Where do we go from here?

I’m already thinking about life after the pandemic, so here are some predictions about higher education, mostly based on pre-existing trends that were simply accelerated by Covid-19.

Personalized, portable technologies for teaching and learning will eclipse standardized physical materials and infrastructure. Probably we all had the pre-pandemic experience of entering a classroom with a detailed, technology-intensive lesson plan only to discover that the computer at the teacher’s podium didn’t work the way we needed it to. After that we carried laptops with us, which were more reliable and configured to meet our specific needs. Now, some faculty find that the video cameras that were installed to live stream classes don’t adequately capture what’s scribbled on wall-mounted whiteboards, so they are using writing tablets and other touchscreen devices instead. Expect the whiteboards, the computer stations, and the ceiling projectors to eventually disappear from many classrooms. Ethernet connections and wifi will remain.

As faculty dependence on classroom equipment decreases, so does the need for the classroom itself. One becomes increasingly able to teach from anywhere, lessening the disruptive effects of hurricanes, fires, and plagues. No more snow days.

As for books, while I still prefer the printed page, if you’re a graduate student in Pakistan or Bolivia taking an online course from a university that is on a different continent, textbook shipping is a real impediment. Hard copies also become highly inconvenient to a 19-year old who suddenly has to quarantine or evacuate campus — student in one place, assigned readings somewhere else. Digital editions, library e-books, and OERs will become the norm for required texts.

Collaborative, hands-on learning will replace information delivery in the physical classroom. In the 21st century, clustering within earshot of experts so that one can hear them recite information is a very expensive and unnecessary proposition. The pandemic has further demonstrated the folly of dedicating scarce time and space to low-yield methods of instruction that can just as easily occur outside the classroom. As MIT’s president L. Rafael Reif said in June about the current semester, “Everything that can be taught effectively online will be taught online.” Faculty and administrators will increasingly realize that classroom time should be devoted to what can only happen effectively in the classroom.

Some faculty members and academic disciplines will be better able to make this transition than others. As for students, those who think that a college education means just listening to a person at the front of the room talk in 50-minute increments will be shunted to institutions that provide the least value-added for the tuition dollar.

Universities will alter their academic calendars, in an attempt to improve cost efficiency and recruit students. The fall-spring academic calendar used by many U.S. universities derives from the annual summer migration of elites to more temperate climes during the Gilded Age. As demonstrated by community colleges, where forty percent of U.S. undergraduates are enrolled, maximizing the utilization of instructional space in the age of electric lights, air conditioning, and working mothers means running courses year round at hours outside of a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday schedule. Similarly, there is no fundamental law of the universe that requires two years to obtain an associate’s degree and four years for a bachelor’s. Many universities long ago cut the time needed for a master’s degree by fifty percent with five-year combined bachelor’s-master’s programs.

Universities will modify their campuses as the opportunity costs of ancillary services become more apparent. In the USA, the pandemic has caused the bottom to fall out of the commercial real estate market. Indoor shopping malls were already in trouble: mid-price brick-and-mortar stores had become less affordable and less appealing than online retailers to a shrinking middle class with declining expendable income.

In the USA, private university campuses are commercial real estate. Much of this real estate is committed to operations that lay outside of the university’s core educational mission. If a campus is located in an area of population growth and high rents, dormitories are a win for both the university and its students. Otherwise university-owned housing is an underperforming, illiquid asset, especially if enrollment declines or, God forbid, students are not able or willing to live on campus. The same can be said for the facilities and personnel associated with athletic programs, very few of which ever generate net revenue, food service, and co-curricular programming. How does the physical footprint and financial resilience of a university change if it sheds these subsidiary operations?

Which leads me to my last prediction: the higher ed landscape in the USA will bifurcate into institutions that deliver clear economic value to students and those that are primarily selling a college experience rather than a college education. The pandemic is allowing us to conduct an interesting natural experiment in economics: what price are people willing to pay for the education without the experience? Put slightly differently, what portion of your employer’s current enrollment vanishes when intercollegiate athletics, campus entertainment, and meals with friends in the cafeteria are replaced by the choice of either taking courses online from home or eating pre-packaged food alone in a dorm room when not in a socially-distanced classroom?