Who could have predicted 2020? No one that I've heard of got it right.
Who could have anticipated COVID-19? There have been movies about pandemics across the years. In fact, there's one from 2016 that's actually called Pandemic. Perhaps the most iconic pandemic movie of them all is The Andromeda Strain from 1971. If you're curious about other movies like these two, check this list.
But what about predicting what's going to happen with higher education? I've made some predictions about that in past years, here, here and here. I've even tracked the success of some of them. Thus, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan when he debated Jimmy Carter, here I go again.
In my view, predicting the coming year for matters of college is much easier than anticipating what our daily lives will be like next year. So, taking the less risky path, here are my three predictions for higher education in 2021.
In fact, it may never return to normal. I think those Animal House days are gone forever. College presidents and administrators have spent far too much pandemic-related energy and lost way too much sleep this year to allow another year like this to happen ever again. In other words, "COVID codes" will remain in effect and could even be amplified, especially now that a mutated strain of COVID-19 has emerged.
All of this will fall especially hard on Greek life. Most of us have read the reports of renegade, policy-violating frat parties across America this year. There have been more than a few. Knowing how inventive Greek life members can be, though, I'm sure parties will continue.
However, the penalties will be much more severe. I predict zero tolerance will go into effect. You party; you depart. Expulsion. No questions asked. This may give rise to a cottage industry of covert party houses, hidden throughout college towns. Back to the speakeasy days of Prohibition, complete with encrypted invitations and passwords at the door.
As for academics, virtual classes will stubbornly remain a frustrating part of all colleges' curricula to be implemented at the drop of a positive PCR test. The mutational nature of COVID-19 (will this new strain be called COVID-20, then on to 21, 22, 23, etc?) will tend to (perhaps completely) nullify the current vaccines, as new flu strains do, and the pandemic wheel will spin again: new virus; same pandemic problems.
Consequently, this continuing disruption of the "traditional" college experience, with its close-knit social scene, inspiring student-faculty relationships, research/internship opportunities, and, yes, hardy parties, among other attractions, will continue to be under the COVID cloud. This, in turn, will cause deeper concerns by students and their families about the "value" of this kind of higher education environment.
This will result in a further suppression of enrollment and the dominoes will continue to fall. Colleges that were already on the financial brink, pre-pandemic, will be pushed into the pit and close. Sorry to be negative, but higher education is a business, a big one, and there's a definite expiration date for debits continually exceeding credits.
In my last post, I wrote about the possibility of the incoming Biden administration forgiving student loan debt. In reading various public attitudes about that, I found one particular comment amusing. It was from someone responding to an article about the possibility of taxpayers funding loan forgiveness: "Don't expect me to pay for your worthless, four-year, can't-get-a-job, live-with-mom-and-dad degree!"
My reaction to that was, "Tell us how you really feel about loan forgiveness!" The point, though, is not loan forgiveness; it's what colleges offer their students. While opinions vary, some of the stereotypical "worthless" degree programs (majors) include psychology, religious studies, journalism, anthropology, philosophy and creative writing. Liberal arts degrees, such as the one I obtained, are often criticized for their lack of pertinence, especially in today's exploding technical world.
I defend the liberal arts and have documented my defense in past posts. There's a glut of liberal arts colleges out there, some of which are "on the brink," as I mentioned above. I use the word "practical" in my prediction. I believe that many of these smaller schools that are struggling to stay afloat will admit that they have to make some substantial changes in 2021, and they will take a lesson from community colleges and tech schools.
The financial consequences of COVID-19 have caused colleges to abandon entire academic departments, terminating faculty and staff, and withdrawing multiple degree programs. I predict that these schools will fill their empty offices and classrooms with retooled programs that offer vocational-technical-related credentials to students. This has been a winning approach for two-year colleges and I believe that four-year colleges will begin to expand their offerings in this direction.
Be on the lookout, then, for tech-school-PLUS-type degrees in such disciplines as multimedia artists/animators, web development, computer network architect, and advanced computer programming, at smaller colleges and even large universities. Their marketing slogans might go something like: "Quality vocational education. It's not just for trade schools anymore."
Believe it or not, market forces, augmented by the coronavirus, will do their thing to higher education, and not a day too soon. The principle of supply and demand is clearly visible across the spectrum of higher education. Even in this pandemic year, the "top" (a.k.a. "elite") colleges and universities have an ongoing, feverish demand for their services, while "lower-tier" schools have experienced enrollment declines. Prestige sells at any cost, apparently.
Ironically, COVID-19 has inspired some (even "elite") schools to begin lowering costs for spring 2021. Tuition discounts ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent will go into effect this spring due to the pandemic. These schools include:
Granted, these schools are cutting tuition by a straight percentage. Other schools are taking creative approaches to lowering costs, as Forbes notes:
… Beyond price resets, many colleges have also adopted creative and innovative pricing strategies. Bellarmine in Kentucky has introduced the Public Price Promise which guarantees students with certain academic credentials that they will not have to pay any more than the direct costs at the flagship university in their home state and Oglethorpe in Atlanta has had a similar program for several years. The University of Maine has been allowing students in the surrounding states to attend the University at the in-state tuition of the flagship campus in recent years. Several colleges have announced tuition freezes and others have provided guarantees on the maximum amount that tuition can be increased from year-to-year. Most schools are recognizing that the growth in the sticker price of college needs to be moderated and more and more are recognizing that new pricing strategies are required.
All of these strategies are part of an effort to increase the transparency in college pricing. The expected outcome is an increase in applications at the college which should result in an increase in enrollment if the strategy is implemented well.
We can hope that the current groundswell of lower costs will grow into a much larger wave that will carry more and more deserving students into college. I predict it will happen.
Those are my 2021 predictions for higher education. Two out of three are positive. As for the not-positive one, we'll just have to wait and see what evolves on campus. By the way, one of my New Year's resolutions is to never use the phrase "new normal" again, even though that's what college life has now become.
Oh, one last general prognostication: I predict that 2021 is going to be one of the best years ever for my College Confidential readers. You can take that to the bank!
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