A tremendous thanks to our heroes—students, faculty, and staff—for enabling a return to something approximating normal campus operations. Without your patience, understanding, and more importantly the care, respect, and courtesy you show one another by masking, getting vaccinated in the interest of personal and public health, our universities could not possibly have done this.
Eventually, this pandemic will recede or become endemic and part of the fabric of our lives. As it does, it is hard to not think about our future—the future of higher education generally—and the choices we are making today that will shape it. Inspired by summer reading, let me offer a few thoughts and, as always, invite your feedback, which you can share by contacting me at.
The transformation of our nation’s universities will proceed incrementally, then all at once. That is the conclusion reached independently (for the United States) by Levine and Van Pelt inand (for Oceania) by a team of futurists at EY Parthenon in “ Incremental change has been a feature of our lives for decades. Will the pandemic be an accelerant into hyperdrive? The significant shifts we are seeing in enrollment patterns and in student preferences with respect to instructional modality, regional location, available student services, and credentialing type suggest we are (see , and ).
Responding to these shifts, universities and colleges across the country will undoubtedly accelerate the pace of transformation, even where responses are intended as short-term expediencies to navigate a hyper-competitive market for student enrollments. And yes, those responses are already apparent. The persistence of test-optional admissions is a good example. So is the growing emphasis on job-readiness at traditional degree-granting colleges and universities. This includes expansion in experiential learning opportunities and an explosion in the number of non-degree credentials. And one cannot ignore the emergence of mass-market platforms such asthat have potential to encroach significantly on the near monopoly that the degree-granting institutions have traditionally held over post-secondary education.
The thought of maintaining the omni-channel university makes my brain
hurt. At the same time, it is tremendously exciting. It affords us the opportunity
of personalizing educational offerings at the scheduled class and learning
outcome (rather than the program or even course) levels. More importantly, it
responds directly to student preferences, which together cry out for the
deepest kind of “personalization”—that is, the ability to combine curricular
and co-curricular experiences in a way that suits the student’s particular needs,
circumstances, and learning styles.
I first noticed it here at home during student focus groups that I
conducted last year during virtual campus visits. Yes, students pretty much
uniformly expressed an intense desire for a full “return to campus” (not
surprising—these students had enrolled by choice in an on-campus experience, not
a fully online one). But they also brought diverse perspectives to what “return
to campus” should entail. A student-athlete whose schedule was consumed by
training and the resultant search for fuel needed flexibility day-by-day to
determine how to engage in scheduled courses. She represented a broader group
whose life schedules required them to accommodate pressing and evolving
priorities—athletics, work, family—as well as higher education, and preferring
to decide daily rather than committing wholly to one modality or another. Others
yearned intently to get “back to class,” but to continue some non- or co-curricular
aspects of their educational experience remotely, e.g., 1:1 support services and/or
basic administrative and business functions. And yearning to get “back to class”
turned out also meant different things to different students. Some didn’t like
or had trouble learning in remote modalities and wanted face-to-face
experiences uniformly across the board. Others wanted some of their courses
face-to-face (e.g., lab sciences and performing arts and/or courses contributing
credits towards their major), but actually preferred other courses remotely.
My take away from these focus group discussions had absolutely nothing
to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of different educational
delivery modalities. Rather it revealed how, in a world that increasingly skews
to the personalization of everything, universities and colleges still emphasize
a very traditional “few-sizes-fit-all” approach. Quaint, perhaps, but I’m not
convinced that “quaint” will continue much longer as our strongest selling
point. Given the dramatic shifts referenced above in demographic patterns and
student preferences—and the intensity that those shifts will inject into an
already hyper-competitive marketplace—a race to re-establish the “old normal” is
likely to be catastrophic. Beware reactionary traditionalist approaches to pandemic
recovery. As an industry (and as a society), we will eventually “return to
normal,” but that normal will look a lot different than the one we knew in
Under the heading of challenging old norms, let me suggest that
Baldwin’s “ Both reads also reinforced how our State System’s
emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion is 1.) more important now than
ever, and 2.) the right thing to do for all members of our communities.
Like Genovese’s work on the Antebellum South ( It reflects our inhumanity, worse—given its
persistence—our apparent willingness and ability to tolerate intolerance.
Yes, I understand that intolerance is once again a defining feature of our nation’s political discourse; as Anderson shows us in, this is a feature not a bug in American political culture. It characterizes newly-minted forms of tribalism (perhaps in a revised edition of , the presence or absence of masks or COVID-19 vaccines will be the defining characteristic of the island’s ascendant and ultimately murderous tribes). All the more reason for universities to take a stand and fight the trend, to shape a better future by modeling healthier and more civil discourse that honors and respects differences in opinion, world view, culture, upbringing, race, gender, identity, and more.
I also spent time this summer with “
Let me offer one last thought as a shameless trailer for my October
blog, yet still in keeping with the theme of challenging old norms. We are
uniquely positioned to succeed in the transformative work that lies ahead—transformative
work that is essential to fulfilling our historic mission into the 21st
century in the interest of our students, their communities, and the
Commonwealth. We have, in short order, put ourselves on a path to financial
stabilization, re-framed our partnership with the Commonwealth, and—through our
collective work on System Redesign—developed and financed a number of
high-impact strategies that will enable us to navigate the challenges outlined
above. Perhaps as importantly we are positioned to build our future on our
enormous existing strengths. These are a legion of strengths, but let me focus
The transformative work is hard, but it is worth it for our students
and the Commonwealth. This will become evident in data we will be releasing
this fall. They testify to the enormous value we offer our graduates who are
rewarded for the investments they make in a State System education. The data
also demonstrate the value we offer to the state as an engine of Pennsylvania’s
economic development and its people’s social mobility. There is evidence that a State System
university reduces inequities which are smaller amongst our graduates than they
are amongst our enrollees.
The transformative work needn’t be de
novo, conducted entirely in green fields.
It will be built upon core competencies, including our tremendous agility. After what we have pulled off in the wake of a global pandemic, no one can credibly claim that higher education is unresponsive, change resistant. We are tired—all of us—but I hope we are also tremendously proud of who we are, what we have done, what we continue to do under the most trying circumstances for our students, their employers, our communities.
It will also be built upon existing initiatives and strategic university
investments that are already bearing fruit across the system in areas we know
we must excel. A few examples, but please, the list is nothing like exhaustive
so forgive omissions: it includes progress strengthening transfer student
pipelines (e.g., at West Chester); expanding high-school dual enrollment
opportunities (e.g., at Mansfield); improving traditional students’ retention
and graduation rates (e.g., at Kutztown); making university communities more
welcoming for all students (e.g., at East Stroudsburg); making progress against
equity gaps (e.g., at Shippensburg); expanding non-degree credentialing
opportunities in partnership with employers (e.g., in the northeast
integration); forging partnerships to expand student internships and externships
(e.g., at Cheyney), and expanding fully online opportunities to those seeking
undergraduate degrees (e.g., in the western integration).
It will be built—it can only be built—upon expanded investment of our owners, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and we are committed to make that happen.