The jolt to higher education
COVID-19 prompted a swift pivot to remote learning across higher education in 2020, exposing challenges in the technological infrastructure and financial sustainability that had been festering at many institutions for years.
In the long term, however, the staggering disruption to higher education’s traditional residential, face-to-face delivery model may also have an upside: a radical reimagining of the way colleges and universities conduct operations and serve their students.
Emergency remote education has inspired a burst of innovation on most campuses and set the groundwork for what’s next. Professors have reimagined courses that have been untouched for years. Academic leaders have revised calendars to offer more flexibility for students. Campus officials have modified a range of services—from academic advising to career counseling—to offer them remotely. And campuses, like much of the corporate world, have moved to a remote work environment using a variety of tools to support the administration of the institution.
Now, as higher education leaders plan for what their institutions will look like on the other side of the pandemic, the decisions they make in the coming months will have ramifications for years—even decades. With presidents and governing boards already confronting growing uncertainty—enrollment and revenue shortfalls and major demographic shifts—colleges may be reluctant to embrace even more of it. That said, a once-in-a-generation opportunity could exist for institutions to harness their new investments (and learning) in digital technology to enhance the student experience and the shift to some remote work.
What a hybrid approach means for higher education
Twenty years ago, colleges and universities faced an inflection point, although not in a moment of national crisis. The internet was popularizing the idea of learning online. But rather than take advantage of the new medium and a new population of students, traditional colleges ceded the online learning market largely to for-profit providers.1 The growth spurt of those colleges in the first decade of the new millennium forced many traditional higher education institutions to play catch-up in the online space over the past decade.2
Traditionally, universities had erected divisions between the online and in-person experience, often with different management structures, tuition rates, degree requirements, and faculty compensation. At colleges that offered online programs, students often couldn’t mix and match online and face-to-face experiences. More importantly, even if residential students could enroll in online classes, they had to navigate the brick-and-mortar campus in order to access most services, such as financial aid, counseling, or academic and career advising, not to mention all of the other unstructured residential learning opportunities only afforded to those within the confines of the campus.
The effect of the pandemic
Right now, the stakes are high for institutions to place the right bets. Overall, enrollment fell 4% in fall 2020, with the number of first-year students dropping by a staggering 13%.3 By one estimate, the pandemic has cost colleges at least US$120 billion.4 At the same time, a demographic cliff is projected to arrive in 2026, when the number of students graduating from US high schools will significantly drop.5
Colleges enjoy a certain amount of brand loyalty based on the physical bonds that connect students to each other and their campuses. Once that physical campus was removed from the equation during the pandemic, however, many institutions lacked the digital infrastructure to engage students as a “community.” And students noticed: In one survey of 3,000 undergraduates, nearly 80% of respondents said their online courses lacked the engagement of in-person classes.6
There were some exceptions. Those institutions that already had a robust set of digital tools in place—such as Georgia State University,7 Duke University,8 Arizona State University, University of Central Florida, and University of Michigan9—found the shift to the hybrid environment smoother because they understood how their institutions should serve the needs of learners both in person and virtually. Arizona State, for instance, added a new modality during the pandemic that combined its experience with online and face-to-face classes, called ASU Sync, which allowed students to watch a real-time, live broadcast of their in-person class.10
The experience of the pandemic has offered a radical opportunity for experimentation, encouraging institutions to rethink the overall operating model. As colleges and universities plan for their postpandemic future, they face a series of choices. They can either approach the exercise by returning to the old way of doing business, or they can select a range of hybrid approaches and reshape how their campuses operate, diversify their offerings, and differentiate themselves.
What exactly is a hybrid campus?
Higher education has long been seen as a traditional experience: Full-time students sequestered in a bucolic campus environment interacting in person with professors, staff members, coaches, and classmates, rich with planned and unplanned interactions that comprise the student experience and “social learning.”
In contrast, the hybrid campus reimagines residential education in a tech-enabled world: a technology-enabled student experience. This is not only hybrid instruction, but rather a blended, immersive, and digital residential experience that fuses the online and physical worlds across campus. It transcends the current concept of blended education, which too often focuses solely on classroom instruction that toggles between face-to-face and online. Instead, the hybrid campus can deliver everything an institution offers with a blended approach.
Think of the hybrid campus as similar to the retail model that sits somewhere between the physical and digital worlds, with little distinction between the two. Many retailers that started online also operate physical outlets to spark sales on their websites and increase customer loyalty. Most customers, however, don’t make a distinction between the two. The same thing happens when we shop at Home Depot, which started as a brick-and-mortar store: We don’t differentiate between buying online or driving to the store. What’s critical here for institutional leaders is not the technology necessarily but the changes to campus culture and operating models that go well beyond the acquisition and deployment of new tools.
The recent and sudden transition to purely remote operations unveiled the drawbacks of this bifurcated model when colleges aren’t strategic about what they’re doing in person and what they’re offering virtually. Understanding the distinction between the two is important as institutions reimagine the campus and decide which services deliver their best experience face-to-face and which could easily or more effectively be delivered online. The know-how gained during COVID-19 can provide important guidance for making such decisions and to institutionalize what they’ve already accomplished during the pandemic.
Why the hybrid campus now?
A hybrid approach will allow institutions to become more resilient during future disruptions, whether pandemics or natural disasters; help institutional leaders better manage costs and pedagogical demands; and, ultimately, become more student-centered. Moreover, this model can make higher education more accessible to a much broader population of learners: adults with some college education but no degree, those with degrees but seeking to improve their skills, and international students who wish to take advantage of a US education without relocating.
In the end, one potential lasting impact of COVID-19 in higher education is the belief and an urgency within institutions that they could remake legacy structures that have long been seen as intractable. New institutional frameworks and services were quickly established to support students in the pivot to online learning and then to get them back to campus.
As colleges and universities plan for their postpandemic future, they face a series of choices. The rest of this report discusses how some colleges are already changing and making this vision a reality and what needs to be done next in three key areas of the institution: academic affairs, student success, and the campus workforce(figure 1). Not every campus will follow all the routes we lay out, nor are we suggesting that institutions flip a switch overnight and rely more on the digital model they adopted during COVID-19. But the investments colleges made in 2020 can get them closer to a hybrid strategy that combines the important elements of “place” with online and tech-enabled education.