Meeting the Grand Challenges to Higher Ed: The Pandemic

Shortly after EDUCAUSE conducted its survey of higher ed presidents, provosts, Chief Information Officers (CIOs), and Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) but before it published Grajek and Brooks’ Grand Challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The pandemic caused the closure of most campuses, required students and faculty to learn and teach from home, and impacted the revenue and expense stream of most colleges and universities.

Researchers Grajek and Brooks were in the process of follow-up interviews with some of the leaders surveyed. Conversations that took place in March and April included the original four Grand Challenges. However, new conversations surfaced regarding crisis mitigation, the health and safety of students and staff, and how a digital transformation could help their institutions lower costs and improve the delivery of education during a crisis like the pandemic. As a result of those conversations, COVID-19 was added as the fifth Grand Challenge.

As I wrote in previous posts, American Public University System (APUS) has been engaged in a digital transformation during all the years of my service as its president. Other than our doctoral programs which require annual seminars for each doctoral cohort, all of our other programs operate totally online. As the situation evolved and the news indicated the presence of increasing infections and the likelihood that businesses would be required to operate remotely or increase social distancing, we initiated an early morning call with a group of leaders to discuss our continuity planning.

From a good news perspective, with all of our classes already online, we did not have to change that structure for students or faculty. At the same time, we knew that students and faculty could have personal situations arise that might disrupt their ability to continue with classes or to enroll in new classes. We communicated with students and faculty that we understood the unfolding situation and would be accommodating to their individual situations, should they need to withdraw from a class or ask someone else to teach the class.

As an institution serving more than 80,000 students, we also have nearly 900 staff members whose roles encompass admissions, academic counseling, academic outreach, career counseling, financial aid, billing, accounts payable, payroll, marketing, information technology, instructional design, military outreach, office of the registrar, transfer credit evaluation, alumni affairs, student affairs, graduation, accreditation, assessment, finance, and more. These individuals were located at our campus in Charles Town, WV, or our satellite location in Manassas, VA. Some worked from home. Many of them travel for university-related meetings or conferences.

After beginning our communications to students and faculty, our continuity committee recommended in late February that air travel and travel to conferences be significantly reduced. We also recommended that anyone who had to travel on behalf of the university self-quarantine at home for 14 days before returning to the office.

On March 9, we cancelled all conference attendance until further notice. We decided that we would announce to all staff that we were going to close our offices on March 16 and work from home until the situation improved in West Virginia, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland.

It may seem like a week is very little time to plan to transition all APUS staff to a work from home situation, but we had made a decision in 2010 that proved beneficial. That year, a weather storm called a derecho raged through Virginia, Maryland, and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. As a result, many of our employees lived in communities without utility service and the utilities to our buildings in West Virginia and Manassas were impacted as well.

As a result, we decided that we needed to build an infrastructure that would allow our staff members to work remotely, whether it was from home or a hotel or a temporary office. We replaced all desktop computers with laptops computers. We upgraded our phone system to include a VPN (virtual private network) that would match an employee’s laptop to their phone extension whenever an employee was logged into the VPN, regardless of their location.

Also, we distributed phone headsets to all employees as we issued new laptop computers. We never had to schedule a practice session utilizing the system, thanks to several snow days each winter when we advised employees to take their laptops home in case the roads were unsafe the next day. Working from home was going to be like a series of snow days. The only question was how many consecutive snow days.

Like many institutions, APUS had a number of tools available for teleconferences, including Zoom. In the week before we transitioned all of our staff to work remotely, we decided to increase the number of licenses that we purchased for our Zoom software license.

We also surveyed departments to find out what extra equipment (monitors, printers, etc.) would be necessary for employees to work from home and continue to be productive. We arranged to ship equipment to homes as well as to connect equipment to a special communications line in a few cases where security or speed was important.

The shift of our staff from an office to working from home has gone well. While those with children or spouses working from home may have had unforeseen distractions, we have accommodated requests for schedule changes that made working from home easier on  employees and their families.

APUS has steadfastly looked toward technology innovations for efficiencies in operations in order to remain aligned with our mission of providing an affordable and quality education to our students. The majority of our systems were built to serve our students. Having a technical infrastructure that allowed our staff to continue to serve our students from home provided APUS with a leg up on many traditional colleges and universities.

After a week or two of working from home, a challenge was posed to our continuity committee to see if there was something that APUS could offer to students from other institutions, who may have been forced to drop classes due to the pandemic. We wanted the offer to be genuine and something that could work within our existing systems, programs, and courses.

We eventually focused on the idea that our average class size for undergraduate classes was 17, even though we capped our class sections at 25. Thus, we had excess capacity in the system of classes that started every month. We also decided that we did not want an offer to be construed as an attempt to attract students to transfer from other universities.

Eventually, we decided to offer any displaced college student a 50% tuition scholarship for up to two online courses to be transferred back to their institution, provided they were taken between May and August. We proposed the offer to our board, who approved it. We issued a press release and a landing page for interested students.

Even though we did not spend money to advertise the scholarship, we received interest from several hundred students and approximately 100 enrolled over the summer. We have not decided if we would continue it during the fall, but I think it’s a possibility given the increasing number of cases during this pandemic and the return to online education for many campuses.

For years, APUS has offered mental health counseling through our University Chaplain. As the pandemic continued, we received reports that the number of requests for mental health counseling had increased. We increased the number of counselors and continue to monitor the situation. While the issue and the solution were not technology related, this is an example of how our student-centric culture provides us with the feedback to adjust our staffing to meet the needs of our students.

Early in our evolution as an online university, we learned that working adult students prefer to take classes based on their work schedule and life schedule. Over time, we can infer that certain groups of students will sign up for a similar number of courses each year.

However, predicting an individual’s enrollment pattern is difficult. It appears at this point in time that the social distancing and work from home policies may have increased the number of courses that our returning students will take this year. Thanks to our systems that enable us to schedule the vast majority of our courses for starts each month, we will be able to accommodate any increase in course enrollments by returning students.

Lastly, APUS’s student-centric, affordable education focus has driven our development of systems that allow us to measure how quickly and effectively we respond to student requests in almost all of our departments. These measurements allow us to set staffing levels in accordance with projected enrollments and expected service levels.

Based on the data captured in our systems, our staff have continued to meet or exceed our student service level expectations. We received feedback confirming our data from a survey of our students. As our enrollments increased in the second calendar quarter, we were able to determine in real time where we needed to supplement our staffing in order to maintain the student service level.

EDUCAUSE’s decision to add a fifth Grand Challenge related to the pandemic was reasonable. The ability of APUS to continue its operations without disruption was due to its digital transformation many years ago. Not only have our systems enabled us to efficiently scale many non-academic departments in a cost-effective manner, but they have also enabled us to continue to respond at the same level that we did prior to the pandemic.

For institutions considering a digital transformation, my advice is to remember the five-step process includes more than digitization and digitalization. It involves workforce and culture changes. An institution needs to be ready, willing, and able to embrace those changes in order for the outcomes to be positive.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence