At the start of what will soon be known around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education industry leaders are beginning to fear the worst. Within days, colleges and universities across the country announced their continuity of service plans to provide instruction and support students remotely. Using a combination of digital communication technologies, messaging platforms, and learning management systems, organizations have been able to continue operations and maintain market share for students.
In honor of the work of several institutions that have successfully transitioned into the online space, in the fall of 2020, NASPA called on researchers, education technology experts, and higher education professionals, including myself, to advise them on what became the Virtual Innovation Award: Excellence in Delivering Virtual Student Services. From more than 100 submissions from colleges and universities, NASPA’s team of advisors selected 10 institutions for award using the following eight categories: communication building, holistic approach, ingenuity, equity focus, scalability and sustainability, strategic use of technology, collaboration, and use of data.
However, the truth is that not every higher education institution has been fortunate enough to demonstrate this flexibility. Some began to bend under epidemic conditions. And while those of us who work in institutions that have so far remained resilient might be inclined to sigh, that would be a mistake. As I will point out, even award-winning colleges are not necessarily immune to the challenges that continue to face higher education.
After years of financial struggles, McMurray College in Illinois announced its closure early on, followed by Baker College in Massachusetts and Mills College in California. However, Mills has since merged with Northeastern University. Closures, mergers, and other shifts in an effort to reach sustainability are reflected in the reports of the National Center for Education Statistics. Since the 2018-2019 school year, the number of institutions eligible for federal financial aid grants has decreased from 6,281 to 6,063, or 3.47 percent. For the general two-year college sector, the number of institutions decreased from 963 to 920, or 4.46 percent. However, it is important to note that the NCES data as presented does not fully take into account the number of two-year institutions reclassified due to the introduction of baccalaureate programs.
Despite this unfortunate reality, financial experts have predicted that more institutions are scheduled to close or merge than do so. Such an ordeal is derailed in large part by urgent action by lawmakers to bail out American colleges and universities.
The CARES Act signed into law by Congress in March 2020 allocated $2.2 trillion to aid Americans negatively affected by the pandemic. Of that money, nearly $14 billion is earmarked for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or HEERF. Then, in January 2021, the US Department of Education announced an additional $21.2 billion tranche for higher education. Most recently, in March, the Third Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, known as the American Rescue Plan, was signed into law, providing $39.6 billion to support higher education institutions to serve students and ensure learning continues during the pandemic. In total, since March 2020, higher education has received $74.8 billion to keep working and serving students, while providing emergency aid to students affected by COVID-19.
Across the country, colleges have been granted financial reprieves for what would have been a death sentence, preventing what would have been an insurmountable increase in institutional closures and mergers. Terms such as “innovation” and “resilience” have been used to describe the actions of many organizations that use HEERF, while terms such as “disruption” have been used to describe times. Although I believe that COVID-19 is an unprecedented disruptor and accelerator in higher education, I also believe that an important question remains unanswered. Is higher education truly innovating and transforming to meet the basic needs and expectations of its students? Or, has higher education simply found an “innovative” and “flexible” way to keep business as usual?
Moments before the pandemic, there was a national conversation going on about waning public confidence in higher education and ways to tackle it. Undoubtedly, HEERF funds have removed barriers for students to continue their studies and promoted equitable success for students for those severely affected by COVID-19. However, in some conversations I’ve had with fellow university presidents across the country, I’ve heard about the belief that HEERF has helped restore public trust in higher education—a notion that I wholeheartedly consider wrong. Public distrust has been tempered at best by how colleges use HEERF money, and trust in higher education is far from recovering.
Based on recent guidelines from the Department of Education, higher education institutions generally must spend their HEERF grants within one year from the date the Department processes funds for each specific grant. This means that for many institutions, access to HEERF funds will cease in 2022. How will institutions serve students once additional support ends? How will institutions find ways to provide student support and guidance in line with students’ expectations? How will organizations work creatively with industry to develop new pathways to employment or find breakthrough means to enhance social and economic mobility? All with the aim of breaking down the social barriers that have prevented the success of our diverse students and their communities.
The equitable success of students requires that institutions adopt a new ideology and methodology for how they serve students. Our societies are asking organizations to stop using logos and marketing campaigns to hide unaddressed gaps in operations and services. The era requires organizations to stop being initiative-driven and begin to be mission-driven. Essentially, this means making an integrated commitment, through strategic planning and mission alignment, to ensuring continuous, long-term improvement of student support that is intentionally integrated into the fabric of the institution. The future of higher education, and the restoration of public confidence in it, depends on colleges and universities embracing the inclusivity of being student-centered institutions and deconstructing college business as usual.