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What Lies Ahead

Speculating, spinning scenarios and preparing accordingly.

May 14, 2020
 
 

Predicting the future is futile -- yet fundamental. In times of uncertainty, the best we can do is to speculate, spin scenarios and prepare accordingly.

As a historian, I am wary of attempts to forecast the future. Unpredictability -- like irony and contingency -- is, after all, among history’s watchwords. Nevertheless, commentators are quite right to expect the pandemic to reshape higher education for years to come.

Here are some trends we are likely to see:

A shift in institutional priorities

For many institutions, recruitment, yield and retention now stand at the top of the priority list, with liquidity, cost cutting and revenue generation close behind. All decisions -- involving resource allocation, hiring and even curricula and course and program offerings -- will be viewed through this lens.

Even in a time of austerity, some expenditures are likely to rise, including spending on career services and experiential learning, as colleges seek to demonstrate their value add. High-demand programs closely aligned with the job market -- in health care, computer science and data analytics -- will likely expand, even as other programs gradually shrink.

A revamping of the professorial role

For over a decade, many professors defined their identity not in terms of their institutional affiliation or teaching undergraduates, but in terms of research, scholarship, consulting, grant writing and other professional activities, a phenomenon that Robert Zemsky and William F. Massy call the “academic ratchet.” But with professional meetings suspended, travel restricted and the job market frozen, faculty are stuck where they are for the foreseeable future. Their financial well-being is inextricably connected to their institution’s health, and their professional satisfaction will have to come largely from their colleagues and students.

At the same time, institutional demands on faculty are sure to rise, with course quotas lifted and faculty members required to teach online or in a “HyFlex” (combined online and face-to-face) modality. Choice of which courses to teach are likely to be constrained.

But the biggest change will involve shifting expectations. Faculty, at least at broad-access institutions, will be expected to become more undergraduate-focused. They will be expected to reach out to students regularly and bring a higher proportion to a minimal viable competency.

A heightened focus on the whole student

Students’ mental health is no longer the province of solely of psychological services or student affairs. With many students experiencing very high levels of stress, anxiety and uncertainty, loneliness, and loss -- as many components of the college experience diminish or disappear -- it will be up to faculty and staff to become much more supportive and empathetic.

The aloof, absentminded, unapproachable professor of yore needs to give way to one who is accessible, available and welcoming.

A proliferation of new instructional models

Even under the best circumstances imaginable, fully face-to-face education is unlikely to return, What we will see, I suspect, are a mix of delivery modes: common online lecture supplemented by online or in-person breakout sections, online and face-to-face seminars, peer-led study groups, and virtual as well as in-person labs and studio and performance classes.

An optimized curriculum

I expect to see much closer scrutiny of program and course offerings. Don’t be surprised to see similar or identical courses offered by multiple departments pruned. Expect to see the number of course sections reduced, while specialized classes that cannot be justified in terms of margin are eliminated. Also, departments should expect to be asked to undertake course redesign, with the twin goals of reducing expenditures while improving student learning outcomes.

Remember: an optimized curriculum isn’t simply about reducing the number of programs, courses and sections; it should also be about deploying faculty in higher-impact ways, in mentored research or project-based courses, for example.

Serious efforts to cut costs -- and raise revenue

We’ve all heard the business maxim “You can’t cut your way to greatness.” Institutions must simultaneously cut extraneous expenditures while investing in promising areas. Savings might come from consolidating administrative positions and offices, subjecting faculty workloads to strict scrutiny, and reducing the number of student assistants. But savings are not enough. Most institutions have a lot of room to improve retention rates, which, in turn, cuts recruitment costs. New sources of revenue might be found in professional master’s, postbaccalaureate and certificate programs. Given the state of the job market, and the disappearance of many internship opportunities, summer courses have become much more appealing to students, and year-round education might may well become the norm.

Despite the appearance of continuity, many universities became radically different institutions over the past quarter century: substantially increasing research expenditures; greatly expanding the number of programs, centers and institutes; and, of course, sharply expanding staff involved in compliance, student and faculty support services, and information technology. Many greatly expanded their graduate, professional and continuing education offerings; a few even added medical schools.

The rising cost of a college education, in short, was not simply a product of state disinvestment and unfunded government mandates, rising standards of care and increasingly costly benefits, utilities and technologies. It also reflected the proliferation of administrative and support staff, program expansion, emulation of better-funded competitors, and a shift in academic focus toward funded research. None of this was intrinsically problematic, but these trends are unlikely to be sustainable in our current environment.

Under a guise of continuity, financially strapped institutions will be forced to change yet again as they seek to stand out in the increasingly competitive higher education ecosystem. Those that will thrive, I suspect, will be those that can successful identify their niche, effectively define and market their distinctive identity, and best balance the need to cut costs while providing the programs and services students want.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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