Forecasting the Fall: Calamity or Opportunity?

Photo of rough waters

In these rough waters, higher education leaders cannot indulge the luxury of sitting back and waiting to see what everyone else does. Whatever happens with the pandemic or the economy, we are not going to see a simple “return to normal” or to the conditions under which our institutions operated in January, and leaders must take decisive action if they are to position their institutions for a changing future.

by John King, Ed.D., strategic consultant, recently interim provost at the College of Western Idaho

Higher education finds itself at a tipping point where leaders must make decisions about how to respond to today’s chaotic world situation: Return operations as they were, or adjust to a changing world? As of this writing, COVID-19 has infected over two million Americans, that we know of. Experts are saying that we are at the front end of this pandemic curve as opposed to its end. We are also experiencing an economic downturn that has caused massive unemployment and officially thrown the country into a recession. On top of all that, recent civilian deaths at the hands of police have led to nationwide protests over racial and social inequality and excessive police violence against minorities. Any one of these situations would be a lot for any institution to deal with but all three at once creates a complex dilemma for colleges and universities to come to grips with. Media coverage of all of these events have been presented under the banner of “Nation in Crisis,” which is an apt description of where we currently find ourselves.

“Nation in Crisis” and Higher Ed in Crisis

Medical experts have no idea if or when this pandemic will begin to recede and if and when a vaccine will be available. COVID-19 testing is at best spotty. Economists have predicted that it may take up to nine years to see a full recovery of the economy. Nationwide protests are still ongoing and federal, state and local governments are struggling with how to respond to concerns of racial and social injustice and inequality and discriminatory and militaristic policing. Yet amidst this turmoil academic leaders must make decisions now on how their institutions will respond to these issues this Fall.

To paraphrase the media’s “national” theme, we are also experiencing “Higher Education in Crisis.” In March, colleges and universities shut down their campus operations, sent their students, faculty and staff home, and began online operations, often in a haphazard manner. Administrators quickly developed resources, policies, and processes in an attempt to train and equip faculty, direct staff in providing services at a distance, and effectively serve and educate students. Administrators, faculty and staff have been tested, tired, and frustrated. Budgets and endowments shrank, and in some cases depleted. Furloughs and staff reductions became a reality for many institutions. Students and their parents have been dissatisfied and demanding, and their return in the fall has come into question. Doubts about institutions’ futures enter many conversations and will become a reality for many organizations. Ergo, “Higher Education in Crisis” is also an apt description for where we find ourselves today.

On this topic of crisis, I am reading a book by Ken Sherwood titled The Survivor’s Club. In the book, Mr. Sherwood discusses how studies have identified and illustrated the way people respond, historically, to crisis. He describes a 10-80-10 Rule. According to this rule, 10% of the people will take decisive action to improve their current situation, 80% will freeze and wait for leadership to tell them what to do and then follow the herd, and 10% will act in a negative manner, making matters worse for themselves, usually resulting in disaster.

As I look and listen to events shaping higher education today, I can see a version of this 10-80-10 Rule occurring:

  • Surely 10% of colleges and universities are taking decisive action to explore and prepare various scenarios that they can quickly implement regardless of the state of the pandemic or economic conditions.
  • Fully 80% of colleges and universities are taking a “wait and see” approach to returning to operations in the Fall, crossing their fingers that conditions will enable them to go back to their old ways of operation.
  • Another 10% are firm in their position that, “come hell or high water,” they will open in the fall with students congregating in and out of class as they normally would, regardless of risks to health, or economic or legal repercussions.

We Can’t Just “Wait and See”

Higher education leaders do not have the luxury to sit in the 80% waiting for directions on how to proceed.

They need to be in that 10% that will take decisive action to respond to current conditions and plan for a successful reopening—in one form or another. Leadership must respond quickly. One certainty is that a return to the institution they operated in January is no longer an option. They must evolve or sink. It is to colleges’ and universities’ benefit to approach the current situation as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and find different and better ways to serve their students, communities and other stakeholders.

I am not naïve enough to believe that colleges and universities will not face many challenges in the near future. Medical experts project that COVID-19 will be with us for some time before a vaccine is readily available for widespread distribution. Social distancing, testing, and contact tracing are expected to be the norm for any type of operation well into next year. Health facilities and procedures must be created or expanded to create testing for and treatment of COVID-19 spikes. Classrooms, labs, dormitories, libraries, cafeterias and other college facilities must be reconfigured and equipped for sanitation and social distancing. Safe sports and extracurricular activities are in doubt. Questions about mitigating liability issues must be addressed. Marketing and admissions strategies must be re-tasked to account for student and parent reluctance or doubt about returning to campus in the fall. Budgets must be re-projected to allow for anticipated funding, donation, and endowment shortages. Programmatic, faculty and staffing decisions must be made to account for reduced populations and different student needs. Instructional methodologies must be reexamined and expanded to address the changing environment and to meet the needs of a changing marketplace and workforce. Educational costs must be restructured to account for economic conditions, availability of student aid, and students’ ability to pay. Higher education will need to grapple with how to address the social unrest and unemployment present in the United States and its role in addressing and changing these predicaments.

The Opportunity to Reinvent Ourselves

As an optimist, I see many ways in which higher education can reinvent itself to both survive and prosper through these turbulent times. Wise leadership, that top 10% if you will, has been actively involved in scenario planning to develop strategies to address potential situations they may face in the Fall. Prophetic leadership for years now has been anticipating a disruption in higher education and taken steps to reinvent their organizations to prepare for the eventual change. I would identify the University of Southern New Hampshire as one of these organizations that has been well prepared for the coming restructuring of higher education. Although no one could have predicted a pandemic and its eventual economic implications, SNHU’s focus and strategies to adapt to the changing future of higher education have prepared them better for this crisis than most institutions.

The pandemic, though devastating in its impact on the world, may create a new niche and need for higher education. Healthcare workers have been challenged and stressed like never before, and the stress and strain of this pandemic may drive many out of the profession completely. In any event, the possibility of ongoing spikes of COVID-19 and other communicable diseases will create the need for future generations of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Higher education must determine a safe and effective way to help create this trained workforce. Additionally, colleges and universities could develop additional programming to provide needed research and laboratory workers in immunology and epidemiology.

No one knows how or when the economy will recover. As I stated earlier, some economists predict it may take up to nine years. Millions of Americans are unemployed and thousands of businesses are still closed or at least operating at partial capacity. Industry has already lost billions of dollars in sales and productivity. Many of these businesses will not survive, and many of the jobs these employees performed will not return. Government has created and poured trillions of dollars to support these workers and these industries however, it cannot continue to do this long term. Government can, however, invest in infrastructure and emerging industries such as alternative energy sources, artificial intelligence, and robotics to support the new companies and jobs that will emerge from a reborn economic system.


Higher education has the opportunity to anticipate these emerging industries and employment needs and partner with government and industry to create the training needed to support them. For example, colleges and universities can partner with existing and startup organizations to create programming in emerging fields. Workers from the hospitality, travel, and retail industry who are unemployed may be leery about the future stability of those industries. Colleges and universities can provide training to help these individuals learn a new trade to participate in infrastructure; computer skills to enter artificial intelligence or robotics or other technology fields; or science skills for emerging health, research, or energy careers. Higher education has a role to play in the economic reboot; however, it must do so in a way that presents quick, economical, and efficient ways to develop and implement programming and training for these emerging industries and workforces. MIT with Google, and Harvard with Facebook, among others, are already teaming up to address this need.

Short-term, competency-based, economical, non-credit programs and courses are one way to address the needs of unemployed and displaced workers, as well as the hiring needs of surviving and emerging industries. Displaced workers’ lack of funds and employers’ urgent need for trained workers creates an ideal situation for these types of programs to be successful:

  • Short-term is critical  because of the speed required by both workers and employers.
  • Competency-based allows for students to progress at their own speed while assuring the competency and completeness of training. Competency-based programming and credits may also transfer more easily between institutions, as student mastery of content is more easily verified.
  • Economical allows the institution to deliver the training that covers their costs but does not overtax the students. Costs and tuition can also be shared by the companies that will benefit from the trained employees, to further reduce the burden on the schools and the students.
  • Non-credit eliminates some of the accreditation and regulatory obstacles that can slow down or block just-in-time programming.

Online and blended instructional methodologies also enter into this equation, as training must be delivered in a safe yet effective and efficient manner. Simulations, tutorials, and computer-based instructional materials can also be an asset to this programming.


Student populations for the fall are in doubt. Some students will opt for a gap year. Others will need to work to continue to pay for college. Some students and their parents are concerned about safety issues and would prefer to stay at home or close to home. Some did not like the experience they had with online instruction during the spring and will opt to wait until it is safe to return to campus for face-to-face classes. Colleges and universities must consider all of these contingencies and prepare strategies to address all of their students’ needs. Classroom and laboratory redesign and sanitation processes can help to alleviate concerns about safety and social distancing. Testing and contact tracing are also strategies that are emerging; however, testing inaccuracy and trained contact tracers are in short supply. Despite these issues and needs, there are opportunities for colleges and universities.

Graduating high school seniors’ reluctance to move away for college will create a demand for low-cost, local, and in some cases online college-level education. Local colleges and universities can leverage the relationships and reputations they currently have within their communities, marketing less expensive and local degree-based programming to graduating seniors and dual-credit students who are seeking to stay close to home. Local schools may not have the glamour and allure of a four-year education away from home, but their proximity can help alleviate some of the safety concerns that students and parents have. Community colleges especially can benefit from positioning themselves as a nearby, economical alternative; they can promote the ease and cost benefits of working on the first two-years of a degree until the worst of the pandemic passes before proceeding to the four-year school of the student’s dreams.

Opportunities also exist to meet the needs of current students who may be hesitant to return in the Fall. An increase in the number of online and blended offerings coupled with expanded faculty training in the online pedagogies and online teaching effectiveness can help to assure quality and flexible continuation of these students’ education. Emerging needs for new, economical, and expedient teaching methodologies should ease federal, state, and accreditation regulations and approval processes, allowing for more experimentation in instructional methodologies that will appeal to students and improve their academic performance and experience. Creation of new programs and/or courses to address emerging market needs can appeal to students who are leery about continuing their existing course of study and who would like to pursue new, more stable or guaranteed career goals. A conversion to shorter terms can also allow for a greater number of course options and offerings and lead to quicker program completion. Tuition discounting can serve as an incentive for students to return to campus, especially for those who have been negatively impacted by the economic recession. For years now, discussion has centered around the exorbitant cost of higher education and student debt coming out of college. Forward-thinking institutions are already slashing tuition costs as a means to ease enrollment for returning students. Again, one can look at the University of Southern New Hampshire for one example. SNHU’s plan is to reduce tuition by 61%, to $10,000 per year, by 2021. (SNHU’s Advantage and Project Atlas competency-based programs are currently being offered for $10,000 or less.) SNHU faculty are also at work on three campus-based delivery models for their courses: all online, in a hybrid model, or project-based.


It is abundantly clear that leaders across institutions in our sector will face budgetary issues in the coming academic year. Local and state governments have exhausted their budgets faster than anticipated due to the current crisis. When it comes to higher education budgets, it will be more a case of can’t as opposed to don’t want to. State and local funding will be drastically reduced. Lack of sporting, cultural, and special events will eliminate needed revenue. College endowments and reserves are also being diminished and depleted. Donations are projected to be in decline for the next few years. Colleges and universities will be challenged with the need to get lean and mean like never before. Insightful institutions will look at this as an opportunity to:

  • Eliminate expenditures that are nice but not necessary.
  • Prioritize essential programs and courses and eliminate or reduce those that do not meet needed standards.
  • Analyze capital expenditures for their overall cost and the benefit and return they will provide.
  • Analyze high cost programming, venues, and luxury student amenities, and eliminate these where warranted.
  • Trim (where appropriate) sports, cultural, and extracurricular programs that are not self-sufficient, mandated, or revenue-producing.
  • Review operating costs to eliminate those that are unnecessary and trim those that can be reduced.
  • Right-size management structures, staffing, and faculty to support the revamped campus operation.

Resources should be targeted to those areas that will appropriately and efficiently support students and improve teaching and learning.


The social unrest that the country is experiencing is not something colleges and universities can be mere spectators to. Institutions must decide how they will address these issues for both their students and their communities. The research is clear that post-secondary education is a path to economic self-sufficiency and overall economic and societal benefit. This is a message colleges and universities can communicate through their programming, policies, and process choices. Colleges and universities can and should work with their local communities to discuss and determine the role they can and should play in creating opportunities that will benefit all members of these communities.

The Urgency to Act

It is easy for me to sit on the sidelines and throw out all of these ideas without having the responsibility to answer to an organization or institution. Last year, however, I spent five months as an interim provost at a community college. I was asked to come in and analyze the situation and develop and implement plans to improve the college. I recommended that the college abandon plans to invest in a multi-facility campus infrastructure and instead invest in instructional technology. I recommended that the college realize their dependence on reduced-tuition, dual-credit students, the majority of whom had never set foot on campus nor planned to complete a degree with the college. I recommended that more effort be put into efforts to keep the students they currently had and provide easier paths to completion. Specifically, I recommended that terms be reduced from sixteen to eight weeks to allow for greater frequency of class offerings and quicker time to degree completion. I recommended that additional revenue streams be developed, especially in the area of non-credit, short-term industry training. I developed a series of short online delivered tutorials around “soft skills” and “study skills” to better prepare students for learning—and that could be grouped into a professional certificate to address employer concerns and help students demonstrate their employability. I stressed improved ongoing faculty development around instructional methodology and changing student needs. I recommended that instruction be delivered in a more adaptive, blended and online, and competency-based manner to provide more flexible and student-focused learning options. I provided faculty with multiple articles and research reports on higher education to support my recommendations. I also started questioning every expenditure and introduced a foreign word to their lexicon, “no.”

Although I have been gone for a year, I still communicate with the college. The draconian budget cutting I put in place helped the college to flourish despite a state-wide, massive education budget cut. My successor as provost has continued and enhanced my ideas, ultimately won over the faculty, and is moving the organization in a positive direction. The college was well-prepared to address the challenges raised by the pandemic and the economic downturn, and has weathered the storm beautifully. As for me, I am no longer viewed as a pariah but rather as a prophet who perhaps had some pretty good ideas.

Faculty and staff at colleges and universities generally fall within the 80% of the 10-80-10 Rule. They look to their leaders for direction and a sense of confidence that they will operate in a safe, sustainable, and successful manner which serves the needs of all of its stakeholders. The challenge for today’s higher education leaders is to decide how they will lead with authenticity, clarity, and courage in a time of higher education crisis. Leaders cannot sit on the sidelines—too much is at stake. Good luck.


Image credit: Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash.

Lead with Confidence amid Crisis

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