The continuing economic, social and mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are only now starting to be fully understood, but the impacts on public colleges and universities are still quite unknown. Yet, these institutions play a critical role in recovery from this global crisis.
Leaders in higher education have been forced to examine decades or even century-old ways of doing business, and the spotlight on these practices and approaches has bared the rigidity of many public colleges and universities. As the COVID-19 virus spread began to increase at the end of March 2020 and governors around the nation began to implement the shuttering of businesses and schools, higher education found itself underdeveloped and unprepared for a virtual world.
To shore up enrollment and ease the transition, universities attempted to offset the effects of restricted travel, closed offices and unpredictable health orders by going back to basics and working the phones as one of the few viable strategies left to recruit, advise and otherwise engage students.
Despite these efforts, enrollment in public colleges and universities around the nation declined by 4%, and New Mexico was hit particularly hard with a decline in headcount of 9.5%. Across the board, this decline has been attributed to the pandemic’s varied effects, again underscoring the need for higher education to be more agile in how we respond and adapt to the environment.
The fundamental question colleges and universities must address revolve around defining what post-pandemic education and training will look like. Traditional institutions that are slow to change may be forced to face the grim reality of not just declining enrollment, but that of the loss of faculty and the inability to keep their door open. Institutions must be willing to think big and let loose of traditional business models — from the way we admit new students to the modes of delivery for both degree-seeking students and those in training programs.
Investing in on-campus technology infrastructure will be critical to ensuring students and instructors have the ability to communicate and deliver information using online tools, however, for states like New Mexico, this will not be enough. University leaders must work as advocates for their communities in broadening internet access, especially in underserved rural areas where education and training could be out of the reach of many due to poor access.
With the focus on ensuring technology resources are broadened and strengthened to support robust online learning, it’s important to note that student life on campuses will continue. For many communities, these campuses act as their region’s cultural, social and intellectual hubs, supporting not only traditional learning but also advanced research, adult education and workforce training.
With all the challenges facing higher education around the nation, there is positive news in that, despite the hardships going from the classroom to a completely online education, students and their instructors have found ways to adapt and succeed. While polls show that the enthusiasm for education has not waned, it could yet if innovative student and community engagement strategies are not employed.
Finally, this current environment has demonstrated that recovery will be a collaborative effort. Colleges and universities need to strengthen partnerships and lead our society forward, recognizing the emerging needs of our post-pandemic world.
Dr. Isaac Brundage has worked in higher education for over 20 years. He is currently the vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Western New Mexico University.