Higher education opportunities after COVID-19

“The great thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

On the 21-27 March cover of The Economist is a picture of a globe with the sign ‘CLOSED’ around it. For most people throughout the world it does seem like the world as we knew it has hit the pause button.

Beginning with the first reported pandemic, near modern-day Port Said in north-eastern Egypt in 541, pandemics have been, by their very nature, disruptive, leaving after the crisis recedes, who knows what? COVID-19 is no different in the all-encompassing scope of its disruption.

Pandemics trigger radical change in consumer behaviour. What we observe now is a tightening up of consumer spending, based on fear not just of another outbreak of the virus, but fear of the negative economic impact of the virus in the future.

Goldman Sachs predicts the jobless rate in the United States will hit 15% in the second quarter of this year. Other economists predict a jobless rate closer to 25%. (In 1933, during the Great Depression in the United States, the jobless rate was 24.9%.)

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than 60% of the Chinese economy, is down. China’s US$64.6 billion overseas study market may never be realised again. Behaviour is affected by assumptions. And today that means the world, at this time in its history, is neither a healthy nor a safe place to live.

Jesse Garcia, a consumer psychologist based in Los Angeles, wrote: “People are afraid and when people are afraid, they go into survival mode.”

Higher education disruption

What we know today is that higher education, both domestically and internationally, has been disrupted. Forecasts for the long-shadow implications of COVID-19 range from a five-year disruption to one of six months.

Forecasts predict anywhere from a 15% to 25% decline in enrolment, depending in which part of the world the calculations are made. (It took higher education two years to recover from the impact of the SARS epidemic.)

This virus has put the spotlight on antiquated financial models, rigid admission and registration procedures and dismal student progression and graduation rates.

But the virus has also presented higher education with opportunities after the dangers of COVID-19 have passed or a vaccine is discovered which makes it safe, once again, to resume normal activities.

The functional moment will pass. The virus will recede. How will colleges and universities worldwide respond to the residuals?

In this article I list five assumptions and outline five opportunities for higher education post-COVID-19.


• Vision planning will co-exist with and complement strategic planning.

• In-person, on-campus instruction will not begin until the spring 2021 semester.

• Out-of-date business models will be retired.

• Several colleges and universities worldwide will be forced to close.

• Private, small and poorly endowed colleges and universities will merge with other institutions.


• Vision planning will supplement strategic planning.

• The academic year will be 12 months long and combine the best of in-person and online learning and will contribute to improved progression and graduation rates.

• Year-round recruitment activities will allow applicants greater flexibility in college and university selection and enrolment.

• New business models and financing options will bring stability to the ‘bottom line’.

• Collaboration, not competition, will be embraced by all members of the academy.

Opportunity #1 Create a vision statement for your institution

A vision statement is a statement of intent and is fundamentally different from a mission statement, which is a description of the route to follow to realise the vision. Vision statements require thinking from the end backwards.

In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek urges companies and organisations to create a “differentiating value proposition”. He asks the questions: “What do you do, why do you do it and what do you do that no one else can do?”

Why should an applicant enrol in your university? What do you do better than any other university? What will your university ‘look like’ after COVID-19 recedes into the background? What is the vision for your future students? How is that vision different from what it is today? These are vision questions.

An article by Pablo Illanes, Jonathan Law, Ana Mendy, Saurabh Sanghvi and Jimmy Sarakatsannis, published by McKinsey & Company, outlines the need for integrated nerve centres that go into action when institutions must respond to major, fast-moving and disruptive crises.

The authors agree that COVID-19 qualifies on all counts. The overall goal is for the institution to be capable of getting ahead of events and reacting skilfully and strategically to the crisis.

The authors caution not to wait until all the facts are in to act. They may never be. In a crisis, good now is better than perfect later.

Creating vision plans is fundamentally different from strategic plans. And presumably different people would be tasked with creating a vision for the future that, once created, will be articulated to all major constituencies.

It’s long(er) term thinking. It’s thinking with no box. It’s a plan with a vision.

Opportunity #2 Create a year-long academic programme combining the best of in-person and online learning

In an April 2020 survey report published by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 58% of 262 college and university respondents are considering or have decided to remain fully online for the autumn 2020 semester and 62% are considering decreasing, or have decreased, the number of in-person courses for autumn 2020.

COVID-19 may accelerate the end of the traditional semester-based system for collegiate registration, progression and graduation because Gen Z students are used to being online, all the time.

Edward J Maloney, writing an article in Inside Higher Education, listed several potential academic scenarios that could be implemented for the next academic semester, including:

• Beginning the autumn semester later than usual, in October or November.

• Moving the autumn to the spring semester.

• Creating a structured gap year, reducing the number of courses offered on campus and increasing the number of courses taught online.

• Designing separate courses for residential and online students.

• Allowing students to take one course at a time for three or four weeks.

• And offering a modified tutorial model of instruction allowing students to take a common online lecture session.

What would your university ‘look like’ if you created a system allowing students, in concert with academic deans, advisors and registrars, to create and personalise their educational experience and course sequencing and progression?

In the United States, the National Center for Education Statistics published the following: 38% of full-time, undergraduate students transfer higher education institutions within the first six years and, on average, these students lose 43% of their credits, basically one semester, and pay an extra US$36,000 for their bachelor degree.

What would your university ‘look like’ if a personalised, year-long academic programme contributed to reduced attrition and transfer rates? What could be the financial return on this investment?

Disruptive? Complicated? Labour intensive? Difficult to monitor? All true. However, to return to the semester-by-semester course structure is to deny one of the lasting implications of COVID-19: change. The virus has put its imprint on all facets of life, including the traditional way students accumulate the number of credits needed to graduate.

Joshua Kim, writing a blog created to provide a space for conversation and debate about learning and technology, wrote in Inside Higher Ed on 6 April 2020: “Nobody thought let’s use COVID-19 to eliminate instructor-led courses and send all of our students to Duolingo or Khan Academy. We understood, without even saying it out loud, that remote learning is all about reconfiguring the relationship between educators and students.”

What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

Opportunity #3 Create year-long recruitment programmes for both domestic and international students

What would your university ‘look like’ if your recruitment and admissions policies and procedures were changed to reflect the realities of the post-pandemic world?

Would your recruitment teams continue to travel domestically and internationally to attract students to your school? Would you pay agents to recruit for you worldwide with the hope that they will be able to replace the international students who returned home for the spring 2020 semester and are not planning to return for the autumn semester?

It is unlikely that the answers to these questions would be in the affirmative. If the academic year is restructured, so must the recruitment year be restructured.

What would your university ‘look like’ if your recruitment and admission staff created a partial virtual recruitment and admissions system? What if that system included an effective and efficient method of communicating with applicants and their parents that did not require participating in college fairs?

Is your admissions department able to evaluate high school or college transcripts with greater flexibility than is now the case? I am not suggesting a watering down of credentials, nor am I suggesting that all recruitment and admissions activities be conducted virtually. What I am suggesting is that recruitment and admissions deans take a second look at how and when credentials are reviewed. If there is no longer a semester-by-semester intake of students, there is no need to evaluate credentials along that traditional timeline.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently asked colleges and universities in the United States to reassess their admissions criteria. What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

Opportunity #4 Create new business models and financing options

“Every university we have spoken to expects to be impacted and for some, the potential loss of income is projected to be greater than 100 million pounds. And that is before you factor in that losing new students has a multi-year impact.” – Andrew Connors, Lloyds Banking Group

Most higher education business models, dependent on annual tuition fee increases and, for some, increased government assistance, are another victim of COVID-19. Current business plans are based on margins that have been getting slimmer and slimmer every year.

The virus has shed a bright light on the weaknesses of many current higher education business models, especially in colleges and universities with less than robust online course strategies and endowment portfolios.

Mat Frenz, a partner at Entangled Group, an education consulting firm, put it best: “Institutions will be forced to reconsider their business model,” he said, “and make very difficult decisions about who they are and what they do.”

As part of your university’s vision team, chief financial officers would probably raise these questions: If the academic year is changed and students are enrolled in both in-person and online courses, should tuition charges be different for each method of instruction? What could the return on the investment be of improved progression and graduation rates?

Recently, I listened to the CEO of Delta Air Lines explain how the company plans to weather the economic impact of COVID-19. Delta is currently flying 5% of its normal capacity. Among Ed Bastian’s suggestions were the introduction of significant cost-cutting measures expected to reduce the daily US$1 million loss by half.

What cost-cutting measures could be introduced at your university to reduce costs? What would your university ‘look like’ if spending priorities shifted to reflect the new normal? What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

Opportunity #5 Replace competition with collaboration

It is impossible to estimate the number of colleges and universities that will be forced to suspend operations and close due to declining student enrolments and revenue. If the virus abates and then re-emerges in the autumn and winter, additional losses of both students and revenue will make it impossible for many tuition-fee-driven, endowment-poor institutions to survive.

Assuming that safe, in-person instruction will not be possible until a vaccine is found, what could vulnerable universities do now to prepare not for closing, but for merging with another institution? Potential partners may be near or remote.

Who on the vision team could be tasked with compiling a shortlist of colleges and universities that would be a good ‘fit’ for merging with your institution? What criteria should your university use to determine potential partners?

Is combining majors part of your criteria? Is team teaching online courses part of your school’s criteria? Can negotiations include offering dual degrees? Will merging result in better retention rates and less student loan debt? What are the benefits and the liabilities?

This opportunity requires action now, not sometime in the future. The opportunity is based on the belief that higher education, as we have known it, will never be what it was before COVID-19 rewrote the rules governing when and where students enrol and graduate.

What does your vision team think of this suggestion?

The Black Death

Will COVID-19 transform today’s colleges and universities as the Black Death did in the Middle Ages? The plague that swept through Europe in the late 1340s ultimately led to a shift from a world view centred on theology to one that valued science.

Right now this pandemic has added a new layer of complexity and confusion to the higher education sector, to those who work in the sector, and to those who seek to study in colleges and universities.

Maybe none of the recommendations suggested in this article are relevant to your college or university at this time. Perhaps some are. I hope I have made the case for:

• Creating a vision for what your university will ‘look like’ after the dangers of COVID-19 are resolved; thinking from the end backwards.

• Making hard choices based on data.

• Creating new academic, financial and recruitment models.

• Re-aligning both academic and financial priorities.

• Re-entering a post-COVID-19 world not in isolation but in collaboration.

I hope I have made the case for re-imagining what higher education, and, by extension, what your university will look like after this crisis passes.

There can be no return to yesterday.

Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.