For Colleges and Universities, the Disruption of COVID-19 is a Catalyst for Innovation

An oft-quoted reflection by Frank Rhodes, president emeritus at Cornell University, seems especially poignant now in this era of COVID-19 and the disruption it has caused to every sector of our society, including higher education: “I wonder at times if we are not like the dinosaurs, looking up at the sky at the approaching asteroid and wondering whether it has an implication for our future.”

When it comes right down to it, there are those who let the future happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened. I suspect that on the other side of this disruptive time in our collective history, there will emerge institutions that fall into all three of those categories. Utica College, for one, intends to be in the camp that makes things happen, of the many institutions thinking differently and innovating to better serve their students. While medical and public health professionals focus their expertise on caring for the sick, finding a vaccine, and keeping the public protected, other sectors must consider how best to move forward in the face of the pandemic and not wait until it is in our rearview mirror, if ever. For higher education, that means rethinking pedagogy and the breadth of the student experience with their college or university.

Since the Great Recession spawned heightened expectations for the value and worth of a college degree, colleges and universities have worked hard to articulate their value propositions and deliver on their promises for how a degree from their institution will equip students with the skills and experiences they need to pursue their desired career path and earn a salary that allows them to pay off their debts. The Great Recession, despite its inherent challenges, likely fueled some changes and reforms that were a long time in coming.

The world is once again rapidly undergoing changes. The status quo simply will not suffice. If we could look into a crystal ball today and see out into the future, I suspect we will see that the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath will have spurred another round of innovations and reforms — some of which many of us in higher education were already well into discussing and discerning before the pandemic took hold.

That fact has certainly been true on my campus in upstate New York. Many of the solutions we’re considering for delivering instruction in the fall are changes we, like many others in higher education, have been discussing for years outside of the context of a public health crisis, long before we had even heard of COVID-19. To be sure, we understand the gravity of the crisis and the impact (sometimes devastating) that it is having on families, and we are taking extensive measures to minimize the health risk on our campus. But we recognize too that this crisis presents an opportunity to meet the expectations of students who have sought many of these changes for many years.

Utica College has been committed to high-quality in-person instruction throughout our nearly 75-year history, but we’ve also been a leader in delivering online education for the past two decades. Today, those worlds, once separated, are much closer together. We may be embarking on this “new normal” in terms of higher education, a model that I suspect will outlive the COVID-19 pandemic, because students were seeking it before the crisis. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately one out of every three college students has taken at least one online course, a figure that continues to rise. This past fall, 30 percent of students living on the Utica campus took at least one online class. Change is inevitable this fall.

We are embarking on a higher education model that will outlive the COVID-19 pandemic, because students were seeking it before the crisis.

Dr. Todd J. Pfannestiel, Provost at Utica College

We also have many students looking for more creative virtual experiences that allow for greater interaction with their professors and fellow students. We intend to be sure that a virtual or hybrid experience delivers on the same student learning objectives as a completely ground experience, and that it keeps students fully engaged while preparing them with the knowledge, skills and professional dispositions employers seek. This may not sound “new” or novel, but few schools actually deliver on that rhetoric. UC will.

Utica College is preparing for an in-person academic experience this fall, though it may look different than before. Students may see a more blended environment, in which they are learning in-person as well as virtually simultaneously. Even if the opportunity to return to campus is not possible for some students, whether for health or financial circumstances, we remain committed to delivering a high-quality, consistent virtual environment as well. In-person classes may be smaller in size in order to accommodate for social distancing and safety; yet that may also lead to greater opportunities for student-faculty interactions. We may modify the length of class sessions or opt for some combination of in-person and online class times. And even in a blended in-person and virtual environment, students will have the opportunities for co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that define college life. We still intend for students to learn while embracing the college experience to the fullest possible extent. This approach is not new to Utica College. We offer a blended MBA program in which students have the choice of participating in person, online, or doing both. Traditional-age undergraduates, including those living in residence halls, have been vocal about wanting this type of flexibility in their programs so they can better balance the demands and responsibilities in their lives without having to settle for a “less than” experience. And again, UC will deliver.

Clearly, we need more professional development to support our faculty in delivering a variety of meaningful blended or virtual experiences. But we also need to change our traditional in-person academic experience. Because of COVID, we need to explore how our academic, residential, and student life experiences will have to change in order to deliver the college experience that students envision, albeit in a new form.

We also have much we can learn from our students. Consider the common knowledge on campuses that the best way to determine where to build sidewalks is to watch where students walk and trample the grass — then pour the concrete there. The situation before us is much the same. Students are already figuring out how to navigate a post-COVID world. We need to learn from their experiences and then “pour the concrete” where they show us.

Students are already figuring out how to navigate a post-COVID world. We need to learn from their experiences and then “pour the concrete” where they show us.

As colleges and universities grapple with how to start the fall term and deliver their curricula, some students are likely wondering what it means for them if their vision for an in-person college experience has been altered or delayed. (Of course, this only applies to a portion of the college-going population. Utica College, like many other institutions, serves a diverse student population that includes traditional-age and adult undergraduates and graduate students whose coursework is a blend of in-person and online. For some of our students, the changes brought on by COVID-19 haven’t much altered their experience.)

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council in Education, offered this prediction: “We think the uncertainty about the future will act as a brake on decisions to enroll in postsecondary education.” ACE predicts that U.S. college enrollment will drop 15 percent this fall and result in $23 billion in lost revenue, even if campuses reopen. A recent study with college-bound high school seniors by Art and Science Group revealed that half of the students surveyed reported a parent or guardian had lost a job, been laid off, or been furloughed as a result of the pandemic, and about one out of six who had planned to attend a four-year institution full time in the fall have decided not to do so. A sobering outlook to be sure, especially for institutions that were already struggling to enroll enough students and raise necessary revenue.

In my opinion, despite the changes that are likely to become a reality come this fall, this is exactly the right time to go to college. It will never be more affordable in terms of price point. If done well by any college or university, it will be the most innovative, technologically efficient academic delivery students could ever experience. Likewise, circumstances demand pedagogical innovation designed to meet the students “where they are,” which translates into cutting-edge teaching supported by cutting-edge technology. And I believe the personalized attention many of us promise will be intensified due to social distancing and likely smaller class sizes. If students can afford to matriculate, I believe they should. The learning they will encounter as we emerge from this pandemic will be some of the most innovatively delivered, relevant knowledge they could ever hope to attain. Staying on track means getting a head start on peers who opt for a gap year. And for those students who require a gap year, Utica College will still be here to keep you engaged, and look forward to welcoming you back. As for returning adults, the world has changed — and likely permanently — as a result of the pandemic. Retraining with new skills –especially in healthcare and business — will better position them in the long run for the new opportunities that will emerge. There’s a time and economic commitment, but the payoff will be much greater in the near future.

Despite the changes that are likely to become a reality this fall, this is exactly the right time to go to college.

Today’s higher education marketplace has evolved. Words like ROI, investment, net revenue, discount rate, gainful employment, and price elasticity are now part of our industry lexicon. And this period of pandemic disruption may even provide us with a whole new set of vernacular to describe our programs, pedagogy, and learning outcomes. Students and their families are better informed consumers thanks to all the digital tools at their disposal, allowing them to stealthily gather information and narrow their college choices before institutions even know they are on someone’s radar. Today’s college-bound students are no longer primarily traditional age (in fact, the pool of them keeps shrinking and their largest numbers are found in fewer states), they’re more diverse than ever before, college may not be their only commitment, they have fewer economic resources to pay for college, and where and how they attend college has changed.

Those colleges and universities with a history of innovation in the face of adversity — and, more importantly, those with a history of innovation even in “good times” — will be best poised to deliver upon the academic promise to their students. These institutions will not only survive the pandemic but will grow and change for the better as a result. We constantly ask “what’s next” at Utica and then prepare ourselves to deliver it. Some academic programs will change, others will sunset, and new ones are on the horizon. As students tell us what they wish to study, and employers tell us what skills they seek in new employees, we will adapt and deliver, just like we’ve always done.

The Time is Now

At Utica College, we are embracing this time of disruption as a catalyst for innovative thinking and doing more to respond to the marketplace. We choose to see this as an opportunity to continue to be strategic and proactive in doing all we can to control our destiny while fulfilling our mission and our promise to every student population we serve. There are academic colleagues in every sector wrestling with critical decisions about their enrollment, curriculum and pedagogy, infrastructure, physical plant, resources, fundraising, and personnel — all of which will bear directly on their ability to ride out the months ahead and thrive going forward. Those institutions best positioned for ensuring they remain viable will be those that quickly move from triage to transformation and rally the campus community to embrace change. It’s time for true transformational change. It’s time to shape our future, and not let the future shape us.

Dr. Todd J. Pfannestiel is Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Utica College in Utica, NY.

Todd J. Pfannestiel, Ph.D. is Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Utica College in Utica, NY.

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