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The fact that colleges are facing financial straits has been well covered, even before coronavirus. Now some colleges already have made statements that the fall might continue in a virtual setting, and even potentially the spring 2021 semester. And a spate of new class action lawsuits is seeking refunded tuition from colleges that have switched to providing online classes.

Colleges still holding out hope to resume "business as usual" in the fall are doing themselves and their students a disservice. Here’s what they should be doing instead.

  • Debt-free degree. Not all colleges can front tuition, but they should all stand by their product. Purdue is one of the few institutions that offers income share agreements as a way to help pay for college with less debt (though their ISAs are not offered to freshmen). ISAs are typically paid back based on postgraduation earnings, and nothing is owed if a student’s income isn’t over a threshold amount. One way more colleges could offer this type of program is by having students take on traditional federal and private loans while they’re in school. Once a student graduates, the college refinances the student’s debt with an ISA. This should be a relatively low-risk investment since most of the risk (graduating) is removed. That way the graduate can enter the workforce and life without debt but still be on the hook for repaying their education costs in line with their income, which is fair given the positive return on investment for most degrees.
  • Experiential learning. As Northeastern University’s former vice president for new ventures, it still amazes me that Northeastern’s experiential learning model -- respected universally -- isn’t emulated universally. Yes, it is an expensive undertaking to provide personalized applied work and learning opportunities throughout college. But it is imminently achievable. Colleges would be smart to make that investment now, especially if online learning becomes a lasting part of college education. Even if institutions can’t or won’t adopt the co-op model of education, where students take semester-long sabbaticals from college to work full-time, Northeastern’s Experiential Network is an example of a relatively low-cost, scalable way to provide networking and real-world experience in a co-curricular model through project-based learning. Davidson College recently announced a similar “micro-internship” program.
  • Adopting mentor programs. This crisis is stressful for everyone, and students in particular need to know they’re not alone and have access to a support system that can aid them, motivate them, connect them and more. On campus, there are many outlets, often with clear demarcated physical spaces based on the need. But online resources can be hard to find, and studying from home without peers can feel very lonely. Even when colleges reopen, online mentoring networks are more scalable and can cover a wider range of student services from career services, mental health, tutoring and even just finding someone to talk to.
  • Accepting any credits from anywhere. More colleges should accept transfer credits from community colleges and pathway programs such as StraighterLine. This would help them enroll transfer students to help offset lower first-time enrollment. They should also help students reduce their cost by accepting AP credit and CLEP. Make it easier to transfer credit and there are millions more students to recruit. According to a recent Christensen Institute paper, first-time transfer students lose 43 percent of their credits on average, which effectively means they have to pay for half their previous college credits twice and increase their time to completion by half the time they’ve previously spent. Interoperability in college credits so students can graduate without paying for unused credits and spending scarce time and money should be a goal for the higher education community.
  • Varsity athletics should become club sports. Only 2 percent of NCAA student athletes go pro, and the vast majority of the benefits of competitive sports can be had in club and intramural settings. While the financial costs and benefits of varsity athletics might vary from college to college, some institutions are taking proactive steps to shore up their finances and make tough decisions. For example, the University of Cincinnati cut its men’s soccer program. Many colleges should consider a similar move for all sports. That’s money that can go to esports, club and intramural sports, dance, and other student programs and services, not to mention, for some colleges, athletic scholarship money that could be shifted to need-based financial aid.
  • Late enrollment, or waived deposits until census day. In this confusing and challenging time, students need more flexibility from colleges. Students are trying to make high-stakes decisions about their future amid all the uncertainty about how long this will last, how much college will cost, how much they’ll be able to earn after graduation and, if they’re a dependent, their parents’ ability to support them if they’ve lost a job, lost their savings or become sick. Very few colleges are likely to overenroll this coming academic year. So they should provide the maximum flexibility to prospective students, allowing them to waive their deposit fee or withdraw all the way until drop/add is over. The University of Oregon, Middlebury College and others have taken laudable steps toward this, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling has released an enrollment deposit fee waiver form that could be adopted broadly.

While these are just six things colleges should be doing to help students and survive this particular crisis; they should also be future-proofing their model. Even if, miraculously, students can return to campus this fall (“not likely”), college in America as it existed at the start of the spring 2020 semester will have forever changed. Students will more closely scrutinize cost and be looking for more value. Colleges would be wise to invest in technology and professional development so that they are not just prepared for different scenarios for the fall, but are in a better position to leverage technology for the future.

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