Decision Points Loom for College Leaders

Scenario planning is getting attention as a tool for navigating an uncertain time. But when will leaders need to make big decisions?

April 30, 2020
 
istockphoto.com/Mananya Kaewthawee

The novel coronavirus pandemic converted many college and university leaders into fans of scenario planning.

It’s easy to see why. The fast-shifting landscape and massive changes to core campus operations beg for a mechanism that allows board members, presidents, top administrators and deans to prepare for vastly different futures. Many have attested to scenario planning’s usefulness, whether they outline three or 15 different scenarios for the future.

But at some point, leaders need to switch from planning to making decisions about which scenarios to follow.

Making choices tied to one decision point doesn’t preclude future choices changing as more information comes available. In such an unsettled time, the scenarios are always changing, experts stressed. The decision points are, too.

“Our scenarios must be robust, must be clear as daylight, and we must be willing to make adjustments to decisions that we make in real time,” said Benjamin Ola Akande, assistant vice chancellor for international affairs, Africa, and associate director of the Global Health Center at Washington University in St. Louis, who this month was named president of Champlain College in Vermont.

In conversations over the last week, leaders and the consultants they work with outlined some of the most important decision points they’re watching. Those points are explained below, grouped loosely by whether they’re tied to a specific date on the calendar or other condition. Many lend themselves to decisions about whether to reopen for the fall or not. But they may still be pertinent even for colleges that have made that decision and must still plot other scenarios, such as whether to shuffle the academic calendar or make major operational restructuring decisions.

Points in Time

Pre-May 1 Admissions Milestones: Early indicators showed the COVID-19 pandemic generating cause for concern as competitive colleges built their classes for next year.

Recent private polling indicated that one in six students who’d planned to attend four-year colleges no longer plan to do so. Other surveys led a firm to conclude that four-year colleges may lose as many as a fifth of students. Many families reported losing income amid the coronavirus, and existing college students pushed back on the idea of paying full price to traditional in-person colleges for remote instruction should campuses be unable to reopen in the fall.

So it’s no surprise that college leaders report making various decisions based on how their spring admissions seasons were taking shape. Those decisions include pricing actions like freezes or even cuts to tuition. Some changed the way they communicate with prospective students, emphasizing how colleges have supported students who were being sent home for the spring semester or accommodated students with flexible grading policies.

Some may find it too cynical to suggest admissions considerations factored into colleges beginning to announce plans to reopen for the fall semester this week, during the run-up to deposit day on May 1. But in the last week or so, some colleges have grown much more aggressive about communicating their intention to reopen, and leaders made clear that many campuses need to reopen in the fall to secure their own futures.

“The basic business model for most colleges and universities is simple -- tuition comes due twice a year at the beginning of each semester,” wrote Brown University’s president, Christina Paxson, in a Sunday opinion piece for The New York Times. “Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue.”

And at least one community college in Northern California connected student decisions to an announcement that it will stick with distance learning in the fall.

“We want students to know what they’re signing up for,” Sierra College spokesperson Josh Morgan said, according to CBS Sacramento.

May 1 and June 1 Decision Days: Many colleges pushed their decision days -- the dates by which high school seniors committing to attend must submit deposits -- back from the traditional May 1 to June 1. Experts anticipate both dates will be important for colleges and universities that need to count their freshman classes and decide on next steps.

“If we wanted to timeline it, I do think May 1 is still going to be an important milestone,” said Peter Stokes, managing director at the consulting firm Huron’s education strategy and operations group. “The information we get there will be very telling.”

Mid-June: Once the new, later June 1 decision day has passed, some admissions experts suggested colleges and universities will turn their full attention to retaining rising sophomores, juniors and seniors, as well as avoiding summer melt among incoming freshmen. Feedback they receive could filter into decisions about additional retention actions or even cost-cutting.

Annual board meetings: Most colleges and universities close their fiscal years at the end of June. It would seem to be a natural time for major decisions to be made as boards hold regular meetings at the end of the year.

That may happen in some cases. But in the current crisis, engaged boards aren’t always waiting for end-of-the-year meetings to make decisions that are critical.

“Boards are meeting more frequently in order to consider information,” said Merrill Schwartz, senior vice president for content strategy and development at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “Decision points are very much on everyone’s mind.”

Cutoff dates: Major undertakings like reopening campuses for all students come with deadlines driven by logistics. It simply takes time to bring back staff members and prepare campuses for a fall of in-person instruction. For example, Radford University in Virginia said plans to reopen in the fall will require select employees to return before the state is scheduled to lift a shelter-in-place order June 10.

How much time varies from campus to campus. But leaders have likely reverse-engineered a cutoff date by which they’ll have to make certain major decisions.

“There’s going to come a point where we’re going to have to make a decision about when we are going to physically be on campus, because we have to gear up,” said Thomas Galligan, interim president at Louisiana State University. “But other than that, our decision points are substantive, and safety is our guidepost.”

This type of deadline is more about closing off scenarios. Leaders could move to keep open their options long before it’s clear whether in-person classes can actually resume.

“The question becomes, ‘What do you think is likely to happen, and given what you think is likely to happen, how achievable is it in the space of May, June, July, August, to be ready?’” Stokes said. “If you want to be there by fall, you’ve got to be running right now. That’s not something you can put off for a couple of weeks.”

Government and Regulatory Decisions

Elected officials: One of the biggest decision points comes when elected officials make their own decisions. But the landscape here is highly complex.

When do governors lift stay-at-home orders? Do mayors or local officials ban large gatherings, preventing large lecture classes in the process? Do any health officials place restrictions on dormitory living? What about travel restrictions?

“Think about if you do have residential students,” said Nicholas Santilli, senior director for learning strategy at the Society for College and University Planning, who has been developing a scenario planning guide intended to help colleges recover after the pandemic. “You decide to open up on a particular date. But what happens if there is still a quarantine order in place for individuals traveling across state lines?”

Most college leaders appear to be focused more on conditions than dates, Santilli said.

Health-care officials: Guidance from health-care officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will play a big part in helping colleges decide whether they can reopen for in-person instruction at any point and how to do so.

Any information about how facilities need to be cleaned will be taken into account. So too will guidelines for distancing and detailed plans for phased reopening within states.

“We’re still on a stay-at-home order,” said Galligan, of LSU. “Once our governor lifts that stay-at-home order, in part we’ll be coming back in phases, and getting to the next phase is going to depend in part on not only what the governor does and CDC recommends, but on staying safe for two weeks under the previous phase.”

Changing Data and Conditions

Watching states open for business: Experts suggested colleges and universities will closely watch the experiences of states that are slowly reopening their economies, like Georgia, Florida and Texas.

Spiking infection rates, or consumers who refuse to go out, would suggest very different courses of action for higher education than would an orderly return to business as usual.

Texas governor Greg Abbott has detailed plans to reopen restaurants and other businesses starting Friday. The state’s higher ed leaders will be watching -- likely along with leaders in other states.

“In the timeline that Governor Abbott laid out, we’re all going to be monitoring the next couple of weeks very closely as they start to open up certain kinds of businesses,” said Harrison Keller, commissioner of higher education for Texas. “There is going to be a lot of attention around May 18 for updated guidance coming out. It could come out sooner if it’s necessary and appropriate. But that will be an important date for us in Texas as we see what happens over the next couple of weeks.”

Some higher ed leaders may balk at the idea that decisions about students should be informed in any way by the experiences of, say, reopening restaurants. But economists see some parallels. Some predict more long-term pain if restaurants or colleges reopen too soon, only to have infection rates spike and consumer confidence plunge further.

“Think about it from the standpoint of the student or prospective student,” said Roland Rust, a professor at the University of Maryland’s school of business, during a Thursday conference call. “Economic problems combined with behavioral problems of students not wanting to be here, those combine to be a very tough problem to solve.”

While the experience of one state or region may inform decisions in others, experts caution that wise courses of action will still vary between different areas.

Health care and medical factors: How widespread does testing become? What’s the likelihood that a vaccine is developed in a year? What is happening to infection and death rates nationwide? What is happening to infection and death rates within a certain region?

Changing answers to all those questions will trigger different decisions.

“We’ll know a lot more in 30 days,” said Galligan, of LSU. “We’re just going to try and keep up with the knowledge and public health data.”

State finances: The state funding picture will be critical to public institutions and many private institutions across the country.

It’s no secret that the economic collapse prompted by the pandemic has slashed state tax revenue while ramping up costs such as unemployment insurance. And as experts at the State Higher Education Executive Officers association have taken to saying, higher education tends to be the wheel upon which state budgets are balanced.

How and when states change their spending plans could have ramifications for the types of spending and tuition decisions public colleges and universities need to make. It will also affect many private institutions in states with financial aid programs for students. Think of private colleges and universities in Illinois, which suffered several years ago when a state budget impasse prevented regular disbursement of grants under the state’s Monetary Award Program.

Institutional factors: Scenarios available to colleges will change as various institutional factors and capacities evolve. Such factors include the capacity to quarantine students on campus should an outbreak occur, institutions’ ability to maintain a strong online or remote education over time, labor levels and how much of a financial cushion exists, experts said.

For example, if a large number of faculty members who have health concerns balk at the idea of teaching in person in the fall, it becomes much harder to bring students back to campus without making major changes. But if faculty members take the lead in developing strong online or remote options, an institution’s decision making may become easier.

When others act: Generally speaking, higher education leaders like to know what everyone else is doing before they make a decision themselves.

“One of the things our members have been asking us for information about is how other institutions are handling the situation,” said Schwartz, of AGB. “It isn’t the same for a big public university system as it is for a small college in a rural area. They want to know how other institutions ‘like us’ are handling a situation. When are they making the decision? What are they doing about tuition? What are their expectations about fall enrollment? How are they handling clinical courses of study?”

Institutions generally follow peers or more prestigious institutions, experts said. They don’t usually follow the lead of an institution considered to be less prestigious.

One new working paper looks at about 1,400 colleges and universities that decided to transition to online instruction between early March and early April. Six in 10 colleges in the data set closed between March 10 and 13, said one of its authors, Christopher R. Marsicano, a visiting assistant professor in the department of educational studies at Davidson College.

“That doesn’t just happen,” he said in email. “Either there was some serious coordination, or they are all looking to each other for guidance.”

One decision point is always “when others act,” said Marsicano, who stressed that the paper’s findings are preliminary.

Order of Importance

The above list isn’t meant to be comprehensive.

It doesn’t take into account many factors colleges and universities are weighing, nor does it touch on the wide range of scenarios different types of institution will be planning. State and local funding levels may be more important for community colleges than for elite research institutions, for instance.

The same developments might stress institutions in different ways, as well. It’s possible students will see uncertainty and eschew high-priced private colleges in lieu of a year of taking general education requirements at community colleges. And only some community colleges in well-populated or wealthy areas may see a surge in student interest. Others in hard-hit parts of the country may see declines in interest.

Still, experts suggest many institutions follow a rough framework as they move from scenario planning to decision point. First, ask what to do in each scenario. Then ask about cutoff dates for making operational decisions. Finally, ask when the market needs to know about a decision, said David Strauss, a principal at Art & Science Group, a Baltimore-based consulting firm.

When thinking about decision points, many experts observed that leaders sometimes fall into wishful thinking. Only time will tell whether they break that pattern during this crisis.

“The knee-jerk or hopeful planning versus the empirically based planning is fascinating,” Strauss said. “And it mirrors what institutions do on the larger strategic questions when we’re not in the midst of COVID-19.”

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