Transformation and the Long Game in Higher Education

Guest Post by Dr. Phil Ice
Chief Solutions Officer, Analytikus

Phil has had a lengthy career in higher education as a faculty member, researcher, author, and entrepreneur, including an eight-year stint at APUS as a researcher and VP of our Data Analytics team. His observations and perspective of the impact on higher education of the ongoing coronavirus situation are insightful and alarming if your institution does not have a well-developed plan for resuming online classes.

Over the last week, a spate of articles has been published that detail the grim reality of the challenge being faced by higher education as institutions respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are many other articles that touch upon the same points, the following are ones that have made an impact on how I have been thinking about the challenges that higher ed is facing:

Delving deeper into the financial impact, David Wescott’s interview with Robert Zemsky for The Chronicle of Higher Education illustrates how up to 20% of institutions could face closure if the crisis drags on into the fall. Underscoring the need, a New York Times article reports that university presidents believe that in excess of $50 billion will be needed to get them through until fall; a figure far in excess of what will be provided to higher ed under the $2 trillion CARES Act.

Putting the financial situation into perspective, Wallace Boston took the estimated $163 million in refunds that the University System of Maryland is expected to pay out and extrapolated it to the national level, yielding approximately $11 billion in refunds. Notably, this is just refunds and does not include any other expenses that are being incurred, such as those for building out technical infrastructure and online course development.

Compounding the loss incurred from refunds is the assuredly decreased enrollments that institutions will see in the coming semesters. This is a function of losing highly lucrative foreign student enrollments and the reluctance, on the part of some students and parents, to pay the same tuition for online classes that they had previously paid for on-campus courses.

Additionally, a recent poll by Art and Science group found that three out of five students have expressed serious concerns about their ability to attend their first-choice college. About a third are considering taking a gap year, while others are considering part-time enrollment, enrollment in community colleges, or entering the workforce.

The Stages of Grief and Coping with Necessary Changes in Higher Education

Despite the seriousness of the challenges outlined above, the largest threat to the future of higher education may be a far more subjective threat: the grieving process. Change is a constant in our lives, but when it happens too quickly or is traumatic in nature, it threatens to overwhelm us.

When such changes are too far from our frame of reference, the sense of being overwhelmed increases dramatically. As is the case with such disruptive events, we tend to deal with them using some variant of a coping mechanism that is typically associated with grief; the Kubler-Ross model, which consists of five stages:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The following graphic from (W)right On Communications does an excellent job of depicting how each of these stages may be displayed in communication and decision making during this crisis:

crisis communications Wright

Image reproduced with the permission of (W)right On Communications.

Some Institutions Are Still in Denial of the Need for Substantial Change

In higher education, the majority of institutions have acted quickly and moved from Denial to Bargaining, with only the slightest overtones of Anger. However, when we assess the announcements that have been issued, it is clear that a sense of Denial is still pervasive.

Here are a few examples of select phrases that have been extracted from initial higher ed closure announcements:

  • “(Institution X) will therefore be extending Spring Break for an extra week, providing time for this situation to resolve.”
  • “We anticipate a closure of our campus and on-ground classes for two to three weeks.”
  • “These are temporary measures only, as we expect operations to return to normal in the near future.”

While I have no doubt that every higher education institution was and remains committed to ensuring the safety of students, faculty, and staff, these announcements clearly reflect a Bargaining mindset, with strong overtones of denial. Though the seriousness of the situation was clear, there still remained an irrational sense of hope that a brief closure would result in a return to normalcy. But within two weeks of the initial announcements, we then started seeing these announcements:

  • “…. It has been determined that the most prudent course of action is to continue our campus closure through the end of the semester.”
  • “All courses will continue to be offered in an online-only format through the end of the semester.”

Reinforcing these anecdotal accounts, Inside Higher Ed’s Doug Lederman published an excellent article in which he examined the results of a survey of higher ed presidents. The findings revealed that 69% of presidents are very concerned about ensuring students maintain substantive access to education (the second-largest concern behind students’ physical and mental health).

However, only 43% indicated that they had made investments in new online learning resources. While no details were provided, Lederman posits that this is likely due to the fact that existing technologies were being leveraged to support short-term solutions, such as the expansion of video conferencing capabilities to facilitate synchronous lecture delivery.

Short-Term Fixes Will Be Insufficient for a Long-Term Health Crisis

To help understand why these presidents may be taking a short-term approach, the survey also found that about a third believed on-campus classes would resume in the fall, while 40% were unsure. In total, this means that nearly three-quarters of higher education presidents do not believe or are uncertain about the fact that we are very likely in for a protracted battle against the virus.

In stark contrast, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Pandemic Crisis Action Plan (PanCAP) projects an 18-month timeframe until COVID-19 has been neutralized. Reinforcing the DHHS plan, a study released last week by the Imperial College London clearly illustrates that social distancing and even more restrictive shelter-in-place strategies will not be effective in combating COVID-19 in the long term (defined as the likely period of time until a vaccine becomes widely available).

Anecdotally, we are seeing confirmation that short-term lockdowns are not effective as the virus will start to spread once restrictions are lifted. A prime example is the new infections that are springing up across China, which is a scenario that one could easily imagine occurring within States as restrictions are tightened and loosened by region.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between how institutions are approaching the crisis and what the data is actually telling us. When contextualized against the grieving process, the vast majority of institutional responses can therefore be classified as falling somewhere within the Bargaining construct with overtones of Denial.

So how do institutions move from where they are now to Acceptance? While it is possible that treatments could emerge far quicker than anticipated, there is no guarantee that this remedy will occur. Thus, administrators need to examine the probable scenarios and plan accordingly, including plans to address worst-case scenarios.

The Most Likely Scenario for the COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Effect on Education

The Imperial College London report lays out the most realistic scenario for dealing with COVID-19 over a protracted timeframe. The diagram below shows periods of containment that are predicated on the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds occupied in a given area, followed by periods in which restrictions are relaxed. The areas within the blue brackets represent the spikes and imposition of containment strategies, while the spaces in between represent periods of relaxed measures.

Weekly ICU cases 1 coronavirus

Image source: Imperial College London report, “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand.”

While the timeframes can’t be interpreted literally for planning purposes, they are likely to be good approximations, with the most significant point being a depiction of how the tighten-and-relax strategy would be implemented over time. If we take this data and then superimpose the traditional college semester schedule, we get the following:

Weekly ICU cases 2

Image source: Imperial College London report, “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand.”

If educational institutions intend to survive this crisis, it is imperative that they look beyond the summer and fall semesters. Granted, if the above scenario does manifest itself, the level of disruption would be unprecedented.

However, higher education is supposed to be a place in which truth and scholarship are intrinsic values, so ignoring the data in favor of best-case scenarios would seem to be incongruous with an institution’s core mission. The result of failing to do so could result in institutional closures that are far in excess of the 20% predicted by Zemsky.

How Should Higher Education Ensure Continuity in the Shift to Online Education?

While moving past Denial and Bargaining to Acceptance is required, from a psychological perspective, what are the core areas that institutions need to focus on to ensure continuity?

The Chronicle of Higher Education article notes that many institutions are working with infrastructure that has been hastily cobbled together in the last few weeks. Similarly, the Inside Higher Education article observes that some institutions are relying on legacy systems.

While these tactics may get institutions through the current semester and possibly the summer, it is unlikely that they will suffice for longer periods of time. There is a wealth of research that demonstrates why synchronous, lecture-centric courses result in low student and faculty satisfaction and how these factors lead to erosion of enrollments and decreased cognitive outcomes.

From a student perspective, the decreased satisfaction will almost certainly lead to students shopping for more robust alternatives and disenrollment from their current institution. Likewise, new students and parents will seek out the best possible alternatives, given the constraints of campus shutdowns.

Keeping in mind that ensuring satisfaction, learning, and access should be primary objectives for institutions as they transition to online, I see four areas that deserve immediate attention.

First, those cobbled-together and legacy systems were never designed to be enterprise-class platforms. If institutions accept the potential for the protracted, sporadic opening and closing of physical facilities, they must realize that technical infrastructure must be dramatically improved to support fully online teaching and learning at a level that is commensurate with producing high satisfaction and cognitive outcomes.

In many cases, this change will mean completely reinventing the digital arm of the university. Furthermore, institutions will need to come to grips with the fact that the investment required for such infrastructure will be more closely aligned with traditional capital projects than with the meager distance learning budgets that have been previously allocated.

Second, the technical infrastructure must also include mechanisms for replication/replacement of the interactions and process that have traditionally taken place between faculty and staff. Understanding what this will look like will also require a significant investment in knowledge management to capture both the explicit and tacit processes that occur on campus.

Third, empowering instructional designers to create quality courses is a must. We are now in a period where faculty must realize that they have a partner who likely knows far more about best practices in teaching and learning than they do. Therefore, it is time to take the expert knowledge and allow expert design to be applied to it.

Fourth, institutions will need to capture and utilize data to facilitate accurate and timely decision-making more than ever. Ensuring that this is an integral part of infrastructure development will be absolutely imperative, as it will be required for determining the best use of available funds, as well as guiding accompanying change management initiatives.

Yes, these are four very big goals; undoubtedly, there are others that could be added to the list. Will institutions engage in these actions? I believe the ones that intend to survive this crisis, and potential prosper, will do so. If the best available data and projections are correct, then it is imperative that they do so or reconcile themselves to the possibility of closure.

Now Is the Time for Higher Education Leaders to Act Decisively

Finally, beyond understanding the COVID-19 threat, institutional leaders must move to the fore and act quickly and decisively, while simultaneously rallying their faculty and staff. This is not the time for a protracted series of faculty senate meetings.

All institutional stakeholders must realize this is a crisis. Rapid transformation is essential, because the consequences of inaction are dire.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence