Higher education during the pandemic

Universities and colleges were already in a tight spot before the pandemic with rising costs, increased competition, and for public schools - less financial support from their respective states. Traditionally during periods of economic...

Universities and colleges were already in a tight spot before the pandemic with rising costs, increased competition, and for public schools – less financial support from their respective states.

Traditionally during periods of economic downturns, universities do fairly well as people attempt to reskill or upskill for a tight job market. However, the COVID pandemic has been widely different compared to other downturns, with an overall year-to-year decrease of 4.5% across all undergraduate programs and a steep 9.5% drop for community colleges. Community colleges typically run two-year academic programs as well as career and technical education programs.  They cater to a more diverse student body than 4-year institutions with both first-time students right out of high school, but also a larger percentage of older students, part-time students and minorities

In a recent New America blog, four trends impacting the significantly lower enrollment at community colleges were highlighted:

  • Enrollment decline is everywhere at community colleges
  • The student population that did not enroll varies with college. Some see more of a drop in first-time students and others in older students. The reason for not attending varies between the groups; the first anticipated to be an effect of limited capacity to have students attending class on campus, while the latter is more likely related to issues with childcare and job.
  • Enrollment across programs varies among colleges. Academic programs were hard hit but also hands on program which required reduced class-sizes to be able to spread out students.
  • Basic needs such as food, housing and technology have been huge challenges in order to keep students enrolled.

When the pandemic first hit during spring semester 2020, more than 1,300 colleges and universities canceled in person classes moved to online-only education. According to an article by NCSL 44% of institutions held fully or primarily online instruction during the fall of 2020, with 21% using a hybrid model and 27% fully or primarily n-person instruction.

Even with significantly smaller on campus student, universities that did open in the fall of 2020, did take a number of measures to lower the risk of Covid outbreaks.

  • Testing varied across universities as to frequency, type of test and structure. Some universities had more intense testing schemes with mandatory testing in a structured way while others relied on more random testing.
  • Masks was commonly required indoors, while some universities required masks outdoor as well.
  • Contact tracing. Isolation for students with a positive test and quarantine for anyone known to have been exposed.
  • Restrictions in social and event gatherings
  • Information and communication.  Student involvement were crucial with social media campaigns, educational videos and more

For the ongoing spring semester, testing and contact tracing are still vital tools with some universities requiring testing to return to campus. Student involvement for information, social media, and as health ambassadors is also emphasized.

Opinions vary what higher education will look like when life on campus returns to a more pre-Covid state. Institutions have been forced to change faster than thought possible, and change is expected to continue. The expectation and emphasis of more personalization and individual engagement is another area likely to stay and continue to develop. The use of data has grown and is not limited to just enhancing university operations, but also to ensure students needs are met all the way to basic needs such as food. Over the time of the pandemic mental health issues has become more and more at the forefront with students experience a sense of isolation, and burnouts. As a result, there has been an attention to tools to strengthen the engagement and sense of a supportive community.

It is still too early to tell what the lasting effects of the pandemic will be on higher education institutions, but common belief is that higher education will not go back to where it was before the pandemic. We will follow the development on what and how the higher education institutions will be in the coming years. As always, if you would like to discuss this further, you are welcome to contact our office. 

Maria Lönnberg