If you have traveled by air in recent weeks, you know airline delays and cancellations have spiked because of a confluence of bad weather and crew shortages caused by the Omicron surge.
During a business trip of my own this week that was full of mutiple delays, two missed connections, and 5+ hours of driving to alternative airports, I overhead a fellow traveler sum it up this way to her companion: “Remind me again why we’re flying to this meeting?”
It’s unlikely business travel will return to pre-pandemic levels unless the experience itself changes—whether it’s the reason we need to gather in-person or the airlines improve their service and rethink their pricing model.
The longer the virus endures, the more it chips away at the ability of different sectors of the economy, like business travel, to bounce back.
Add higher ed to that list, too.
Campuses are now in their fifth semester of managing Covid-19, and as the New York Times reported recently, many colleges are now discussing Covid in “endemic” terms. But as the Walll Street Journal‘s Greg Ip wrote yesterday, the new normal of an endemic won’t be the same as the old normal of 2019. “Endemic Covid-19 will still take a toll on health, work and mobility; the only question is how big.”
Five semesters into this crisis, higher ed still hasn’t come to grips with revisiting an historical model that isn’t totally dependent on in-person learning in a physical place resulting in a legacy credential.
“We’re exhausted and we’re in denial,” a college president told me last week. I asked if there was any discussion on campus about going virtual this spring with Omicron raging. “Zero,” the president said. “Harvard might be able to afford it, but we can’t.”
Just like the airlines built a business model that depends on business travelers to subsidize low leisure fares, colleges campuses have constructed models that require revenue from students learning, living, eating, and being entertained in a physical location.
The longer that model is disrupted by the coronavirus, the less resilient it becomes to returning in its pre-pandemic form.
The latest enrollment numbers released last week illustrate that just like business travelers aren’t returning to the skies, students aren’t returning to campuses. Federal relief concealed the financial problems for higher ed last year, but that $70 billion from Washington will run out this year.
Warnings about the end of the federal dollars are mentioned in nearly every Moody’s bond rating report that lands in my in-box these days. In downgrading Birmingham-Southern College this week, Moody’s noted “the pandemic created revenue headwinds partially offset by federal relief funding in fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021, but relief funding will be much lower in fiscal 2022.”
Colleges and universities still have time to build a real, long-term competitive advantage coming out of the pandemic, but their runway is short.
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Events & Announcements
🔜Today at Noon ET, Western Governors University president, Scott Pulsipher, joins me for a LinkedIn Live to explain how his institution measures and explains its value to the public and what they have learned in doing so that might apply to the rest of higher ed.
To watch, go to my LinkedIn page or click +FOLLOW on my profile to be notified when we’re live (the conversation will also be archived there).
🖥Next Thursday, January 27, at 2 p.m. ET, is the Next Office Hour. Our topic: how colleges can build more equitable pathways to careers for underrepresented students.
This discussion is based on a new paper that will be released later this month, co-authored by Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute, and Chris Howard, president of Robert Morris University. They’ll join me for the office hour along with Yvette Burton, behavioral scientist and workforce strategist, and Branden Grimmett, associate provost at Loyola Marymount University.
⁉️ Ask Future U. a question: The Future U. podcast regularly takes listener questions about the future of higher ed and work and what’s next for innovation at colleges and universities. If we end up answering your question on the air, you’ll get swag: a Future U. Tervis tumbler. Fill out this form or reply to this email with your question.
The Case for Digital Transformation
The longer the virus endures, the more it chips away at the ability of higher ed to bounce back.
The rapid spread of technology accelerated by Covid-19 has led to a pressing need for higher ed to adapt. What was once thought of as a short-term pivot to “emergency remote education” at the beginning of the pandemic is fast becoming a new normal, I write in a new paper released this week.
Pre-Covid, the idea of an interconnected and seamless “digital campus”—with technology delivering insights to faculty, data-driven decisions by administrators, and customizing the student experience using advanced analytics—proved elusive.
But now, learning, research, and the academic workplace itself are all undergoing a radical rethinking of their traditions and way of doing business.
Background: Instead of being seen as a service provider like a utility, technology is more valuable to higher ed when embedded in different aspect of campus life—to increase student success, research prowess, and prestige.
Digital transformation means fundamentally stepping back and reconceiving the classroom, the student journey through college, the campus workplace, and how research is conducted.
The big picture: While university presidents believe that they’ve been leading in digital transformation given their huge investments in technology over the last decade, the reality on many campuses is that technology has been mostly adapted to fit the old way of doing business.
A 2021 survey by Boston Consulting Group of higher education administrators found a wide divide between leaders who think their campuses have achieved digital transformation and those that actually have.
The good news is that colleges and universities still have time to close the digital gap by focusing on four areas the research found drive digital transformation.
Those four areas include modernizing campus information systems; blending different streams of data on campus constituents for better insight; using technology to enrich the student experience; and harnessing computing power to accelerate research breakthroughs.
How it works: In interviews, college leaders and technology administrators suggested three ways campuses can accelerate their digital plans.
Focus on the outcomes. With so many possibilities, it’s easy for college leaders to get overwhelmed. Colleges should focus on what they want to achieve—better graduation rates, more engaged students, or research with more impact.
Start with the supporters. On most campuses there are departments and schools that are more innovative than others, willing to experiment and try things. College leaders should start new digital initiatives in those areas to serve as proof points for others.
Improve digital literacy. Research shows that most people aren’t very good at interpreting and making sense of data. Colleges need to build peer-to-peer learning networks or encourage key employees to enroll in data literacy and science courses.
Why it matters: The coronavirus exposed the lack of a reliable digital backbone at scores of colleges.
Many systems cracked under the weight of heavy usage leaving administrators unable to plan in that critical period because they lacked real-time data about their operations.
My interviews uncovered that a rapid response on the academic front was largely made possible by digital plumbing laid years earlier. “We were planning for a pandemic before we even knew what a pandemic was,” Param Bedi, vice president for library and information technology at Bucknell University, told me.
Freed from worrying about critical updates to systems, Bucknell estimates it found 40% more time on its IT staff to work on strategic projects with faculty and students.
Bottom line: The argument has always been that technology can go only so far to transform the underlying business model of higher ed. But examples I found in the course of reporting the paper at Bucknell University, Maryville University, and the University of California at San Diego show that change is often enabled by technology with people at the core.
👉 Download the brief, Strategies for Digital Transformation in Higher Ed, here (with support from AWS; free registration required)
A new admissions podcast has hit the airwaves—Inside Admission. I joined the creator and host, Andrew Palumbo, the vice president for enrollment management at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, for episode #3. We talked about my own college search and what’s different for today’s students from test-optional to financial aid to asking the right questions.
What are the fatest growing job titles over the past five years? LinkedIn mined its data to come up with this ranking of the 25 fastest-growing job titles. There are roles pointing to the demand in health care, a reshaping of company culture (such as diversity & inclusion manager), and the rising value of technical roles (such as technical product manager and back end developer).
Scott Galloway is not shy about his criticism of higher ed and he didn’t let up in a recent episode of the Pivot podcast (starting around the 11-minute mark) “Higher ed has been the greatest assault on the middle class in the last 40 years,” he said. “The one thing that the middle class is told they have failed as a parent unless they buy has skyrocketed in price.”
Before the pandemic, the College Board sold more than 80 million names annually to colleges and scholarship organizations from those teenagers who took the SAT. The ACT did the same. The question now is with the rise of test optional, whether fewer students will take the test and force colleges to look for “leads” elsewhere. One place they’re increasingly looking: Naviance. The college search tool, which reaches about two thirds of the students enrolled in high school, is filled with advertisements from colleges targeting specific kinds of prospects, writes The Markup‘s Todd Feathers.