time), schools inadvertently put a price on the non-academic aspect of the student experience, which some suggest institutions rely on to justify a high-tuition and high-aid enrollment strategy. 

Today’s students are becoming increasingly less tolerant of a consumer experience that doesn’t mimic how they buy other goods.  
As enrollments fell across nearly all institution types this past fall. The one sector that saw growth was proprietary (for-profit) providers. While many factors likely help explain the bump, two things many agree that the sector has done remarkably well are minimize enrollment and financing frictions. 

As consumers, students have become accustomed to shopping for (and buying) goods and services in a far more technologically sleek and fuss-free environment. As the pandemic pushed thousands of institutions to move their operations – not just learning – online, they have given students and families an expectation for more interaction like this… not less.  

Remote learning means greater competition for students that institutions historically did not typically compete for.  
The pandemic showed that nearly every aspect of the college experience can be executed virtually. It highlighted the lengths institutions (that are strongly dependent on tuition revenue) will go to in order to recruit and retain students. While data shows that even when presented with virtual learning options, students are more likely to choose institutions closer to home, perhaps the biggest implication of the virtual learning revolution will be that schools willing to aggressively recruit will be well-positioned to find, and bring into the fold, students who would have been less likely to consider further-flung institutions because of their reluctance to travel. 

About the Author

Carlo Salerno

Carlo is the Vice President for Research at CampusLogic. Over a 20-year career, he has done higher education research for the federal government, co-founded an education analytics company, and conducted a wide range of analyses for national advocacy groups and the student lending industry. He writes and frequently speaks on the economics of higher education.

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