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Uncertainty and fear of the unknown are weighing heavily on campus leaders in the COVID-19 era. Yet today’s defining challenges carry significant opportunities for higher education.

According to a recently released Inside Higher Ed survey sponsored by Liaison International, 89 percent of college and university presidents are concerned about the overall financial stability of their institutions, and 88 percent worry about declines in overall enrollment.

At the same time, recent history has shown that college applications can rise in the aftermath of traumatic episodes, as was the case for the dot-com bubble of 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008. In particular, academic programs in the health disciplines stand to attract increased interest because their associated professions have relatively secure job markets.

If the U.S. and the world were dealing exclusively with another economic downturn, the same outcomes would be all but assured. Admittedly, COVID-19 is different. Nobody knows when the spread of the virus will end. Some institutions and university systems are deciding to conduct the fall 2020 semester remotely, and at institutions that do reopen their campuses, students will need to be assured that returning is a safe proposition.

Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon academic institutions to deploy their energy in the service of hope and optimism, not fear. Institutions are best served focusing on matters they can actually control -- and that means working to deliver innovations and solutions to society in ways that only a crisis of this magnitude could enable.

Higher education possesses a historic opportunity in regard to populating the health professions. Just as Sept. 11 is believed to have boosted military enlistment and inspired greater admiration for first responders, coronavirus is spotlighting the contributions of nurses, epidemiologists and other health and science professionals who are working on the front lines of the pandemic. The countless health-care providers who were already everyday heroes during more normal times are now skillfully adapting their services to treat a virus with no vaccine and to embrace a challenge for which their education could not have possibly prepared them.

The steady stream of news coverage and social media activity surrounding the virus is sure to generate increased interest among younger Americans in pursuing these careers. In fact, health and science careers were already trending upward before the COVID-19 outbreak. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, job openings in health care, community services and STEM represent America’s fastest-growing occupational clusters.

Further, based on my continuing conversations with campus leaders and the presidents of academic associations, it is clear that the U.S. and the world now have unprecedented awareness about the gaps in health systems and nations’ lack of preparedness for a pandemic. During the next 10 years, that will mean a diversion of investments away from several sectors of the economy and into health care. Fields such as nursing, biomedical sciences and behavioral health, and the academic programs that feed them with new professionals, are poised to prosper in this environment.

The road ahead is complex due to the uncertainties pertaining to the reopening of campuses, international enrollment and student debt, just to name a few. But I can say with full confidence that higher education is undeterred by these challenges. My colleagues are increasingly embracing the mentality that this sector must respond to the pandemic era’s distinct needs, specifically in regard to training more professionals in fields with the greatest workforce demand and to equipping institutions with the technology they need to accomplish that goal.

When I founded Liaison International, a provider of admissions and enrollment solutions, in 1990, we placed a significant emphasis on health-care education because of the substantial opportunities that existed for streamlining and modernizing the application process for those disciplines. In the age of COVID-19, we will surely once again align our strategy with any new developments and needs that shape health education. We will work to ensure that our colleges and universities meet current and future challenges to our nation’s health-care needs.

Liaison already collaborates with various professional associations in order to bring more students and future employees into the health professions. For these associations, we manage discipline-specific centralized application services -- cloud-based recruiting and admissions solutions with complementary services that help institutions grow and shape enrollment through exposure to broader and more diverse applicant pools. With institutions fearing that international and out-of-state enrollment will plummet due to the pandemic, it will be of paramount importance to boost recruitment from more remote and rural regions in states, or among adult learners, service members and veterans, commuters, and other new applicant pools.

These same association partners are also key contributors to, an online gateway to more than 100 professions that provides vetted, free career information to the public about the health-care fields. The gateway answers people’s questions about whether a career in health care is right for them, how to pay for college and how to find a career that best fits their skills and abilities, among other things.

Higher education institutions and associations are already taking bold and necessary steps. In Boston and New York, they are offering students the chance to graduate early in order to treat the growing numbers of patients infected with coronavirus. The Association of Psychology & Internship Centers is now including telephone-based mental health services as an approved method of accruing clinical hours, and the Council on Social Work Education is allowing students who have completed 85 percent of their placement hours to be evaluated as having met their full field placement requirements.

Higher education is well positioned to respond to COVID-19 by pioneering the academic and professional pathways that help create a healthier world. Colleges and universities should increase their efforts to connect potential applicants to health programs with comprehensive information about those careers, while nurturing current applicants and accepted students with thoughtful and timely communication regarding the ongoing fallout from the pandemic.

This historic opportunity awaits if colleges and universities step forward to seize it.

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