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Despite their best efforts to train staff to deliver virtual lectures, troubleshoot IT issues, respond to student queries and tackle dozens of other challenges that accompany the decision to take the fall 2020 semester online, colleges and universities are still faced with the big question: Will it all be enough?

Nearly half of high school seniors in the United States are likely to defer enrollment or look for a different institution if faced with remote learning this fall, according to a McKinsey and Company report, and 50 to 70 percent of college students expect tuition discounts if online lectures are the new normal in the approaching semester.

Not exactly encouraging numbers for beleaguered institutions, which are already battling revenue losses on multiple fronts and are in no position to reduce tuition. It is also worth noting that high school seniors, who have already had to settle for virtual graduations and online prom, aren’t keen to begin college life from their bedrooms and have had a nice, long lockdown to figure out what else they could be doing with their time come September.

So how can colleges justify charging the same fees, without losing pupils to deferred admissions requests?

They need to make sure they offer students the best chance to start a rewarding career in the midst of an economic crisis and a global pandemic. A tall order, but an entirely manageable one, if colleges leverage the resources they already have to cater to an increasingly discerning student body. Fewer students can afford to go to college simply because it is the natural next step in their education, so those that do care far more about career outcomes. Colleges that are quick to recognize that and adapt their offerings to address these newfound priorities will emerge from this crisis as leaders in higher education.

Based on our research, here are the top four asks students, both undergraduate and graduate, have for colleges in order for fall 2020 to be worth their while.

No. 1: Evidence of investment in initiatives that support career building during the pandemic. Aseem Saxena, a machine learning engineer at Panasonic, chose to forgo the fall semester of his master’s degree in robotics in Oregon in favor of beginning next spring. “I’m definitely worried about the impact online classes will have on career services,” he told us. “The university where I got my undergraduate degree had a great program where students got to work on relevant projects, through a partnership between the university and industry. I’d really like to see some version of that now, especially since we’re all worried COVID-19 will hurt the job market in general.”

Students are quickly realizing that online and blended learning will feature more prominently in their college experience than they had initially bargained for. Most see this as a compromise to getting a traditional, on-campus degree with the luxury of face-to-face peer interaction and full-time access to facilities like laboratories and libraries. This means they will re-evaluate whether college is still their best shot at the career they want.

It is incumbent on higher education institutions to prove their value in helping students lock down job offers. In a 2016 report, more than 80 percent of students said that getting a job was a key factor in their decision to attend university; one can only imagine that number rising in a world teetering on the brink of an economic downturn.

Colleges must be laser focused on preparing students to be as career ready as possible and must play a bigger role in facilitating co-ops, externships and project-based learning through industry partnerships. Regular check-in emails from institutions are unlikely to capture the interest of students mulling a gap year unless they directly outline initiatives to boost internship opportunities, build real-world skills and connect with employers.

Now is the time for college decision makers to shake up their budgets and invest in new programs and technology that will prepare students for careers in 2020. Increased financial support for students who want remote internships, partnering with ed-tech firms with a track record of upgrading the learning experience and even investing more in mental health services could go a long way. It’s all about showing students that colleges are in touch with the real world and are committed to preparing them for it.

No. 2: A real answer to the question “What will college look like in the fall?” Divya Mirlay was meant to move to Hamburg, Germany, to start a two-year writing program in July, but she decided to defer her admission by four months. “They offered us an online alternative but didn’t go into much detail about what that would look like,” she said. “After a few days of asking around, I decided I didn’t want to risk it. What would’ve made me feel better is if they gave me a detailed road map and said things like: here’s how the school will help you make industry connections if internships aren’t possible for the next eight months -- here’s what’s going to happen instead.”

While regular communication and transparency from universities is high on most wish lists, students are very clear that they are not impressed by hollow updates from the university communications office. Luckily, it is fairly easy for universities to rectify this by improving on the content of their communication with students, without having to bear additional expenses.

The upcoming semester will be a period of uncertainty for everyone, deans of colleges included, but students still want a full understanding of what a typical day of remote learning will look like.

“Should I defer my fall 2020 admit?” is the top question being asked on all their group texts right now, and most feel they can only make that decision when they know exactly what to expect.

No. 3: Reassurance that colleges will adapt without compromising traditional benefits. Anisha Mascarenhas, who works at a tech company in India, was due to begin graduate school in North Carolina this fall. However, when she read the university’s plan for online classes for her computer science degree on the college website, it didn’t inspire confidence. She decided to defer her admit by a year. “I just don’t want to be part of that guinea pig batch that gets experimented on!” she explained to us. “One of the biggest reasons I wanted to study in the United States was to get to experience life on campus with other students. Now I don’t even know if I’ll get regular opportunities that students usually have -- will there still be TA and RA jobs that I can apply for?”

Mascarenhas makes a good point. Whatever plans colleges are making for the year ahead, every student wants to know how the new normal will play out for them. This means as much specificity as possible: personalized communication from department heads that outline projects, opportunities or campus jobs available for individual classes are likely to be received more positively than a general update meant for the entire student body.

No. 4: Clarity about networking opportunities with peers, alumni and employers. Singapore-based Bhavana Balakrishnan and her husband, Sai Visesh Suresh, both applied for M.B.A. programs in Chicago and were accepted by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, respectively. Balakrishnan had quit her job to attend college by the time the pandemic gathered force, and Suresh had already deferred his admission once. In addition, they were both keen to complete business school and live in the same city together, so they decided not to alter their plans to attend in the fall.

“We’ve second-, third- and fourth-guessed our decisions to attend this year, but for us it boiled down to personal factors,” Suresh admitted, adding that he was empathetic to peers who had decided differently. “It's borderline unjustifiable to spend the kind of money an M.B.A. needs under normal circumstances. But with such a potentially diluted experience, there's no wonder there's a huge uproar.”

Balakrishnan agrees. “For an M.B.A., 75 percent of the degree is the social aspect, which everyone knows just won’t be the same this year.”

Colleges must actively promote remote icebreaker events or brown-bag lunch hours over Zoom or Google Meet and announce active partnerships with industry. Students want to be assured that they aren’t losing out on networking opportunities. It is more important than ever to harness alumni networks and roll out online career mentorship programs, so students don’t feel isolated.

Career services departments will have to prove they are crucial to the job hunt, rather than merely helpful.

How higher education institutions handle the fall 2020 semester will be vital in determining student behavior over the next few years. While there is a general sense of optimism that life will go back to normal within a year’s time, those that are innovative in the coming months stand to benefit if students who do choose to attend college have positive experiences.

At this point, the future is still uncertain for the higher education industry, but the one thing we know for sure is that student perspectives should form the basis of every institutional policy.

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