Can a Residential College Sell an Online Experience in a Crisis?

Higher Education

Can a Residential College Sell an Online Experience in a Crisis?

By Rebecca Koenig     Apr 23, 2020

Can a Residential College Sell an Online Experience in a Crisis?

This article is part of the guide: Sustaining Higher Education in the Coronavirus Crisis.

With financial losses mounting the longer campuses are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, securing tuition dollars for next academic year is a top priority for colleges.

That may be difficult. Students and their families who have experienced job layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts—or whose college savings plummeted with the stock market—may have new difficulty paying for higher education.

And if public health conditions don’t improve over the summer, even students who can still afford college may be reluctant to pay full price for virtual classes instead of the in-person experience they were expecting. Students have already filed lawsuits and circulated petitions making the case that the value of their education has diminished without access to their campuses.

Few colleges have committed publicly to keeping facilities closed come autumn, but experts say most are working on contingency plans for that possibility. For residential institutions whose identities are closely bound to physical experiences—a grassy quad lined with stately trees, an uproarious football stadium, a dorm full of friends—moving college online and convincing students to pay for it will be a challenge.

To pull it off, leaders of residential colleges are considering alternative instruction models, new tuition policies and different recruiting strategies.

To best serve their students during this crisis, though, they should be prepared to reimagine, well, everything about their institutions, advises Michael Sorrell, who helped bring Paul Quinn College back from the brink of collapse and has overseen its radical transformation.

“You can no longer sit around and be held hostage to traditional wisdom, or tradition. All these institutions that want to be revered for who they've always been—I don’t care,” the president says. “What I care about is my students, and how do I help them. And I’m not just going to care about my students, I am going to care about your students, too.”

Hybrid Hopes

It’s no surprise that the virtual classrooms college faculty devised on short notice have not always provided the highest quality learning experience. But student and family expectations for online courses may increase by the fall.

So residential college leaders are scurrying to figure out how to improve their remote offerings. For example, at California State University at Fullerton, the provost has already told professors to start preparing for virtual classes in the fall. Provosts, presidents and chancellors are also seeking advice and support from online program managers, says Chip Paucek, CEO of one such company, 2U.

“They are all trying to figure out how to deploy something that is higher quality,” Paucek says. “We are staring at the hybridization of higher ed happening overnight.”

Indeed, residential colleges are considering offering a hybrid learning experience that combines virtual and in-person learning. That may be more appealing to students than a fully online semester, and it would also have the benefit of bringing in some of the revenue colleges typically rely on from dorms and dining halls.

“I really think colleges are going to try to do everything they can to try to save part of the fall semester on campus,” says Robert Kelchen, associate professor in the department of education leadership, management and policy at Seton Hall University. “I think the wipeout situation for colleges is if they lose an entire semester or more next academic year in person.”

Some institutions are thinking about starting next term with online courses but then switching to face-to-face instruction if public health conditions improve. Others are pondering ways to bring students back to campus while strategically offering large classes online to permit social distancing.

Yet an early-stage study by Cornell University sociologists suggests that such a shift wouldn’t do much to keep students separated. After all, residential campuses are designed to encourage “small-world” networks, “characterized by high clustering and short average path lengths where most students can reach each other in two steps,” a working paper notes.

“That means you can’t sterilize things fast enough,” Sorrell says. “A college campus is almost the perfect breeding ground for coronavirus surges.”

Trying Tuition Options

To accommodate the worsened economy, some colleges have announced tuition freezes for the upcoming school year. Others will likely lower tuition rates over the summer, Kelchen says. But for the fall, the professor thinks colleges will be more likely to increase the amount of financial aid they offer instead of reducing listed prices.

Yet tuition cuts shouldn’t be off the table, Sorrell says.

“What if we can’t bring students back to school at all next year? There needs to be a price break,” he says. “That’s the right thing to do.”

One strategy colleges may try is offering tuition deferments. Davidson College announced that all students except for seniors can defer paying their fall 2020 tuition bills until August 2021, while seniors can have until April 1 to pay. The college will decide later whether to extend the offer for the spring 2021 semester.

Another approach is creating new scholarships. Franciscan University of Steubenville has offered to use its reserve funds to cover tuition costs for fall 2020 for all new, full-time undergraduates enrolled in on-campus programs. The decision was inspired by the institution’s faith-based mission, according to its president, Rev. Dave Pivonka.

“After discernment and discussion, it seemed like an excellent way to provide for new students and their families, many of whom are now hesitant to commit to on-campus higher education,” Pivonka said in a statement. “It will be difficult for us, but we think it’s the right thing to do.”

And a few colleges have tried to secure tuition deposits by appealing to student altruism. Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania pledged to match all deposits made by April 10 with donations to local nonprofits, and Ursinus College offered to donate $100 to a local food pantry for every $500 tuition deposit it received during its virtual admitted students events this week.

New Enrollment Games

To recruit and retain enough students amidst all this uncertainty, colleges may have to toss out their carefully developed enrollment management playbooks. Some have already made minor adjustments, like pushing back commitment deadlines to give students more time to make matriculation choices. Others may try to take advantage of recent policy changes that permit colleges to market themselves more aggressively to students who are already committed elsewhere—a practice Kelchen likens to “poaching.”

“Before this crisis, it was going to be an unprecedented year for admissions,” Kelchen says. “This crisis magnifies those concerns by many times over.”

Which enrollment strategies colleges try may depend on where they fall in the higher ed hierarchy. College admissions advisers expect elite universities to make much more use of their waitlists than they have in past years, says Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, an admissions consulting company.

“I think waitlists will continue all the way until the day before school,” he predicts. “Smart students on the waitlist are very proactively reaching out to schools right now. Many kids will come off the waitlist, and it’s going to mostly be kids who don’t need financial aid.”

Meanwhile, regional residential colleges are thinking about how to market their strengths to local students who may be rethinking the higher ed plans they made before the pandemic hit.

“Students who normally leave their regions to go away, they may be too afraid now to go too far from home,” says Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Regional institutions are “making sure they’re talking about what they are offering,” she explains, so that students “know they have an institution in the backyard.”

Looking Forward, Not Back

The prospect of an online fall is daunting for residential colleges, but not hopeless, experts say. Institutions may actually benefit from some of the forces that are outside of their control. For example, the same unsteady economy that may make it hard for some people to afford college right now has also diminished the job prospects for those who lack higher education, Kelchen says, which may push people to work toward a degree.

“Students may have a choice between two things they really would prefer not to do: Go to college online or try to find a low-paid job for the year,” he says. “Given those two bad choices, I think they may still choose to go online and hope they can go in person soon.”

Despite being at the mercy of a pandemic, college leaders do have the power to rearrange their priorities. And Sorrell thinks they would be wise to do so.

“You have to take a clearheaded look at the circumstances,” he says. “We’re going to get to the other side, but it’s going to look different.”

His advice to other institutions struggling to adapt: Acknowledge the hardship. Plan for multiple scenarios. Abandon sacred cows. Listen to students. Stay committed to moving forward.

“It’s an opportunity to have an honest conversation about what we do well and what we don’t do well—and our ability to care about what happens next,” Sorrell argues. “It’s also a chance for us to become much better than we were.”

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