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Higher education opportunities after COVID-19

| October 30, 2020 | 0 Comments


Beginning with the first reported pandemic in 541 AD,1 near modern-day Port Said in north-eastern Egypt, pandemics have been, by their very nature, disruptive, leaving after the crisis recedes, who knows what? COVID-19 is no different in the all-encompassing scope of its disruption.

What we know today is that higher education, both domestically and internationally, has been disrupted. Forecasts for the long-shadow implications of COVID-19 range from a five-year disruption to one of six months.

Forecasts predict anywhere from a 15% to 25% decline in enrolment [at colleges and universities], depending in which part of the world the calculations are made. (It took higher education two years to recover from the impact of the SARS epidemic.)2

This virus has put the spotlight on antiquated financial models, rigid admission and registration procedures, and dismal student progression and graduation rates.

But the virus has also presented higher education with opportunities after the dangers of COVID-19 have passed or a vaccine is discovered which makes it safe, once again, to resume normal activities.

The functional moment will pass. The virus will recede. How will colleges and universities worldwide respond to the residuals?

In this article, I outline five opportunities for higher education post-COVID-19.

Opportunity #1: Create a vision statement for your institution

A vision statement is a statement of intent and is fundamentally different from a mission statement, which is a description of the route to follow to realise the vision. Vision statements require thinking from the end backwards.

Why should an applicant enrol in your university? What do you do better than any other university? What will your university ‘look like’ after COVID-19 recedes into the background? These are vision questions.

An article by Pablo Illanes, Jonathan Law, Ana Mendy, Saurabh Sanghvi and Jimmy Sarakatsannis, published by McKinsey & Company,3 outlines the need for institutions to be capable of getting ahead of events in order to react skilfully and strategically to the crisis.

The authors caution not to wait until all the facts are in to act. They may never be. In a crisis, good now is better than perfect later. It’s long(er)-term thinking. It’s thinking with no box. It’s a plan with a vision.

Opportunity #2: Create a year-long academic programme combining the best of in-person and online learning

COVID-19 may accelerate the end of the traditional semesterbased system for collegiate registration, progression and graduation because Generation Z students are used to being online all the time.4

Edward J. Maloney, writing an article for, 5 listed several potential academic scenarios that could be implemented for the next [northern hemisphere] academic semester, including:

• beginning the autumn semester later than usual, in October or November

• moving the autumn to the spring semester

• creating a structured gap year, reducing the number of courses offered on campus and increasing the number of courses taught online

• designing separate courses for residential and online students

• allowing students to take one course at a time for three or four weeks, and

• offering a modified tutorial model of instruction, allowing students to take a common online lecture session

What would your university ‘look like’ if a personalised, yearlong academic programme contributed to reduced attrition and transfer rates? What could be the financial return on this investment?

Disruptive? Complicated? Labour intensive? Difficult to monitor? All true. However, to return to the semester-bysemester course structure is to deny one of the lasting implications of COVID-19: change. The virus has put its imprint on all facets of life, including the traditional way students accumulate the number of credits needed to graduate.

Opportunity #3: Create year-long recruitment programmes for both domestic and international students

What would your university ‘look like’ if your recruitment and admissions policies and procedures were changed to reflect the realities of the post-pandemic world?

What would your university ‘look like’ if your recruitment and admission staff created a partial virtual recruitment and admissions system? What if that system included an effective and efficient method of communicating with applicants and their parents that did not require participating in college fairs?6

Is your admissions department able to evaluate high school with greater flexibility than is now the case? If there is no longer a semester-by-semester intake of students, there is no need to evaluate credentials along that traditional timeline.

Opportunity #4: Create new business models and financing options

The virus has shed a bright light on the weaknesses of many current higher education business models, especially in colleges and universities with less than robust online course strategies and endowment portfolios.

Mat Frenz, a partner at Entangled Group, an education consulting firm, put it best:7 ‘Institutions will be forced to reconsider their business model,’ he said, ‘and make very difficult decisions about who they are and what they do.’

As part of your university’s vision team, chief financial officers would probably raise these questions: If the academic year is changed and students are enrolled in both in-person and online courses, should tuition charges be different for each method of instruction? What could the return on the investment be of improved progression and graduation rates?

It is impossible to estimate the number of colleges and universities that will be forced to suspend operations and close due to declining student enrolments and revenue because of COVID-19.

Assuming that safe, in-person instruction will not be possible until a vaccine is found, what could vulnerable universities do now to prepare not for closing, but for merging with another institution? Potential partners may be near or remote.

Is combining majors part of your criteria? Is team teaching online courses part of your school’s criteria? Can negotiations include offering dual degrees? Will merging result in better retention rates and less student loan debt? What are the benefits and the liabilities?

There can be no return to yesterday.

Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in
international student recruitment, enrolment and retention.
She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with
colleges and universities in the United States and around the
world. To view sources applicable to this article, as well as a
longer version of the article, please visit: or

Category: Spring 2020

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