Dive Brief:

  • The most significant problems in higher education have not changed because of the coronavirus pandemic but have been compounded by it, according to a new report, which includes a survey of more than 550 college leaders.  
  • A potential decline in government support, and students’ well-being, were the top two concerns facing college administrators at the start of the year, finds research by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and two higher ed research and consulting firms.
  • Colleges are now planning whether and how to safely reopen campuses in the fall while also grappling with their funding pools drying up. 

Dive Insight:

The survey notes that the four biggest challenges administrators flagged — lagging government funding, student mental health and well-being, issues of diversity and inclusion, and affordability — have long plagued the sector. 

But the pandemic “turned our issues into crises — significant risks that will potentially impact the reputation and viability not just of individual institutions but of higher education for years to come,” the report states.

APLU, with higher ed consulting firms Blue Moon Consulting Group and SimpsonScarborough, surveyed 558 officials in the fall of 2019. The group was a mix of college presidents, provosts, student affairs professionals and other leaders. The researchers followed up with in-depth phone interviews of 28 presidents late last year and early this year, prior to when the coronavirus began to shutter campuses in the U.S.

More than three-quarters of the administrators reported falling government support as a big problem. Respondents attributed the downturn partially to a decline in the belief that higher ed is a “public good,” because of the Varsity Blues, and other athletic- and sexual assault-related scandals. They believe those, and questions about the value of a college degree, have damaged the sector’s reputation, the survey found.

Administrators had reason to be optimistic about state support prior to the health crisis, which has threatened, and in many cases shattered, their funding prospects. Now, the “delicate financial balancing act most schools undertake each semester (has) been laid bare by COVID-19-driven layoffs, furloughs, program cuts, and the expected significant reduction in state allocations to higher education as they scramble to meet public health financial challenges,” the APLU report states.

Even large institutions have not been immune to the cuts. Ohio University, one of the biggest four-year schools in the state, announced Tuesday that 63 administrative or support positions, 17 administrator jobs and one hourly research position have been eliminated across the college.

APLU urged colleges to increase their public advocacy of the sector’s contributions as a way to mitigate the funding declines. The group also suggested colleges support the creation of political action committees focused on lobbying for additional money. Further, institutions could seek out alternative funding sources, such as more public-private partnerships, the report states. Colleges have started looking to such deals more frequently and with major aspects of their operations.

The presidents surveyed who were less concerned about middling state funding instead extolled the benefits of nontraditional paths in education, such as focusing on adult learners and shorter-term credentials. Some respondents reported they felt higher ed failed to adapt to the shifting landscape quickly. 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus has forced institutions to act at an unprecedented pace, taking programs online they never would have considered before, which may be a catalyst for major changes, the survey states.

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