Is higher education ready to get back to work?

How do we recover from the new normal? Coming back after COVID.

Today, higher education is coping with an emergency change to a new world where classes and most universities had to immediately move everything online, despite not really knowing what “online” means for instruction or operations. A world where we can’t see or touch our customers, students or our employees. Where the timeline for getting back to normal is vague at best.

In the middle of this pandemic, it is hard to take time to think about the future because of the disruption level in every aspect of our lives. But the changes we are experiencing will profoundly affect how we face the next new normal. We have to be planning for that as well. And we can draw on recovery experiences during past weather-related emergencies such as hurricanes along the Gulf coast.

In higher education, the forces of another tidal wave of changes have been threatening colleges and universities for some time. Those changes, of fewer students, with smaller means to pay, of the culture changes required to meet the needs of a more diverse student body, has already forced closures and disruption. Worse, many institutions bet increased spending on enrollment growth which has not materialized while the unrelenting mortgages have.

Smart leaders have been planning for these changes. But the post-pandemic era will drive more and different changes that will deepen the challenges already in play and those schools that are ready will be able to transform and lead the next era of academia. It is important to note that this is not a rehash of the overblown disruption expectations of distance education, MOOCs, or for-profit schools that have been the subject of fevered discussion and failed to materialize.

These challenges will affect each school differently. There will certainly be some students who prefer the face-to-face, residential models. Some families will still be able to afford them. But in a recovering economy, where tax revenues impact state funding priorities, and where a distaste for student loans and skepticism about the value of college educations have been emerging headwinds, there is much work to do to remain viable and relevant.

When the first post-COVID semesters begin, almost all faculty will have taught at least a class online. Almost all students will have taken them. And almost all employees will have productively worked from their home offices. That is going to amplify the changes we are already seeing in higher education and break down barriers and traditional resistance to the possibilities that a more flexible approach offers.

And worse, for some schools, it is going to further reduce the potential pool of students and employees. Why, if students are struggling to afford an education or prefer not to borrow so much, can’t they work and take classes at home? Why would someone who is financially constrained pay for a dorm room when have a bedroom? For talented faculty and staff, why wouldn’t we take a better job with better pay without leaving our home? 

So, expect a further reduction in the number of students coming to campus.  Also a more competitive environment for faculty and staff talent. An increase in part-time and working students. Reduced barriers to taking classes from the competition. And an economy that may not be fully recovered enough to drive philanthropy. Pressure from all sides.  

And now, we need to not just pivot from a pandemic, we have to plan for a new environment, not just return to business as usual.

Are we ready for business as unusual?

There are a few key strategies we need to implement now. Because the universities who get this right first have a huge competitive advantage. We need to do the following right now to be ready for the future

1. Enable distance workers with policies and support. We’ve had our teams working remotely during the pandemic and we need to break through old thinking about whether this is a good thing.  Any employer can have access to a national marketplace of talent that has already been working remotely and our employees have access to a national marketplace of forward-thinking employers that don’t need them to relocate.  We want to be in the group of people that can retain the great employees they already have that want to work from home and can also access that new marketplace of talent.  This does not mean they have to work from home every day, but we need to be changing the rules because other schools will be.  

2. Reduce work-at-home friction. Provide the right technology and security but also think about how to optimize the home study and work environment. Recognize that there are OSHA issues for people working from home and connect policy to resources to ensure good chairs and safe and comfortable technology environments. Think about deals with network providers, and become familiar with laws in other states where our new employees might be.

3. Support our faculty. Faculty are now experienced in delivering content online but they’re not necessarily experts in distance education pedagogy. Seize the moment to help them excel. We will need to hire instructional designers and coaches who can help faculty move online. We also need to recognize that increasing diversity requires different ways of delivering instruction online as well as different ways of working. A generation of students raised on academic teamwork in high school may need assistance working alone in their homes. Faculty who are teaching across a country may need help with more than just cultural issues. Opportunities suddenly exist to use the national marketplace to build a more diverse team than might be possible in our home towns.

4. Our People are our Brand. Students won’t just attend our schools because of our brands. We need to personalize the connection as well. That personal connection has been missing from our lives and we want it back. Our students will want to know who will be teaching their classes. And our diversity will be on display.

5. Reduce our spend on real estate. If we’re enabling distance workers, we don’t need as much real estate inventory. If we’re enabling remote education, we probably don’t need as many new dorms. Quality, not quantity is critical. We can optimize costs through careful planning now. This does not mean the arms race for better facilities is over, it means we need more focus on delivering at a distance.

6. In key locales, consider leased space to project presence. Students like to be able to see each other and even those who want the convenience of home study will want to be able to be around each other. Spinning up a remote classroom is not the same thing as building a remote campus. Get spaces, hire some student support staff, and make it easy for students to come together. Test it and spin it down if it doesn’t work.

7. Don’t forget IT. Our IT staff are used to changing technology but not cultural change. We need them to keep up and fortunately we will have some clear heroes that can help grow the new IT organizations.

8. Enable distance customers. We need to develop an inventory of our products and services and focus on those that can be delivered remotely. Can any be delivered to the customer over the internet? We also need to not forget about nearby customers — we need to make it easy for people who don’t want to leave home or jobs to take classes in our communities, especially as family and community connections may have been strengthened by the pandemic.

9. Review lessons learned and strengthen our business continuity programs. There will be another emergency at some point and thick plans that no one reads will not help us. We need to make sure our plans are actionable, specific, and checklisted, while there is no emergency. And we need to practice and practice and practice.

10. Recognize our humanity. This is a huge change for people. Most of us have had lifelong views of work and school and how it should operate that have been rattled. Recognize work and school can happen outside the 8-5 window and that work and study from home necessarily involves different interruptions and competition for resources like bigger screens or desks.

Jim Bradley has served as a higher education technology leader for more than thirty years with significant experience in preparing for weather emergencies and business continuity efforts as well as supporting systems that deliver distance education.