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How Might Higher Ed Thrive on the Other Side of COVID-19?

April 29, 2020

The coronavirus crisis has had a far-reaching impact on higher education that required immediate action, and vision for recovery.

As a leader with decades of experience in higher ed policy, administration and innovation, John C. Cavanaugh, Ph.D., has keen insight into how the field is responding. For the past seven years, Dr. Cavanaugh has been the president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, which consists of 17 colleges and universities. Previously, he served as chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and as president of the University of West Florida.

He recently took time to answer a few questions about the effect of COVID-19 on institutions of learning and their students.

Q: Higher Education will likely experience many long-term ramifications as a result of the pandemic. Are there any you expect could be especially positive?

A: I’m glad you framed it with an emphasis on potential positive long-term effects. I’m focused on two. First is how the pandemic put a spotlight on the wrap-around needs students have, such as tutoring, counseling, motivation, broadband and computer access, a supportive sociocultural network, healthcare, better food security, and just a quiet place to study, the lack of which wherever students find themselves now has a very serious negative effect on their learning. For instance, having to drive miles just to pick up a free Wi-Fi signal makes it hard to complete one’s assignment. Second, there is great potential for a fundamental shake up in the scheduling and delivery of courses at most institutions. The forced, rushed move from face-to-face to virtual instruction exposed both the opportunities for more creative delivery and much more faculty development, and a reminder that semester calendars are, actually, arbitrary. I doubt that the first part necessarily portends a mass move to fully online courses anytime soon, for all the reasons I pointed out in my first effect. But it does portend further, deeper exploration of using different delivery modes more creatively to further learning. Simultaneously, a thorough rethinking of how academic terms are defined could result in more-immersive experiences that foster deep learning.

Q: Will businesses be asking for different skills from college graduates as a result of their likely new business normal post the coronavirus?

A: Yes—but not in the usual sense of this question. I don’t think it will be so much that businesses are asking for different skills as much as it will be the college graduate who will be bringing them as part of their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). Having been thrown into a terribly disruptive and frightening situation, many students had to navigate through even more challenging factors. Some went back into situations in which privacy to focus on their course assignments is nonexistent. Or there is no connectivity. Or they are now family caregivers in addition to being a student. Or they have lost their support services. Or they are hungry. What’s more is that many who will graduate this year or in the near future will have childhood memories of parents who were impacted by the Great Recession. The current reinforcement that life is unpredictable in the extreme could breed either a deep cynicism or a deep commitment and search for what really matters most. The resilience it takes to come through all the challenges is often amazing—and graduates will be bringing that to their new jobs. A deeper commitment to higher values (what really matters) could also bring a (re)newed rejection of traditional definitions of achievement in favor of a focus on doing higher good.

Q: Since the start of COVID-19, what’s the one higher-ed related question you’ve been asked the most?

A: I’m asked quite a lot what higher education is going to look like on the other side of the pandemic. First, I’d argue that a simplistic answer such as we will all magically transform into online Nirvana is way off base. I’d argue, rather, that it is essential that we acquire richer and deeper understanding of the premises underlying our basic assumptions: that the postsecondary experience involves more than taking courses to absorb information; that quality is strongly related to how the learning opportunity is delivered; that postsecondary institutions are responsible for providing a full menu of wrap-around services, and so on before we jump to an answer. Similarly, we need to step back and very carefully consider the ways in which regulations (e.g., governmental, accrediting bodies, etc.) are currently implemented (e.g., defaulting to additional personnel as the solution). And we need to disaggregate and more deeply understand the complex interconnections of funding streams, cross-subsidies, different types of cost drivers, and the like. Finally, we have to be able to not only understand, but to explain in an elevator speech way, how the pricing model(s) actually operate given the myriad of discounting strategies used. Do this, and we will be in a much better position to know how to thrive on the other side.

TAGS: Education