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Assessing the Impact

May 7th, 2020

By Preeti Vasishtha

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CIC President Richard Ekman discusses what private institutions can expect in the coming months leading up to fall.

As higher education continues to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), the national membership and service organization for small and mid-sized private colleges and universities, talked to Business Officer about what institutions can expect in the coming months.

What are the short- and long-term concerns you have heard from CIC members?

In the short term, they dealt with questions such as: How do you get students home safely? And how do you cope with international and other students who can’t go home? How do you keep them, and essential staff, safe on campus?

Now institutions are dealing with issues such as refunding fees for room and board, which most colleges and universities are offering. Some students and their families are also requesting tuition refunds because, in their view, they didn’t receive the program they expected. And many institutions have furloughed or laid off staff during this crisis. Looking forward, institutions are anticipating reduced enrollment and tuition revenue for the coming year and planning how to implement social distancing or other public health recommendations on campus.

The biggest concern is how long the pandemic will last. If institutions can’t open their doors as usual in the fall, then many colleges will face cash flow challenges, especially since many have canceled revenue-producing summer activities.

One of the key findings of the 2017 report The Financial Resilience of Independent Colleges and Universities was that the majority of small and midsize private colleges and universities are not financially at risk. What bearing does this have given the unprecedented crisis that we are in?

First, we have to be clear that, historically, only a small number of private colleges have been at risk of closure. Many, however, have been under financial pressure and have been impressively resourceful, developing new programs and revenue streams in order to remain adequately financed.

If we were having this conversation two months ago, I would have pointed out that for decades the average number of small colleges going out of business in any given year has been between zero and 10, with variation from year to year. It’s too soon to say whether that pattern will change as result of the pandemic. Much will depend on how public health considerations develop in the coming months.

What conversations or scenario planning should campus leaders of small institutions be participating in—in order to prepare for fall and given that they don’t know: if their campus will open the doors to students; how online learning will continue; if students will want to return to campus; and their inability under the current circumstances to project enrollments?

Each institution faces a unique mix of circumstances in relation to these factors, making it very hard to generalize.

I’ve heard that some institutions are planning for a 10 percent smaller entering class while others are planning for a reduction of as much as 40 percent. Most are planning for multiple scenarios, as it is simply too early to know what to expect. Many are actively planning for flexibility, creating the ability to pivot between offering instruction live or online, adapt facilities uses to accommodate social distancing, or cut costs as developments warrant.

For example, this year a number of faculty contracts and salary letters are being written with an added sentence that gives the institution the right to review salaries again once updated enrollment figures are in place. Many have put on hold hiring for open positions, both faculty and staff, until they have more information.

While it is difficult to predict, do you see most institutions yielding deposits for fall at a similar rate compared to previous years? If they are not on target, are you getting a sense of how far off they are?

It will be very difficult to make comparisons to other years, as all timelines will run late. The May 1 “candidates response” has been extended by most institutions. Deposits will come in throughout the summer, making it impossible to project reliably what the final numbers will be.

And of course, should there be subsequent outbreaks of COVID-19, many students may change their plans at short notice. This is a concern not only with new students but with returning students as well. Retention numbers for returning students will be also be unpredictable.

There is another factor this year which is unrelated to the pandemic. New Department of Justice guidelines allow institutions to continue recruiting students even after those students have declared a commitment to enroll elsewhere. [Previously, committed students were “off limits” for further recruiting, but under the new guidelines recruiting approaches can continue after a student has paid a deposit.] This change adds one more element of uncertainty.

Adding this policy change to all the uncertainty around the pandemic, I expect to see a volatile situation right up until the day classes start and as long as the public health crisis continues.

What strategies are your member institutions employing as they navigate the current environment?

We are seeing a great deal of creativity and flexibility. Many are planning for multiple possible scenarios, including a combination of online, in person, and hybrid instruction, alternative academic calendars, repurposing of facilities, and other approaches. The nimbleness of smaller private colleges and universities is an asset when the top strategic priority is to be prepared for change and uncertainty.

Should institutions be prepared to lose students because they believe that they’re not receiving the same level of education and experience online that they expected to get on campus?

Almost all colleges are already doing some online instruction. CIC’s recent report on teaching humanities online shows that well implemented, online instruction can be highly effective. The big difference is that now some institutions may sharply increase the extent to which they already make use of online instruction.

Students will react at multiple levels. Many students will value well designed online courses, while at the same time appreciating the educational benefits of face to face discussion, mentorship, and role modelling. They will not see online and in-person instruction as an either/or choice but as a both/and environment, and they will continue to seek out membership in learning communities characterized by personal interaction even as they do some academic work online.

The other consideration that draws students to campus life is what they experience and learn outside the classroom. A lot of students go to college because they want to be active in clubs and sports and other campus-based activities. They want to see their faculty members as teachers, coaches, friends, and role models and to know their fellow students as friends.

So there will continue to be a strong pull toward being part of a campus community, in ways that are safe and rewarding.

The other consideration is not student preferences but family finances. The college savings accounts of some parents may have been wiped out by this recent market crash. It is also possible that some parents who have lost their jobs won’t be able to contribute to college expenses as planned. This will put new pressure on concerns about affordability and discount rates.

While the future of higher ed is uncertain and many questions remain unanswered, we do know that higher ed, just like other industries, will not return to the same state it was in before the pandemic. How will higher ed change once we are on the other side of this crisis?

There will be some long-lasting changes to higher education. It will be up to campus leaders and policy makers to make sure that these changes are in the best interests of students. This will mean paying continued attention to cost controls and affordability; making sure online instruction meets the highest standards for student engagement and academic outcomes; and ensuring that all students who seek an immersive campus-based academic experience have access to it.

Assuming that state governments are going to be hard-pressed in the next few years to pay for a lot of new public health and economic recovery priorities, you have to ask what priority will be placed on supporting public universities. My guess is that public higher education won’t get as much support as in the past. And that, unfortunately, could narrow opportunities for a lot of well-qualified students. It could also narrow the gap in price between public and private institutions, as public institutions have to adapt to reduced state support by raising tuition and fees, which may ultimately benefit private institutions by leveling the playing field.

The longer-term issue is how we will ensure that the country has the capacity available to train the next generation of leaders and experts in all fields. This will require creativity, dedication, flexibility, and wisdom.

PREETI VASISHTHA is editor in chief, Business Officer.

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