The Pandemic & Higher Ed: Will College in America Ever Look the Same?

How will higher education institutions like Dickinson College (pictured above) change in the wake of the ongoing pandemic keeping students off campus? Photo by Joe O’Neill for Dickinson College

As part of an ongoing series that examines the rapid changes to our world and way of life, Artemis Ward is gathering thoughts and analysis from leaders and experts to shed light on what’s already happening and offer insight on what’s to come.

August 10, 2020
By Chris Maier

Next month, colleges and universities around the country will start Round 2 of online learning, the unabating pandemic (in the U.S., anyway) keeping students and faculty off campuses and instead in virtual classrooms, not unlike the end of the recent spring semester.

But a few weeks of interrupted learning is one thing.

It’s another when students are beginning college for the first time, faculty are preparing perhaps a years’ worth of digital lesson plans, and tuition bills are coming due, undiscounted, for what promises to be a vastly different experience.

To help sort out what the coming year looks like for higher education, Artemis Ward’s creative director, Chris Maier, recently caught up with Robert Massa, the vice president emeritus of enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College and adjunct professor of higher education at the University of Southern California. As a leading voice in higher education administration for more than four decades, he’s also helped shape the admissions and communications practices at Johns Hopkins UniversityDrew University, and Lafayette College.

(Below is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.)

How has the pandemic impacted higher education?

In spring, institutions had to pivot almost immediately to online instruction — and since then, they have spent an inordinate amount of money to move curricula from traditional to online. They’re also expending an excessive amount of money to make their campuses safe. And when they’re doing those two things at once, they’re not doing other things that move the institution forward.

So, they’re basically in crisis mode right now trying to respond to this worldwide pandemic. It’s forced institutions to move quickly — something they’re not particularly good at.

How are these changes affecting students?

One thing I hear the most — you’re not going to be surprised with this — is that when students think of college, out-of-class activity and the interaction with their friends is a big part of what they think about. Yes, it’s about learning. And yes, it’s about instruction and getting a degree. But it’s also about building community and having fun and being out on your own, in some cases for the first time. So that’s very different, particularly for college freshmen. It’s not the experience that they thought they were signing up for.

Colleges are in crisis mode right now and they’re forced to move quickly — something they’re not particularly good at.

This also impresses upon students their responsibility in a community, in a very real way. What you do — or don’t do — can impact not only you but your friends. So institutions are conveying that information to students. And I think students are beginning to realize that they have a significant role to play in this.

What challenges does this pose when it comes to college selection?

Students now have to be much more purposeful. You can’t just pop into a college fair and browse tables, see a university name that you recognize and grab a brochure or talk to somebody. That’s out the window. You also aren’t going to meet with a college counselor who’s visiting your high school because they’re not going to be in high schools. The students have to do a lot more work on their own.

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Massa (left) and former NFL running back Joe Morris present a scholarship to a Drew University undergraduate in 2016.

How are college admissions departments adapting?

Colleges have to be more purposeful, too — especially doing a better job of data-mining and getting the word out. And that includes tracking web traffic and getting a sense from where students are visiting their websites. Colleges also need to be a lot more intentional about the information they push out because they can’t rely on in-person visits.

Now, the virtual tours and the online chats with students who have the same interests as you and who may be from the same geographic area as you — all of that has to be planned and executed well by the college admissions office. It’s very, very different from setting up appointments in high schools.

What’s your take on lowering the price of tuition to attract and retain students?

The institutions that are discounting for online learning are two types of institutions. The first type is those who are very, very wealthy and can afford it, and they want to seem like they’re good guys, so it’s worth it to them. Plus, they have a very high percentage of full payers — students who won’t have financial aid. They can afford to do that. The other institutions discounting are lower-ranked institutions that know if they don’t discount, they’re going to lose students because they don’t have the pull. But if the school is in the middle of the pack, they can’t afford to reduce tuition. They have to recover their costs.

Shouldn’t costs be lower for online learning?

Many don’t see that tuition goes primarily to pay for the costs of instruction. Room and board, and activities fees and athletic fees mostly support the out-of-class activities. If you’re online, you don’t pay those, but because of the additional technology and academic support required, the actual cost of instruction has gone up.

So, budgets will be tight, because expenses are higher. And when budgets are tight, then you have to cut something. The pandemic is going to force colleges to contract. There are hard decisions that have to be made any time your expenses exceed your revenue. And for many colleges, expenses are exceeding revenue on an annual basis, and they have to make hard decisions.

Once the pandemic is over, and there’s both the treatment drug and a vaccine, a lot of what we have learned, in terms of cost savings, will remain, because we’ve had to spend a lot of money to put our courses online and to make our campuses safe.

Is online learning in traditional higher education here to stay?

My answer to that is: yes. Obviously, there won’t be as much online, but there will be some, no question about it. And that’s a huge change — particularly among small liberal arts colleges — because there’s been big resistance to online on the part of faculty. I’m not suggesting that liberal arts colleges will be 50 percent online, but there will be an online component. And that’s good because it has the potential to reach more students.

Meanwhile, there’s a racial justice and equity movement parallel tracking the pandemic. How does that also affect students’ return to campus?

Right now we’re dealing with a global pandemic. And we’re confronting our racist attitudes. And it also comes at a time of a very important national election that has the potential to really shift the way our government is thinking about and executing on these issues.

This is where virtual learning has a really hard time replicating in-person. If you were on campus, there would be a forum exploring race in America, there would be lectures, there would be opportunities for student groups to get together — you just don’t get that same synergy online. So that’s one of the unfortunate aspects of this social isolation that we’ve been forced into.

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Institutions like Yale (pictured above) will likely survive the pandemic. Others, however, face an uncertain future. Photo courtesy of Yale University.

What other stakeholders play a role in deciding how institutions respond to these major changes?

The community itself — not the college campus community, but the town or city in which it is located — has to be involved. And while, for the most part, colleges and universities have done a great job at involving all the stakeholders (students, faculty, administrators, even alumni) they oftentimes forget to involve the community. If you don’t involve community members, you’re going to subject yourself to a lot of criticism and bad will.

How will college students be different in five years?

Some students will always believe that they’re invulnerable. But there are others who are careful. And I think those who are careful are, five years from now, going to still be careful. And those who are happy-go-lucky will continue to do that. Basically, I think students will probably go back to just being 18 to 22-year-olds.


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