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Colleges’ Pre-Pandemic Problems Now Magnified

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The year 2020 has been like no other for most of us. The effect of this year's challenges on higher education has been disturbing, to say the least. Top administrators have struggled to keep their institutions viable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.


While the news has been filled with the names of some of the most recognizable schools — the Ivies and many Top-20s — other less well-known but worthy dot-edus have had their share of struggles as well. Yesterday, I came across an article about the issues some of these schools are facing: 7 college presidents share their biggest challenges for 2020 is dated February 6, 2020, on the eve of the COVID-19 impact. By mid-March, colleges and universities sent their students home and converted to online instruction for the remainder of spring semester.

Reading about these presidents' concerns, which were aired before they encountered their pandemic hurdles, shows how complex the role of a higher education president is. I think it's important to read about their pre-pandemic issues to understand the difficulties of steering a college through normal times. Imagine what it must be like now, mid-pandemic, as they try to guide their institutions into the fall semester.

College students and their parents rarely encounter college presidents, let alone get a glimpse of their circumstances and what they think about them. This article opens their office doors in a way and helps us understand some of the dynamics of higher education leadership. You may be surprised at what they're dealing with. Some problems are not all that apparent.

EducationDive's staff conducted these interviews and prefaced their summaries with this statement: "We checked in with the execs who contributed columns for last year's President Speaks series to ask what hurdles they expect on their campuses this year." If they could only have known what the big hurdle was going to be this year! Here are some highlights from five of those EducationDive interviews, followed by my comments.

Mary Marcy, Dominican University of California

One of the biggest challenges I expect to face at Dominican, and indeed expect most of higher education will be facing, is the challenge of unpredictability — in the national political climate, in the changes to enrollment practices, in the pressures on free speech and contested speech, and in the challenges to our business model. In the midst of this unpredictability, it will be essential for us to continue to implement those practices that we know are most effective for student and institutional success. It will also be important for us to continue to innovate in response to the volatile environment

The major irony of president Marcy's statement comes in the form of one twice-mentioned word: unpredictability. The unpredictability of the elements she mentions is completely dwarfed by the unpredictability of COVID-19, which was poised to emerge shortly after she cited the above challenges.

Freeman Hrabowski III, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

At a time when U.S. public life is marked by conflict and disagreement, we in higher education face the challenge of helping all of our students feel both welcome and respected within our communities. Our approach at UMBC emerges from our commitment to free expression, an inclusive practice enshrined in the Constitution that is also among our campus's core values. We recognize that the expression of opposing views can at times feel uncomfortable, or even jarring. This highlights the importance of efforts to help students navigate complexity, listen discerningly and empathically, embrace each other's humanity, and use their voices responsibly and effectively

President Hrabowski mentions "conflict and disagreement" and "free expression of opposing views," and urges students to "use their voices." Even though he couches these aspects as part of public life, he correctly includes them as part of the mosaic of college life, especially at UMBC. Once again, the future contained two additional events for president Hrabowski: COVID-19 and the mass protests following the May 25 death of George Floyd. Baltimore is an epicenter of protests, and how that will affect UMBC's plans for fall remains to be seen.

Shirley Collado, Ithaca College

The challenges we face are not unlike those confronting many of our peers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions: declining enrollment numbers, being responsive to the concerns families and students have around tuition and affordability, and creating and maintaining a campus environment that is deeply student-centered

2020 will call upon all of us in the Ithaca College family to continue our progress as we complete our year-one initiatives, and launch a fresh slate of year-two objectives that will feed our momentum and sustain our necessary transformation. I look forward to continuing this work alongside a talented, focused and fearless Ithaca College community.

In my last article, Rough Seas Ahead for Higher Education, I wrote about enrollment and cost issues. The news about these two areas is not good due to the number of gap year requests and lawsuits claiming that online classes should not cost the same as in-person instruction. President Collado is concerned about revenue and even before the pandemic, schools such as Ithaca College were struggling. I'm glad to see that news sources such as EducationDive are giving voice to these institutions' difficulties.

Lori Varlotta, Hiram College

A pressing 2020 goal — one that is both an opportunity and a challenge — is related to adult studies. Hiram is interested in paving a pathway to adult learners who need to reskill and upskill. Moving in this direction, we aim to design and deliver non-degree credentials such as badges or certificates. These credentials should be of immediate professional value to those mid-career employees who are looking to advance in their current career or start a new career entirely. Ideally, the badges and certificates will also include a future value proposition

This is one of the few examples of a college that is preparing to meet a challenge that will be aided by present-day circumstances. The pandemic lockdowns this past spring caused massive layoffs across the country. President Varlotta talks about the goal of meeting the needs of adults "who need to reskill and upskill." There are currently thousands of those available. One problem that Hiram College will need to tackle is getting the word out in order to reach those in need of retooling their careers.

Carolyn Stefanco, The College of St. Rose

Despite our many achievements, we continue to feel the effects of the changing landscape of higher education. While the dramatic enrollment decline we experienced after the recession has slowed and we made painful cuts five years ago, we are in a similar situation to that of many independent colleges and universities. Specific issues with which we grapple include "free" public tuition in New York state, the continuing demographic decline in the Northeast, new challenges in recruiting internationally and the increasing financial need of students. In our centennial year, we are focusing on finding new ways to address these market pressures so that we can best position our institution for long-term success.

President Stefanco's survey of problems is similar to many other small schools but sounds more urgent and somewhat foreboding. She reflects these comments:

Scott Carlson, senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, predicts more closures in the future. Small colleges are under pressure from higher operating costs and increasing competition from bigger institutions with more resources, he says.

"It's leaving these small colleges in a tough position, trying to attract a dwindling number of students in a high-cost environment," he says. "And that spells disaster, I think, for the fall, particularly if these students can't come back to campus because of COVID-19."

Colleges' pre-pandemic problems have been magnified tenfold by COVID-19. The whitecaps that faced colleges at the start of 2020 have become rough seas, indeed. The nautical-metaphor hope in coming years for some of these schools will be to stay afloat, however they can.

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