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Let’s Not Return to the Old Normal

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If your institution expects life to return to normal post-pandemic, disappointment lies ahead.

Even with vaccines and a presidential administrative strongly committed to traditional higher education, there are no guarantees that higher education as we knew it will bounce back – and that’s okay.

It’s okay because our pre-pandemic reality was beset by challenges and inequalities, which the pandemic exposed and intensified.  It’s okay because many of our students need something different than what we offered, and the pandemic made that clear.

It’s also okay because our existing business model was tottering, and the pandemic laid bare the inadequacy of many of our legacy approaches and incumbent practices and pointed toward possible solutions.

Even before the pandemic, American higher education could be viewed from two contrasting perspectives.

There was the rhetoric of crisis: Of crushing student debt, eroding state funding, the shift toward a contingent faculty, and the competitive threat posed by online providers and purveyors of shorter, cheaper non-degree credentials and certifications, all worsened by controversies surrounding equity, academic freedom, sexual misconduct, and the exploitation of student athletes.

Then there was the opposing, far more positive view:  That American universities remain the envy of the world, that despite modest recent declines, undergraduate enrollment stood at an unprecedented level, that graduate enrollments, even in the midst of the pandemic, continue to soar, and, in absolute terms, public investments persist at near record high levels.

Any fair assessment must balance the system’s great accomplishments in terms of expanded access, inclusion, and research productivity against its unquestionable weaknesses:  extreme stratification in resources, reputation, and completion rates; increasing reliance on non-tenured faculty; and pervasive inequities, which include the underrepresentation of women and scholars of color on the faculty and the relegation of a disproportionate share of low-income students to the least resourced institutions.

Perhaps our salvation lies in increased federal generosity, and while the signs are more hopeful than they were a couple of months ago, I wouldn’t count on government largess, especially if I work at a private institution.

Nor does it make sense to try to cut your way to success, which will only diminish your institution’s reputation, demoralize stakeholders, and discourage future enrollments.  No one leaps aboard a sinking ship.

The real key to institutional sustainability lies in entrepreneurship, experimentation, and an enlarged mission.  Here are some practical, pragmatic ways to do those things.

1. Embrace data.
Deploy data to evaluate and optimize your program offerings, identify curricular bottlenecks, target advising and support services, and assess the effectiveness of student success initiatives for various subpopulations.

Data can be used descriptively, predictively, and proscriptively.  Respond proactively to indicators of students at-risk of failure or dropping out, including low levels of LMS activity, low grades or credit accumulation during the first semester, inability to enter a first-choice major or delayed choice of major, and a drop off in credits accumulated.  Also use data to inform programmatic investments and identify untapped student markets.

2. Boost students’ ROI.
As one the largest investments that any family will make, students and parents need to know about the return on investment they can expect.  ROI is, of course, partly financial, and differs widely by major, institution type, and time to degree.  But ROI also takes other forms, including the quality of instruction, the level of student-faculty interaction, access to high impact educational practices, support for career development, and engagement in campus activities.  Your institution needs to do whatever it can to maximize these aspects of campus life.

3. Increase retention rates, academic momentum, and students’ academic success.
If you’ve paid any attention to the scholarship on student success, you know that most students drop out not because they’re academic unprepared or unmotivated or in poor academic standing, but for other reasons.

They received poor first semester grades. They’re closed out of the first-choice major. They can’t get into the courses they need. They failed to receive adequate advising. They feel isolated and disconnected. Or life got into the way and the institution didn’t do enough to keep them on board.

In all too many cases, the students dropped out as a result of institutional policies (for example, because credits didn’t transfer or didn’t apply to gen ed or major requirements) or poor course scheduling or adjustment issues or the misfortune of encountering a faculty member who teaches poorly or grades punitively or unfairly.

We possess the power to address these problems: to intervene rapidly, to “process analyze” students’ academic journeys, to optimize course schedules, remove hurdles to graduation, redesign gateway classes, and enhance students’ sense of belonging – and create first and second year catapults to sustain or even boost students’ momentum.

4. Create greater curricular coherence.
Why not align mathematics and statistics courses with broad areas of student interest, whether business, healthcare, the social sciences, or the arts and humanities?  Ditto for freshman composition and lower-division humanities courses.  Offer lower-division courses in the digital humanities, the medical humanities, the history of science and technology, or courses that offer humanistic perspectives on business, engineering, and new media.

5. Pursue new markets.
Even though the high school age population is declining, opportunities abound.  Think transfer students,  stop-outs, post-baccs, and working adults seeking short-term, non-degree credentials.  Also consider partnerships with businesses to offer targeted training.

6. Forge alliances.
Consider course sharing and 2+2 programs in high demand, but costly, difficult to staff areas of study. Or how about supplementing study abroad with the opportunity to spend a semester or academic year at another campus.  (Certainly, among the high points of my undergraduate education was the time I spent at Fisk University, where I had the opportunity to work with the writer Arna Bontemps and the artist Aaron Douglas).

7. Make the academic experience more attractive and distinctive.
Good ideas lie all around us.  Cohorts offer a way to place relationships at the center of the student experience.  You might place many, indeed most, students into a cohort, whether in a Meta Major, a learning community, or an research or opportunity program.  Not only does participation in an interest group enhance a sense of belonging, it helps students identify the major that they wish to pursue.

Expand research and internship opportunities. Integrate certification and skills badges into the curriculum.  Offer more studio, field, and clinical experiences and workshop classes.

All of us hope that vaccination will allow for a post-crisis return to some semblance of normality.  But normal should not mean the restoration of the old ways of doing business.

Going back to the old normal would make sense if pre-pandemic higher education had been challenge-free.  It wasn’t.  We are now in a position to create a new normal that will accommodate greater flexibility and that will open our doors to new student populations.

There are three areas where I think we have no option but to change.

1. We must better serve populations previously underserved.
These range from high school students who need to be college ready to community college students who want a bachelor’s degree to displaced workers who need to reskill or upskill.

2. We must do much more to advance equity.
That means more aggressive recruitment, greater equity in admissions and financial aid, and greater equity in outcomes – not just higher retention and graduation rates but more diverse students graduating with degrees in high demand fields.

3. We must design for greater flexibility.
Now that non-traditional students represent the new student majority, we need to offer an educational experience that better meets their needs.  That will certainly mean making more courses available online and offering courses at times that will make it easier for students to combine their studies with work and caregiving responsibilities. It will require us to double down on the kinds of student services that pay off: intensive, targeted advising; degree mapping and career planning; as well as bridge programs, supplemental instruction, tutoring, and grants targeting retention and completion.  It also means offering more on-campus jobs.

Rather than viewing the pandemic wholly negatively, we’d do better to consider it a hard-earned learning experience that has opened our eyes, challenged us, and driven us to make long overdue reforms.

We’d be remiss if we failed to learn the pandemic’s lessons.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Monday, February 8, 2021
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Monday, February 8, 2021