As college campuses started to shut down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks, we witnessed institutions nationwide taking a series of actions unprecedented in American higher education: the shift to remote learning, canceling the NCAA March Madness basketball tournaments and postponing commencements.
With a pandemic-induced recession looming, the current disruptions are just the tip of the iceberg. Colleges and universities will face increasingly dire financial conditions at the same time that increasing numbers of unemployed adults and young people whose families are struggling will be looking to higher education as means to improve their immediate and longer-term job prospects.
Navigating both the immediate crisis as well as changes in the long run is going to require more strategic collaboration among colleges and universities. Deeper alliances will not only save campuses precious time and resources in the coming months but also could mitigate the consequences of COVID-19 in the longer term.
From the beginning, institutions tackled their response to this crisis largely on their own even while looking to their counterparts around the country. Academic departments trained faculty members on pedagogical tactics and technology to shift their classes online. Admissions offices turned campus events into virtual gatherings.
Over time some decisions started to take on a herd mentality within higher education, such as a shift to pass/fail grading policies for the semester and extended admissions deadlines. To be sure, there has been some limited but helpful coordination in these early days: webinars to share best practices, associations and third-party organizations pulling together makeshift Google Docs of responses, or activating long-existing shared-services agreements. But far more is needed.
In a recent study, we found that multifaceted higher education networks are necessary to tackle complex problems when the expertise is distributed across different organizations and when the situation has no readily apparent solutions. This current crisis has all the elements for that networked solution in higher education.
Several areas are particularly ripe for a networked approach. For example, in recent weeks as professors scrambled to adjust to closed campuses, the focus was almost entirely on offering their own courses in new, remote formats. An alternative that could have worked for at least the large number of lower-division courses that are similar across campuses would be for institutions to share existing high-quality online courses with one another. Not only would this improve the average quality of content and delivery of the courses, it would free up faculty members to focus more of their time on what’s most critical to student success and well-being, especially in a crisis: advising and mentoring.
Similarly, rather than employ informal structures to share best practices in dealing with this crisis, institutions can take a page from the playbook of existing networks, such as the Achieving the Dream, the University Innovation Alliance and the American Talent Initiative, and establish official channels to tackle the similar problems they face. One immediate issue where colleges could share resources and even operational support is around the various lifelines campuses provide students, such as income, food, housing and technology -- services many of the most vulnerable students suddenly lost when their campuses shut down.
Networked colleges and universities would be better able to coordinate among themselves to pinpoint and channel resources to students with need, and would be better able to leverage tools like Edquity, which helps colleges manage emergency aid programs, or RaiseMe, which assists colleges in providing student-success microscholarships in return for completing tasks.
Perhaps the most urgent need for a networked solution to the current crisis is better collaboration among institutions around both institutional policy making and advocacy for government policy. Right now, institutions are making their own decisions about how to handle enrollment and financial questions, navigate the academic issues related to a shortened semester, and negotiate concerns with residential life. If they are advocating for government intervention, it is in their own interest, not that of the sector or higher education needs of the country.
In a previous era, higher education associations would have stepped in to shape policies and forge agreements between institutions. But recently, those organizations are led more often by the parochial needs of members rather than serving as a unified voice for higher education.
Moreover, institutions have settled into a competitive posture, driven by fear of federal antitrust enforcement, fewer financial resources from the states and consistent reinforcement in political debates that higher education is a private benefit -- and therefore should adopt the practices of any other consumer service -- rather than a public good.
Learning how others are responding to problems provides an early-warning system and informs decisions everyone is going to need to make at some point. It also builds the muscles to formulate better practices across higher education, injecting much-needed public confidence in a critical sector of the economy at a time of high anxiety.
It is also the case that what any one institution can do to contribute to the public good might actually put them at a competitive disadvantage if others don’t do the same. But if all adopt similar policies, collaborating in a networked system, then the outcome is better for everyone. Colleges can work together to ensure that their collective actions and the policies they advocate for actually help drive broad-based educational attainment, with particular concern for those -- lower-income individuals, laid-off workers and underrepresented minorities -- who have not historically had a fair shot and who will be most affected by the coming economic downturn.
Changing demographics and finances were already challenging many institutions before the coronavirus. Many were searching for a sustainable strategy that would allow them to continue pursuing their educational missions and serve as engines of opportunity for their students. This crisis only adds to the risks facing many colleges and universities and their students. The networking and collaborative infrastructure institutions build now could not only help them to survive this moment but also thrive in the future.