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Part of Western Governors University

November 24, 2020

Student Success

Coronavirus and higher education: big changes ahead.

A young student studies a text book while wearing a mask.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life as we know it—and the upheaval could forever alter the landscape of higher education.

By shutting down campuses and transitioning to remote learning to prevent the spread of COVID-19, traditional colleges and universities have plunged into unfamiliar territory full of opportunities for reinvention. Many colleges and universities are reevaluating their approach as they look to achieve long-term sustainability amid our new reality.

The pandemic could change college forever. Here's what brick-and-mortar institutions are doing.

Declining enrollment.

Enrollment was already on the downswing before the pandemic hit. Postsecondary enrollment fell 1.3 percent between fall 2018 and fall 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and yearly enrollment has seen a decline of more than 2 million students since peaking in 2011. Many factors have contributed to this decline, including a shrinking population of high school graduates and tuition costs that can be prohibitive to some.

Now, colleges are bracing for student populations to continue to decrease in the short term: Many high school graduates have been reluctant to enroll in college this fall, the New York Times reports.

Small schools, big risk.

While major public universities and prestigious private colleges and universities have large enough endowments to weather the storm, smaller institutions could be in trouble. The CARES Act included $14 billion for colleges and universities, the New York Times reports, but education leaders argue that money won't be enough to save some struggling schools.

WBUR reports that one economic model, after analyzing 17 years' worth of financial data from 937 colleges, found that one-third of private four-year colleges are at high risk financially—meaning that they'd only survive six years at most, should current economic trends hold. Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder, writing for Forbes, estimated that the pandemic could force between 500 and 1,000 higher-education institutions to close permanently in the next few years.

Opportunities for innovation.

Periods of crisis also bring opportunities for change. Higher-education leaders are looking at what innovations they can make to serve students more effectively, while also adapting to a changing landscape.

For instance, COVID-19 revealed that many higher-education activities can occur online, reducing the need for physical infrastructure. Institutions are taking the lessons they have learned this past spring to design even more engaging and effective digital learning experiences that personalize instruction for each student.

While there will always be a market for immersive, four-year residential college or university programs, some institutions are likely to consider whether it makes more sense for them to transition to a hybrid or even a fully online model, according to Harvard Business Review.

Positioned for success.

Innovative colleges and universities stand the best chance of thriving amid the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. That describes Western Governors University to a T.

As a pioneer of fully online education, WGU is positioned to deliver the same high-quality, student-centered educational experience regardless of how long the coronavirus remains active. What's more, WGU's first-of-its-kind competency-based education enables students to use what they already know to earn their degree faster—making it an attractive option for students in a struggling economy.

When the coronavirus pandemic is over, some aspects of higher education will never be the same. But innovative universities will continue meeting the needs of learners effectively throughout the pandemic and beyond.

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