What Lies Ahead

Predicting the pandemic’s long-term impact on higher education.

March 24, 2020

Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove ends with some of the most memorable, but also most painful, lines in literature:

"As we were?"
"As we were."
But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end.
“We shall never be again as we were!”

Our colleges and universities, too, shall never again be as they were.

A piece in The Wall Street Journal, entitled "Coronavirus Will Permanently Change How We Work," makes a provocative -- and to my mind, convincing -- argument: that we should not expect things to "go back to normal."

Whether or not the virus quickly subsides, a Rubicon has been crossed, and life as we knew it has been permanently altered.

"Chaotic times," the author writes, "have a way of reordering reality and, in the process, opening doors to new opportunities and mind-sets."

The article asserts that changes in the workplace, especially the pressure to work remotely, are unlikely to be reversed. Neither managers nor office workers will show much interest in returning to the status quo ante.

Will the same hold true for the academy?

I think it's likely. Endowments are taking a terrible hit and are unlikely to recover quickly. Enrollment of international students is likely to remain depressed for the foreseeable future. Admissions cycles have been disrupted, and family savings will be depleted.

Online learning -- even in its current inadequate, unsatisfactory form -- has gained a level of acceptance previously unimaginable.

With residential students forced to vacate their dorms and off-campus housing, and college sports, extracurriculars and even commencements canceled, the "collegiate experience" has suffered a body blow.

The great pandemic of 2020 may prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. But that doesn't mean that a return to normalcy is imminent.

Big events, big consequences. This is true even if that reality is not immediately apparent. It took five years before the political impact of the Occupy movement of 2011, spawned by the Great Recession, was fully felt in American politics.

We are often told that coronavirus is a black swan, one of those unpredictable, unforeseen events with extreme consequences. That's true, but also misleading. Black swan events -- like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 or the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 -- don't take place in a vacuum. It's the context that makes those events so consequential.

Even before coronavirus struck, higher education's many challenges -- especially those involving cost, student debt, equity gaps and the value of an undergraduate degree -- were obvious to anyone who cared to look. Even in the midst of the nation's longest economic expansion, many institutions were in trouble, suffering from underenrollment, climbing expenses, high debt levels and unrelenting pressures to expand student services and open or enlarge high-demand programs (in high-priced fields like computer science, data science, the health sciences and neuroscience).

To say that the pandemic struck at the worst possible time is mistaken. It struck when the stock market was booming and household incomes were slowly rising. But with campus demographics undergoing far-reaching shifts and cost savings (through reliance on adjuncts and outsourcing and public-private partnerships) and quests for new revenue sources (such as online professional master’s programs and contract research) going as far as possible, institutions already found it hard to cope.

What, then, should we expect?

  • Expect increased resistance to tuition hikes.
  • Expect legislatures to have priorities other than higher education, as they bail out airlines, small businesses, oil and gas producers, and other interest groups.
  • Expect more colleges to falter. Even if we do not see a surge in closures or mergers, don’t be surprised to see a gradual erosion of quality at many small and regional institutions.
  • Expect heightened tensions on campus, as tenure-line faculty, adjuncts, graduate students and undergraduates battle over scarce resources.
  • Expect pressure to expand online learning options at the undergraduate level to mount.
  • And expect mounting pressure to make transfer from community colleges to four-year degrees much more seamless. This might involve expanding the authority of community colleges to grant applied bachelor’s degrees or states mandating credit transfer into majors or requiring institutions to expand credit for early college/dual degree programs and prior learning experiences.

An era of growth -- new buildings, new programs, new campuses -- is likely over. A new era is about to commence.

One thing I don’t predict: I don’t expect traditional campuses to benefit, as they have in the past, from a recession, now that lower-cost options -- like Arizona State Online, Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University -- are widely available.

Let this piece end with another poignant last line. For those who imagine, mistakenly, that some miracle will restore higher education as it was, remember the conclusion of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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