As represented by the graduate gowns and mortar boards introduced almost 1,000 years ago with the establishment of formal academia, higher education remained as the calendar turned to 2020 an institution steeped in tradition.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift to online delivery and appeared poised to buck some of those traditions, further nudging higher education into the digital age. Could the pomp and circumstance of the traditional western college experience — from graduation ceremonies and marching bands entering packed football stadiums to rush week and even walks through the quad under a fall-colored canopy — be supplanted one day soon by the convenience and relative affordability of online education?
Traditional colleges and universities rely heavily on the resident student experience. Room-and-board fees represent 43 percent of the costs incurred by the average in-state student at a public four-year school, according to the College Board.
Dr. Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, believes the events of 2020 indeed will drive more of the marketplace to online education, especially for the immediate future. But he remains confident that the on-campus, resident-student model isn’t going anywhere even as traditional colleges expand their online curriculum. So far, he has some numbers on his side.
June projections for fall on-campus enrollment at the UA’s flagship campus in Fayetteville, which has experienced record growth over the past decade, were down only about 500 students.
And the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that fall enrollment numbers across the country at UA peer schools were looking more promising in June than they did after the pandemic took hold. Schools are freezing tuition, offering later deposit deadlines and other incentives to help bolster student retention, the UA included.
Those financial shortfalls ballyhooed as inevitable for the industry may not materialize as expected for schools and systems with healthy reserves and endowments. Earlier this year, the Fayetteville campus reported an endowment of $1.22 billion, the 95th largest among 785 U.S. and Canadian endowments supporting colleges and universities, according to rankings compiled by the National Association of College and Business Officers and the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA).
Many campuses may retain most if not all of their resident populations. As of June 17, roughly 65 percent of colleges surveyed by The Chronicle were planning for in-person instruction this fall, compared to 13 percent planning a hybrid delivery model, 8 percent planning to go completely online, another 8 percent considering a range of scenarios and 5 percent waiting to decide. All physical campuses in the UA system — seven two-year schools, six four-year schools as well as the stand-alone, graduate-level Clinton School of Public Service — were planning for in-person instruction as of July 1. And so were the state’s other institutions of higher learning, public and private.
While acknowledging the expanded access to higher education provided by remote courses, Bobbitt believes on-campus instruction can provide benefits not available online.
“Universities provide not just the classroom education, but also a social maturation and an opportunity to build a support network professionally that could assist you when you leave the institution,” Bobbitt told Arkansas Money & Politics. “Those things are going to be very difficult to replicate through remote delivery online.”
Of course, there remain doomsday scenarios for the traditional higher-ed model. Scott Galloway, a former Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur who now teaches marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, told New York magazine in May that the post-pandemic education model will change dramatically as elite universities partner with big tech and expand through hybrid on-campus/online degrees. He believes the top 20 universities in the world will thrive, ones like MIT, Harvard and Oxford boasting brands he considers stronger than Google or Apple. The next tier of prestigious universities will be “fine” and “Nos. 50 to 1,000 go out of business or become a shadow of themselves.”
Bobbitt, meanwhile, likens the pandemic environment to the aftermath of 9/11 when students were pulled out of schools in and around New York City.
“If we go through the summer and there’s no highly adverse event that occurs, such as we encountered at the beginning of the pandemic, I think people would feel comfortable allowing their children back on campus. And those who are above age would feel comfortable going to a college campus, understanding that we are working daily to figure out ways to do this safely and maintain health for our faculty, staff and our students,” he said. “But let’s just assume something untoward happens over the summer that creates real concerns in society, and we have wholesale parts of the society step back from the openings that we have seen.”
Bobbitt expects enrollments to go up at two-year schools and campuses with more local footprints as pandemic-wary families opt to keep their kids closer to home for a semester or two or allow them to take a gap year while society rides out the pandemic and its own aftermath.
“We’re trying to manage right now looking through a crystal ball, which is cloudy at best, perhaps even opaque,” Bobbitt said. “We’ve monitored our enrollment projections for this fall and use things such as completed applications, acceptances, deposits for residence halls, which are a more important metric for resident, four-year institutions; and obviously, our two-year institutions. But from that, the picture that is emerging is one that doesn’t look catastrophically different than what we originally had been planning for before the pandemic.”
Non-traditional and older traditional students, those who “no longer see the residential experiences to be necessary,” will lead any significant move to online learning, he said, while many former students could be enticed to finish their degrees remotely. Almost all of the students who left UA system schools before completing their degrees or certificates in the past seven years did so in good academic standing, but “life simply got in the way.”
“They’re probably going to see this online pivot as something that allows them to work and not acquire debt, which is a four-letter word now, and at the same time get credits and acquire credentials,” he said. “We have at the system level a completely online university, which draws from the faculty of all of our institutions, and it has been really designed for the working adult.”
So, might the pandemic initiate a devaluation of the resident college experience?
“Those who have the financial resources to participate and partake in those experiences will continue to do so. And those for whom it would have been a precarious venture will see that there are other ways to get to their goal.”
None of the institutions within the UA system are in danger of closing or merging with other institutions, Bobbitt said.
“We have a top-notch bond rating, and we make decisions quickly and early before problems become crises. And so, every one of our schools, I think, is in good shape right now. Some have more reserves than others, but no one is below what I would consider minimum reserves. I think the system in general is in good shape.”
The system remains open to possible expansion but has no current plans to add schools.
“You know it has to be a good fit,” Bobbitt said. “I’ve been invited to talk to some boards, and some of those have been fruitful and some of those have not. I tell them, ‘We only want willing disciples.’”
Moving forward, Bobbitt says colleges and universities will need to hedge their bets and be ready for change. Because if the pandemic blows up again, all bets are off. But higher education’s ability to adjust was undervalued this spring, he insists, when schools were forced to shift on a dime to online instruction.
“There is a very interesting picture that emerged this spring. You know that higher education has been described as having all the maneuverability of the Titanic, especially if you look at how we teach and some of our traditions and rituals that all go back to basically the 11th to the 13th centuries with the formation of the great universities in Europe in Paris and Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge,” Bobbitt said. “So, the fact that higher education within about a four-day period had to pivot substantially from a traditional face-to-face classroom setting to remote delivery, frankly, was remarkable to me.
“And if it proves one thing, it proves that we’re a lot more versatile and perhaps innovative than people give higher education credit for.”