Online education is increasingly popular today

Higher Education institutions around the world have endured an unprecedented challenge in 2020. At no other time in history has so much uncertainty affected college and university administrators, educators, and students. The long-term effects of the COVID-19 virus on the human body are still yet to be known, let alone the economic and social impacts. For all the unanswered questions that are out there, colleges and universities don’t have the luxury to sit around and wait for those answers. Administrators and educators must begin to ask themselves questions about the near-term and long-term implications of the virus on teaching, learning, and student experience.

Now that institutions have made short-term changes in how students learn, with the rapid implementation of virtual learning options, they must look at the long-term structural changes that will be required to allow colleges and universities to continue providing a safe, positive environment for students under all possible scenarios. No longer can schools afford to be caught off guard, assuming that the status quo will remain intact.

Existing infrastructure at most schools was never designed to handle online learning at this scale, and students from grade school through post-graduate institutions are suffering. Courses that contain a majority of hands-on components—such as clinical practicums, labs, and performing arts—are particularly disrupted, and these students may have to delay their graduation to allow them time to fulfill requirements. Exams are having to be held online, making it impossible to administer closed-book tests. Educators were never trained to teach in an online environment, which brings a completely new set of challenges for both student and teacher.

The impacts of COVID will stretch beyond the direct ability of students to learn, and educators to teach. From campus life to athletics to cultural events, college campuses are looking very different these days.

Implications of equity, enrollment, and enrichment

In terms of equity, lower-income students will suffer disproportionately. They are less likely to have the resources, such as PCs and high-speed internet access, to enable them to succeed in an online learning environment. These students often rely on employment while going to school to pay their tuition and living expenses. With many local businesses in the service and retail sector heavily-impacted, these employment opportunities have dried up.

As students have become increasingly savvy in the digital space, they’ll quickly notice and react negatively to the digital shortcomings of a university that was never designed for the 21st century. As the student experience falters, they’ll seek out other options; from traditional schools with more robust digital programs, or online schools designed from the ground up for virtual learning.

For incoming freshmen that are realizing the college life of sitting in their room in front of a computer screen all day wasn’t what they signed up for, taking a gap year or delaying their education may look like a better option. They may also decide to switch to a school closer to home as a cost-savings measure; parents footing the tuition bills may also be suffering the economic effects of the virus. In a recent poll, 52% of students report that at least one parent has lost a job, been laid off, or furloughed, and 17% of those surveyed are “near the point of giving up on attending a 4-year institution full-time in the fall.”

International students will be especially impacted, as travel restrictions or fear of the virus will prevent them from matriculating at their chosen school. These trends could greatly depress enrollment for years to come.

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Implications for Infrastructure

Physical and digital infrastructure is being tested to the limit since schools went virtual in March of 2020. Online systems are stressed due to the increased volume of traffic, beyond what they were ever designed to handle. In addition, physical facilities on campus are impacted. Social distancing is causing a shortage of space, and even if there are no students on campus, guidelines are still being implemented to protect the university faculty and staff on-site. The requirements to maintain both high standards of safety and cleanliness along with the need to provide a high level of education and instruction for students online is putting a heavy strain on university resources; both financial and human.

Financial Implications

Colleges and universities are being hit from multiple fronts when it comes to the financial impact of COVID-19 on higher education. Thanks to the canceling of certain education programs like Study Abroad, schools will be issuing significant refunds on tuition dollars paid. Students opting to transfer to another school also will result in lost revenue; not to mention the amount of revenue lost due to the simple absence of the student body on and around campus. From bookstores to concessions and other retail, these ancillary dollars are not being spent by students. This loss of revenue will likely be felt in 2021 and 2022 as students change their enrollment plans due to uncertainties.

The University of Michigan anticipates losses from $400 million to $1 billion by the end of 2020. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education “forecasts a $52 million loss, even after federal stimulus money is applied.” Enrollment across the board is expected to fall 15%, with a 25% drop expected from international students.

Not only are revenues falling, but expenses are rising, as schools must foot the bills for increased sanitization procedures and other steps they must take to ensure the health safety of those staff on campus. All of this will come together to cause major budget shortfalls for many years to come, forcing schools to make hard decisions about expenses and where to save money.

At two-year and four-year institutions, both public and private, the two biggest expenditures are in instruction (faculty salaries and benefits) and academic and student support (including admissions and student services staff). These areas will be the first to see cuts. From pay cuts to furloughs and layoffs, human capital is taking a big hit. The timing could not be worse.

What Colleges and Universities can do

With budgets in the red and staff slashed at all levels, college and university administrators are left to get creative; to ensure the student experience continues to be positive throughout the entire student journey.

From the moment students first visit a school website, they draw conclusions about the school. With staff furloughed or overburdened, websites are frequently out of date, and admissions office hours are limited. The inability to get simple answers to questions any time of day leaves students frustrated and searching for other options.

Higher education institutions need to focus on the student experience, from start to finish. Not only do they need to continue attracting new students ready to enroll, but they need to focus on those already “on campus” to ensure their learning experience is the best it can possibly be. Without the usual staff on hand to ensure this happens, institutions should be looking to technology to fill the gap; and with such uncertainty surrounding the future, colleges and universities should be planning for technology to augment human staff for the long term.

COVID-19 has caused a paradigm shift in the way higher education institutions operate. The simultaneous shift to virtual learning and remote staff in such a short timeframe is something that very few could have ever predicted. More likely, we would have envisioned a slow, steady evolution in this direction over the course of years, or decades. In the tech industry, technology and remote work have been accepted for many years already; but the bureaucracy of higher education would have been much slower to adopt either of these changes. Now, these same institutions are forced to adapt or see enrollment and budgets fall below sustainable levels.

Strategic thinking, and strategic planning, will be the keys to short-term survivability and long-term stability for many institutions. The following questions should be asked to face the challenges ahead:

  • Because of increasing financial pressures, we should be asking, “What can we stop doing?”
  • Because of the sudden shift to remote learning, we should be asking, “How can we reach students where they are, on their time?”
  • Because of the continued uncertainty surrounding COVID and the future of higher education, we should be asking, “What would make us more resilient going forward?”

Stop Wasting Time

What tasks does your team regularly engage in that take up an inordinate amount of time, that either could be eliminated completely, or automated? For admissions and recruiting departments particularly, much of their time is spent answering simple questions from students that could be better handled by automation, such as a chatbot. Purdue University, for instance, has a chatbot that saves the time of three full-time employees answering questions from students online, day and night. Rockhurst University has saved over 260 hours a month in employee time by implementing a chatbot to engage with prospective students. These routine tasks are time-consuming, and automating them, it frees up employees to focus on more personal outreach.

Start Reaching Students Where They Are

Higher education in the United States is now a global commodity; and despite short-term drops in enrollment from international students, the market will certainly rebound and continue on a growth trajectory. This means not only are institutions trying to reach their domestic students via remote methods, but they need to continue the international outreach, keeping prospective students up-to-date on the latest COVID-related closures, travel restrictions, deadlines, and more. Without a team fluent in the multitude of languages spoken in different countries, it’s impossible to speak with them directly. That doesn’t even factor in the time zones your prospective students are in, and what time of day they tend to do their research.

Remain Stable Through Technology

Throughout the entire COVID crisis, systems and processes at higher education institutions have been stressed, and some have failed, because they were pushed beyond their intended use. Virtual learning was never designed for the entire student body to use at once. School websites were not built to be rapid-response solutions with ever-changing information. Faculty were never trained to conduct classes online to the extent they have been in 2020 (and most likely beyond). So colleges and universities need to find the technologies that are truly future-proof; the ones that assist and augment the existing digital infrastructure and human staff. In addition, schools need to look for solutions that don’t require extensive, ongoing involvement from their staff; technology provides no benefit if a person must continually maintain it. A chatbot is a perfect example of a hands-off, future-proof technology that can support students and staff. The right chatbots, like the ones from AtlasRTX, are live 24/7, can speak any language, are continually evolving and getting smarter, are more effective in lead conversion compared to similar technologies (such as live chat), and save you time and money.

The long-term effects of COVID-19 on higher education institutions are still unknown. This uncertainty is causing panic among students, parents, faculty, and staff. Budget and staff cuts are further exasperating the problems. Because of this, the entire student experience is suffering, which could quickly lead to even more loss of revenue as students look for other options. For students just starting on their journey toward college with a world of options at their fingertips, schools cannot afford a bad first impression. Implementing technologies that help schools engage in meaningful conversations with every website visitor, such as chatbots, will help to delight students, generate leads and increase applications, all without the need of a human. It’s time to ask difficult questions, and seek out creative solutions, to help colleges and universities weather the storm and set themselves up for long-term success.