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IDEAS

The coronavirus crisis will bust up and reshape higher education — for better or for worse

Chat bots, predictive analytics, and maybe a cheaper, more humane college experience.

Adobe/Globe Staff

There were no barbed debates in the classroom these past couple of months. No nervy, ecstatic runs through the March Madness basketball tournament. No glorious midnight rambles across the campus green.

The coronavirus pandemic ripped the heart out of the American college experience — and it may be some time before it beats again in full measure.

Colleges and universities have lost staggering sums; a few may never recover. And while many are cautiously planning to re-open their campuses in the fall, others have vowed to remain shuttered for the semester.

But for all the uncertainty lingering over the academy, there is a strange clarity, too.

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With all the trappings stripped away, students and professors and administrators have been forced to reckon with some of the most fundamental — and consequential — questions in higher education.

What should teaching and learning look like in our digitized — and stratified — society? And what is a college education really worth?

Are there ways to break it up into pieces — to reconfigure it, to put more of it online? Are there ways to make it more affordable and practical? And what do we lose when that happens?

All of these questions were percolating before the pandemic, but never have they felt so urgent. And never has change seemed so possible.

Globe Ideas talked to professors, students, deans, and college presidents about what might emerge from this crisis — and, just as important, what should emerge.

Here’s what they had to say.

The tech revolution? It’s much bigger than Zoom

Higher education is fixated on distance learning at the moment. And Richard Arum, the dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, understands that.

Colleges and universities will have to improve on the glitchy, awkward, Zoom-enabled classes of the last couple of months. But stopping there, he suggests, would be a shame. Ed tech is much bigger than any online platform for delivering classes. And its potential for transformation, he says, is enormous.

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A decade ago, Arum and co-author Josipa Roksa dropped what one observer called “a bomb” on higher education. Their book, “Academically Adrift,” showed that a big swath of college students weren’t working much, and weren’t learning much either — barely improving, between their freshman and senior years, on a test of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communication called the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

The book tapped a deep vein of concern about the value of an increasingly expensive college education. But critics said it relied too heavily on a single test. Arum took that critique to heart.

Now he is engaged in an ambitious, wide-ranging effort to measure the student experience like never before. His Next Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project is tracking 1,000 students at UC Irvine. They’re taking specially designed assessments on critical thinking, collaborative problem solving, and propensity for confirmation bias, which is the tendency to value information based on how neatly it fits preconceived notions.

And the project is mining data from a learning-management system — there’s something like it on many college campuses these days — that allows students to download readings, upload assignments, and work in groups.

“You’re able to literally capture every click on the computer,” he says. “You’re able to observe how students are processing information in a much more detailed way than traditional observation of the classroom.”

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Some students are also answering regular surveys on their cell phones about what they’re doing and how they feel about it, to gauge the experience outside the classroom.

The project has its skeptics; there has been talk, for decades now, of developing a more sweeping assessment of the college experience. But Arum says the new technology is a game changer. It allows for data collection that wasn’t possible before. And it could yield major advancements, he says, in the “science of learning.”

This, he argues, is how higher education should be thinking about ed tech coming out of the pandemic — using existing tools to measure and improve the student experience in much more meaningful ways.

But the wealthiest, most prestigious schools should be thinking even bigger, he argues. They should be making a concerted effort to improve those tools.

Until now, a good deal of the innovation in online course delivery and virtual student advisement has been left to online-only — or online-mostly — colleges.

But elite universities, with their enormous resources and intellectual firepower, could build something better, Arum argues. Indeed, he says, they have a responsibility to do so. They’re nonprofits, after all. They don’t pay taxes. They’re supposed to serve the public. And technology has the potential to democratize education like little else.

“One of the critiques of these great institutions,” he says, “is that when their endowments grew tremendously over the past decade, they did not expand access, really, at all. Their enrollments did not grow in any significant number, nor did they provide access to increasing proportions of low-income students.”

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If these schools developed better online learning technology, it could be used to expand access to their institutions — and to many others.

Some research universities, to be fair, have taken important steps in this direction. The University Innovation Alliance, a collaborative of 11 schools including Michigan State University and Iowa State University aimed at increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in America, has deployed predictive analytics and chat bots to intervene with students who might be veering off track.

Bridget Burns, the executive director of the organization, says after the pandemic higher education will have to do more. “'We don’t do that here’ cannot be an answer to anything,” she says.

Arum adds that advancements in online learning could allow for a hybrid approach — a mix of online and on-campus learning — that might significantly cut down on the cost of education.

Maybe students could do a year or two of remote learning after high school, Arum says. Maybe that’s combined with an internship. And maybe it’s followed by just two or three years of the more costly residential experience.

There are all kinds of possibilities. And the pandemic, it seems, is hastening their arrival.

The hybrid university

Southern New Hampshire University is best known for the behemoth it has built on the Web.

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With 130,000 online students, it has emerged as one of a handful of “mega-universities” serving mostly adult learners in search of job-ready skills.

But Southern New Hampshire also operates a traditional campus in Manchester, with frisbee-chucking 19-year-olds and well-appointed dorms.

And that campus is on the brink of a transformation.

Last month, the school made a rather remarkable announcement. All incoming freshmen will get scholarships covering their full tuition for the 2020-21 academic year. And starting the following year, tuition for that cohort and all new students will be slashed by about two-thirds, from $31,000 to $10,000 per year — in line with the price that the typical online-only student is paying.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University.Credit: Southern New Hampshire University

Paul LeBlanc, president of the university, says the tuition reduction plan had been in the works for some time: “I think we have long known, in American higher education, that we are out of the reach of too many people.”

But the school moved up the schedule by a couple of years — and added the scholarships for incoming freshmen — in response to the economic shock of the pandemic.

How to finance the move? LeBlanc says the school could make some cuts — getting rid of its campus wellness center, for instance, or moving financial aid operations completely online. It might also keep the campus open 12 months per year, hoping the modest $10,000 price tag will allow the school to attract more applicants and double its student population from 3,000 to 6,000.

But one of the most important measures will be moving to a fully hybrid online/in-person model. What that model will look like, exactly, is not clear. Indeed, LeBlanc says the school will develop not one approach, but several — tailored to the needs of different kinds of students.

In the end, though, it seems likely that a substantial share of its on-campus students will be taking classes online, and getting some sort of face-to-face academic support from faculty when they need it.

This sort of leap is more manageable for a school like Southern New Hampshire with deep experience in online learning. It has been running pilot programs in hybrid learning for several years now. And if the pandemic accelerates the trend to hybridity, as most observers expect, schools with that sort of head start will have an advantage.

Take Northeastern University. Long known for its co-op program that sends students into the working world, the school has begun offering a sort of virtual internship for some pupils in recent years — with employers assigning projects to be completed online.

“That is an edge,” says university president Joseph Aoun. “I don’t believe that any other institution has integrated an experiential component into its online, or hybrid, learning this way.”

Northeastern University.
Northeastern University.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Or consider Arizona State University, which offers two dozen Web-based “adaptive learning” courses for on-campus and online students in math, biology, history, and other subjects.

Students click though virtual textbooks, watch short explanatory videos, and take frequent online assessments to make sure they’ve mastered material before moving on. If they’re struggling with a certain area of study, they’re bumped back into remedial instruction for a time, and then brought back up to speed.

On-campus students then gather in classrooms, where they break up into groups and work on projects, with instructors and graduate students circling the room to offer advice and answer questions.

Many of the classes now offered in this “adaptive learning” format were what ASU President Michael Crow called “killer courses” before — subjects like college algebra, taught in traditional, lecture-style formats, that often tripped up students early in their college careers and lead to dropouts. The school has seen markedly better results with the new approach.

If online learning opens up new learning possibilities, it also promises scale.

ASU has a large online-only operation. And between the fall of 2003 and the fall of 2019, total enrollment of undergraduate and graduate students — online and on campus — doubled from 57,543 to 119,951. In that same period, the number of low-income and first-generation students more than tripled.

“What we said is, ‘why can’t you build a completely egalitarian, unbelievably scaled research university?’ ” says Crow.

Whether the pandemic will spawn more ASUs is another question. The “mega-universities,” so far ahead, will be tough to catch.

The online-only play

If the pandemic seems likely to encourage more hybrid learning on traditional college campuses, it could also drive more students to pure online education.

At least, that’s how Scott Pulsipher sees it.

Pulsipher made his bones in technology, working at a couple of startups and doing a four-year stint at Amazon before taking over as president of Western Governors University.

The nonprofit, online-only school was born of a 1997 meeting of western governors frustrated by the cost of higher education and eager to build a skilled workforce.

It now enrolls 121,000 students in all 50 states who are pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, business, health professions, and information technology.

The focus on practical, job-ready skills has allowed Western Governors and other “mega-universities” to tap an enormous, underserved market of 30 million people who have some college credits but never made it to graduation.

And with unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, the schools are expecting a surge of interest from this core constituency: adult learners hoping to retool and re-enter the workforce.

Applications to WGU were 31 percent higher last month than in April of 2019.

But Pulsipher also sees a unique opportunity to attract younger students — high school graduates leery of enrolling in expensive, brick-and-mortar colleges that may not be able to deliver the full on-campus experience for months to come.

“They’ll be thinking, ‘what are the benefits and the value that I’m seeking and which are the right institutions to provide that?’” he says. “And my sense is that . . . a low double-digit percent of them will think, ‘you know what, virtual and online, it’s going to be a fact [of life]. I want to have institutions with great student experiences and a faculty model that supports me to be successful.' ”

Before the pandemic arrived, Western Governors was already seeing its fastest growth among 18- to 22-year-olds (who now comprise 8 percent of the student body) and 23- to 27-year-olds (who now account for 21 percent of the total). Even modest growth in these age groups would be a big win for WGU and other online institutions.

But not everyone is thrilled by the possibility.

Amy Slaton, a history professor at Drexel University, is a critic of the practical, “competency-based” education favored by online institutions.

Delivering a more affordable college education is a worthy goal, she says. But the best solution is big, structural changes to how the economy works — not a stripped-down product that stamps out the magic of the classroom and swaps out a broad education for a focus on a narrow set of skills.

“There really is no such thing as a bargain education,” she says. “When you pay more, you get more. When you pay less, you get less.”

And a rush to online-only education could drain resources from some of the schools that offer more of the give-and-take of an in-person experience — small colleges that were already struggling with shrinking enrollments and tight budgets before the pandemic arrived. Small colleges that may not make it out the other side.

Whither the small college?

For Pam Rorke Levy, there is much to love about the San Francisco Art Institute.

There’s the history of the place. Ansel Adams established the institute’s photography program and its alumni include Annie Liebovitz and Kehinde Wiley.

Levy, the school’s board chair, loves SFAI’s strange topography, too: the poured concrete tower that looks over its Russian Hill campus and the courtyard, “which is kind of like you’re going for a walk in the south of France.”

And these days, she says, the school acts as a sort of cultural ballast for a city in thrall of Silicon Valley. “I think the arts have a really important civilizing influence,” she says. “They are sort of the soul of the town, they are the conscience of the town.”

But SFAI, like a lot of small schools, is in trouble.

Enrollment shrunk from about 700 students a decade ago to 300 this past school year. And the institute has some $19 million in debt. When the pandemic struck, merger talks with another San Francisco university collapsed, putting the future of the school in serious doubt.

The San Francisco Art Institute, the oldest art college west of the Mississippi, announced in March it will not accept students for the fall semester.
The San Francisco Art Institute, the oldest art college west of the Mississippi, announced in March it will not accept students for the fall semester.Eric Risberg/Associated Press

In March, SFAI announced that it would not admit a new class in the fall. And there were reports that it would permanently close.

That had a rallying effect that may save the school. In the coming months, SFAI will auction off donated works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Wayne Thiebaud. And in the fall, Levy says, the institute plans to restart merger discussions.

Success would mean preserving one small school on the brink. But at least two others, MacMurray College in Illinois and Urbana University in Ohio, have announced closures at least partially related to the pandemic. There could be more to come, including a handful of schools in New England.

A recent report by Boston-based college advising firm Edmit found that, with the financial shock of the public health crisis factored in, 345 private colleges and universities nationwide — more than one-third of the schools it studied — are now in “low” financial health, meaning they will survive six years, at most, if current financial trends persist.

Levy, who attended a small college as an undergraduate, says an important educational option is at risk — something more personal, more intimate.

In the (virtual) classroom

Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, blinked onto the screen for the last class of the semester with four little creatures peering over her shoulder: one red, one purple, one green, and one yellow.

They were Teletubbies, the gibberish-speaking, pop culture phenoms of the late 1990s.

Glasmeier had installed them as her virtual background, a little conversation piece as her far-flung students logged in, one-by-one, to make their final presentations.

With classes online, the professor was not just a professor anymore. She’d become part comedian, part therapist, and part IT consultant.

Not everything went smoothly. During that final meeting of her economic development course, students periodically froze on screen. Sometimes, their voices turned tinny. But they managed impressive presentations anyway, on poverty rates in Houston and the housing market in New York.

Students walk across campus at MIT.
Students walk across campus at MIT.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

And there was a certain intimacy that may not have taken hold under normal circumstances. Teletubbies at the start and, at the end, a promise from Glasmeier of dinner at her house when the pandemic passes. “We’ll laugh,” she said. “We’ll laugh a lot. And we can dress up any old way we want.”

Glasmeier says she will permanently change her teaching after the last couple of months of online-only classes. Lectures don’t work as well on Zoom, so there was more group work. She’d like to hold onto that.

She also wants to blend in-classroom activities with more online, “asynchronous” material that can be consumed at any time. And she will cling to the “how are you?” at the start of class. To the extra concern for student well-being.

“I would never go back,” she says.

Over the last couple of months, students noticed the professors who extended themselves. And they appreciated it. But for many, online classes just weren’t the same.

Jackie O’Brien, who spoke to the Globe last month as she was finishing up her senior year at Boston University, said they felt flat: “There’s a certain energy when you’re in a room with people that you don’t get over video chat."

O’Brien felt her eye wandering, from time to time, to online videos and other distractions. And she started thinking more about the basic value proposition of a college education.

Suddenly pulled away from campus, it was the human element she missed. The classroom repartee. Her friends. She didn’t care about the state-of-the-art gym or the ubiquitous televisions. Was all that stuff really worth more than $70,000 per year?

“It would be nice if this could be a wake-up call,” she said. “How long can they raise tuition at colleges?”

That was an urgent question before the pandemic arrived. Now, it feels existential.

When campus life returns to something approaching normal, and colleges can justify raising tuition, some will feel obligated to do so — to recoup some of the losses incurred during the pandemic. To survive, even. And hundreds of thousands of students, no doubt, will continue to pay.

But impatience with a high-cost, one-size-fits-all education seems likely to grow now — especially with so many of the families considering college for their kids in tough economic circumstances of their own.

In higher education, then, as in so many segments of the economy, the future may belong to the big and the innovative — to the players with the resources to experiment and the capacity to grow.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing — whether pandemic-era consolidation would ultimately serve the American college student — is a question for another day.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe