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TIAA Institute Virtual Higher Ed Symposium Participants Express Optimism, Despite COVID-19

The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) Institute recently hosted a virtual “Higher Education Leadership Symposium” based on a new white paper — developed by TIAA in collaboration with EY-Parthenon — that spoke to the future of operating models and student success at higher ed institutions, given the financial constraints of COVID-19.

Photo: Chris Montgomery

“In every crisis lies opportunity,” stated Stephanie Bell-Rose, senior managing director and head of the TIAA Institute.

And though the world is moving faster because of COVID-19, Dr. Christina Cutlip, senior managing director for the institutional financial services division of TIAA, questioned whether the acceleration would be a “true disrupter” in higher ed.

An array of higher education leaders from liberal arts colleges and flagship public universities at the symposium tried answering that question, sharing how their institutions have continued to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis.

Dr. David Anderson, president of St. Olaf College, explained that when St. Olaf’s campus shut down, some roles had to change in order to fit the needs of the crisis at hand.

For that reason, the university requested that the person who managed campus events — and the person who coordinated alumni travel — “team up.”

“It turns out that the skills you need to be excellent at events and managing travel are the same ones that make you an excellent manager of contact tracing,” said Anderson.

J. Michael Gower, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Rutgers University, echoed the need to establish new working groups, specifically for emergency and recovery. He calls it “retooling their capabilities.” At Rutgers, that looks like provosts and student affairs working together.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic also “makes the concept of a single-annual budget obsolete. The static nature of it is not realistic anymore,” added Gower. “But also, the time frame is much too short. We can’t just deal with [the crisis] 12 months at a time.”

While a budget for Rutgers was proposed in June, another budget was proposed in October to reflect the fact that “we know much more now than we did then,” he said. Thus, “sustaining a sense of urgency and getting out of emergency model mode,” is critical for the future, Gower said.

Pierre Joanis, vice president of human resources at Bucknell University, couldn’t agree more. The sense of urgency at Bucknell was based on the human and financial capita for both students and families.

“We decided to postpone and put a freeze on tuition increase,” for the 2020-21 academic year, said Joanis. At the same time, Bucknell was able to maintain, and in many cases, enhance financial aid packages, he said.

Joanis explained, “investing in some of these things were really mission-critical for Bucknell in terms of achieving our longer-term, strategic goals, [including] our relevance and viability [for perspective students].”

Scholars also shared ideas about how to invest in student success based on their institute-supported research initiatives.

Amid the impact of COVID-19 on the student debt crisis, Dr. Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust, said, “we need to approach this systematically, looking at comprehensive solutions.”

He mentioned targeted debt cancellation that doesn’t “just take income, but wealth into account,” and “doubl[ing] the Pell grant to increase purchasing power.”

Alcione Frederick, program manager at the center for public university transformation at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), and Melissa Rivas, assistant director for the center for public university transformation at APLU, also agreed that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) needs to be simplified for students and parents to better understand the process.

Students just need a financial process that is “student-friendly,” added Frederick.

At the same time, students need guidance and support in understanding their initial financial aid award letters, said Rivas, especially now.

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