Where Is Higher Education Headed in 2020?

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What a year 2020 has been so far, and we're only halfway through! What excitement awaits us July through December? Maybe we don't want to know.

One of the funnier visual comments I've seen about this year is a picture showing the two main stars from the movie Back to The Future: Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and "Doc" Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Doc is seated inside the stainless steel DeLorean car-time machine and is instructing Marty on how to use it. With great seriousness, Doc tells Marty, "Rule #1: Never set it to 2020!" How true. Let's go back to the Eighties!

For higher education, 2020 has been — and will be — a year to forget on multiple fronts. Of course the big front is COVID-19, which has also affected every other level of education as well as almost everyone else on the planet in some way. As we enter the summer months, colleges and universities are forming and finalizing their plans for fall semester.

A large percentage (almost two-thirds) are planning on bringing students back to campus. Some have decided to continue exclusively with online classes, others will go "hybrid" using both approaches, and some are still deciding. The fallout from the pandemic has colored just about every facet of higher education and caused much dislocation and reassessment.

However, other trends are at work that will also have significant impacts on how schools will continue to manage their strategic plans. We should keep those in mind, too, and not allow the huge scale of the coronavirus drama to distract us from these factors. Here are some details about that from 7 higher education trends to watch in 2020, as described by Education Dive's Jeremy Bauer-Wolf.

First of all, what are those seven?

- College closures and mergers

- Effects of deregulation

- Higher ed and the 2020 election

- Adult students and online learning

- Workforce development initiatives

- Standardized testing under fire

- Scrutiny in admissions

College Closures and Mergers

I don't have space to discuss all seven, but I do have some comments about three of them. I've discussed college closings and mergers before, but Bauer-Wolf notes:

A rash of factors is threatening the financial health of small institutions, particularly in New England and the Midwest, where several shut their doors last year.

Moody's Investors Service predicts around 15 closures for 2020. High-profile cases such as the abrupt demise of Mount Ida College in 2018 have drawn policymakers to this issue. Despite the clout of Massachusetts' private colleges, the state legislature late last year passed a unique law that increased oversight of their finances and could help alert state regulators to an imminent closure. Pundits believe these measures could serve as a model for other jurisdictions

Some college operators have attempted to rebrand and even spin off their institutions as nonprofits, but 2019 showed potential roadblocks ahead for those trying to do so.

The consolidation trend is affecting some public systems, too. Recently, the University of Alaska System proposed merging its three accredited campuses into a single entity as a way to absorb the blow of massive state cuts, but that idea has since been rejected.

From my perspective, I think Moody's number is low. My guess is nearer the two-dozen mark. I say that because of the combined effect of pandemic-related expenses, the national trend of dropping enrollment, and the increase in trade-related educational decisions. COVID-19 has caused a surge of financial consequences for both colleges and economically disadvantaged students and families, creating a vicious cycle of negative fallout.

Lost family jobs have damaged enrollment, which has cut schools' revenue, thus requiring administrators to dramatically alter five-year plans. How higher educational institutions will deal with this remains to be seen, but the outlook is not bright. Alumni giving, endowments, financial aid reserves, tuition, etc. will likely dissipate and the impending economic downturn (some say depression) will demand that schools make significant changes to stay afloat. If they don't or can't, their future will be finite.

Standardized Testing Under Fire

What about the domino effect of colleges dropping the SAT and ACT as an admission requirement? This trend is sweeping the nation. reports that, currently, almost 1,300 colleges and universities don't require the SAT or ACT as part of their application process. Bauer-Wolf observes:

Opponents of standardized testing in college admissions have framed the two assessments as exclusionary to minority and low-income students who may not be able to afford the same type of prep as their more affluent peers. They also may not have the time or transportation access to get to a testing site or the means to afford to take the test several times to improve their scores.

What may be the biggest development on the test-optional front so far came in 2019, when advocacy groups sued the University of California System over its use of the tests in admissions ...

Perhaps the main domino in all this is the Ivy League. All eight Ivy League schools, with Princeton being the last to decide, are now test-optional for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. One has to wonder how the trickle-down effect of this huge revenue loss will affect the Educational Testing Service, College Board, and American College Testing organizations. Will some of their associates be joining the unemployment lines?

Scrutiny in Admissions

The COVID-19 crisis certainly pushed the college admissions scandal out of the headlines and off front pages with a vengeance. Nothing elevates a scandal like a celebrity connection, and actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman propelled Varsity Blues into the stratosphere, dominating much of the news for most of the year preceding the coronavirus shutdown. As Bauer-Wolf says:

The Varsity Blues scandal shook the admissions field, exposing how the system was vulnerable to exploitation by wealthy and influential individuals who used their advantage to secure their children spots at elite institutions they may not have been qualified to attend.

In its wake, practitioners cited a need to reflect on, and even change, their practices.

Meanwhile, a long-running and controversial lawsuit against Harvard University for its use of affirmative action in admissions was decided this fall. A federal judge ruled that the university hadn't been prejudicial in its admissions processes for Asian American students.

The decision was viewed as a win for efforts to protect widely-challenged policies that let colleges use race as a factor in admissions

As someone who has worked with many high school seniors on their college admissions processes, I'm certainly not naive enough to believe that getting into college is based exclusively on merit. However, speaking of domino effects once again, the Varsity Blues scandal, which is still ongoing, uncovered enough nefarious activity that now many colleges, in addition to the guilty ones, are working to correct any corruption, regardless of how slight, in their admission protocols.

Can the second half of 2020 be any more dramatic than the first half? Let's hope not. There is definitely something to be said for "business as usual."

Pending dramas to watch for will include how well colleges manage COVID-19-related issues when students return to campus. Also, what effects will economic and coronavirus factors have on college enrollment? And let's not forget college sports. How will they play out, so to speak?

One final question: With the way things have been going so far this year, could we ever muster the courage to go back to the future? My advice: Don't touch that dial!

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