DURING THE PAST YEAR, THE COVID-19 pandemic has cost the nation’s colleges and universities an estimated $120 billion, according to the American Council on Education. Postsecondary institutions had to shoulder the expense of quickly adding technology to switch to remote education for nearly all students while simultaneously seeing a collective decline of approximately 560,000 undergraduates, causing significant drops in tuition revenue for some colleges and universities. And, once it was safer to bring students back to campuses, colleges had to ensure that policies and practices were in place to deter the spread of coronavirus infections in their communities.

“We’ve all learned that we can do things much faster. We can be deliberative and thoughtful and have a pace about it, too, and that’s going to serve us all as we move into a world that was already uncertain in a lot of ways before COVID,” says Carmen Twillie Ambar *94, president of Oberlin College.
Photo: Tanya Rosen-Jones

“I think the thing we’ve all learned is that the pace of higher education and our ability to be innovative [has] always been slower than it needed to be,” says Carmen Twillie Ambar *94, president of Oberlin College in Ohio. “We’ve all learned that we can do things much faster. We can be deliberative and thoughtful and have a pace about it, too, and that’s going to serve us all as we move into a world that was already uncertain in a lot of ways before COVID.”

“What I think we learned from [the pandemic] is, first of all, we were all able to kind of transfer what we were doing into an online modality more rapidly than, frankly, I would have imagined would have been possible,” says Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber ’83. “For this period, what we’ve been doing is trying to learn how to use these tools and employ them as successfully and creatively as we can to enable people to persist forward to the degree they were seeking when this pandemic began.” 

But higher education’s long-term commitment to innovative practices that helped these institutions continue to operate during the pandemic remains very much uncertain. PAW spoke with 13 presidents of postsecondary institutions, including community colleges, liberal-arts colleges, and major research universities. The presidents — all Princeton alumni — praised their students, faculty, and staff for adjusting quickly to the demands of the pandemic, but questioned whether practices such as online education or SAT/ACT-optional admissions requirements would continue as COVID-19 subsides. Some initiatives created in 2020 — for example, expanded diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder or new internship programs for students at liberal arts colleges — seem likely to endure. But, at the moment, most leaders are still figuring out what the balance of pre-COVID/post-COVID college might look like.

“In the beginning [of the pandemic], the metaphor was ‘When are we going to return to normal?’ You heard that everywhere, right? And I fell into it, too,” says Kathryn A. Foster *93, president of The College of New Jersey, which enrolls 7,400 students in Ewing Township. “I think we all fell into it, that our benchmark was normal, which is to say, pre-COVID, before this pandemic came along. Now, there’s a different phrasing around what it is that we’re trying to achieve and what new possibilities have arisen. Because, if you did go back to the old normal, you’d be looking like you didn’t learn anything.”

“Now, there’s a different phrasing around what it is that we’re trying to achieve and what new possibilities have arisen. Because, if you did go back to the old normal, you’d be looking like you didn’t learn anything,” says Kathryn A. Foster *93, president of The College of New Jersey
Photo: Peter Murphy

Across postsecondary education, colleges are assessing what a post-pandemic future might look like for their institutions. For community colleges, the pandemic caused double-digit drops in student enrollment. Bringing those students — and their tuition revenue — back to build skills for the jobs that could refuel the nation’s economic recovery is a priority among the leaders of two-year colleges and some lawmakers. Four-year public universities didn’t see enrollment drops that were quite as as dramatic, but the pandemic recession has hit some state budgets hard, which could mean funding cuts for higher ed. (In other states, grim forecasts did not hold.) And, this time, public universities may not be able to raise tuition prices because rising student-loan debt totals already have families questioning whether a degree is worth the price. Even wealthier, highly selective liberal arts colleges and national universities — which financially are better positioned to recover from the pandemic — will have to win back the faith of students who suddenly found themselves in remote courses even though they chose these colleges for the campus experiences they promised.

Rebuilding that bond is a priority for Princeton. “I’ve said to our faculty, I’ve said to our community [that] we have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to be back in person and teaching, because the excellence and quality of this University’s teaching and research mission depend on that in-person element,” says Eisgruber. 

IT’S NO SURPRISE THAT THE PANDEMIC EXPOSED THE ECONOMIC realities that many community colleges and their students face. While two-year colleges are among the more accessible and affordable options for students who might eventually want to transfer to a four-year institution or are seeking training or certification for a job, many of the students who enroll in these institutions perform a delicate financial balance at the best of times. That means unanticipated hurdles — such as a switch to remote education, and the costs of a computer and high-speed internet access that come along with it — can swiftly derail these students’ career goals.

“It was not an easy spring semester because students that were in on-campus courses suddenly had to be learning remotely, which presented some real challenges for the students that we serve,” says Mark Erickson ’77, president of Northampton Community College, which enrolls approximately 35,000 students in the region surrounding Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “Some of them did not have computers, so the college bought and distributed hundreds of computers to our students. We also distributed hot spots for students that didn’t have internet connectivity. We have a van — an admissions van — that goes out that is also a hot spot. So, we parked that in our parking lots so students [without internet at home] could drive up in their cars and take classes from inside their cars.”

Recognizing that many of its students also lost their jobs due to the pandemic recession, Northampton held a fundraising drive that collected more than $200,000 to help students cover daily living expenses such as food and rent. Financial difficulties are one of the factors that have driven down enrollment among the nation’s more than 1,000 two-year colleges. According to research from the National Student Clearinghouse, community colleges experienced an 11.3 percent decline in enrollment for the spring 2021 semester when compared with the same time one year earlier. Private, nonprofit four-year colleges experienced only a 3 percent drop in enrollment during the same period. 

Many of the students who withdrew were Black or Latino — the same demographic groups that experienced disproportionate COVID-19 infection rates and deaths, and job losses. Black and Latino students account for roughly 40 percent of the nation’s 5 million community-college students. Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, there was a 19 percent drop in enrollment among Black students at two-year colleges and a 16 percent drop among Latino students, according to research from the American Association of Community Colleges.

“The pandemic was a triple whammy, because not only do we see African Americans, Latinx populations, and low-income populations hit disproportionately by COVID [infections] and hit disproportionately by the shifts in the economy caused by COVID, but we also saw them disproportionately press pause on their higher-education aspirations,” says John “J.B.” Buxton *99, president of Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina. “We saw significant enrollment declines among African American students, Latinx students — especially if they were male African American or Latinx students.”

Bringing these students back will be perhaps the most significant challenge two-year colleges must tackle, particularly because these institutions often play a direct role in training adults for the jobs that are available in their regions. In that regard, the pandemic could provide an opportunity for community colleges to focus more sharply on bridging the gaps between students and employers. For example, Durham Tech already is shifting its emphasis to help more students quickly train for jobs. Before the pandemic, the institution focused on preparing its students for transfer to four-year colleges in the Research Triangle region of the state.

“We’ve got a real ability to connect residents in this region to great jobs that offer family- sustaining wages and an economic growth,” says John “J.B.” Buxton *99, president of Durham Technical Community College. “For us, what that meant was very specifically a focus on short-term credentials.”
Photo: Durham Tech

“We’ve got a real ability to connect residents in this region to great jobs that offer family-sustaining wages and an economic growth,” Buxton says. “For us, what that meant was very specifically a focus on short-term credentials, where we could create really short six- to eight-week courses that allowed someone who might have been in the culinary or hospitality or retail industry to pivot into life science, health care, or advanced manufacturing. We can offer these short courses that lead to industry-recognized or state-recognized credentials, at really low tuition rates, like 250 bucks a pop.”

The pandemic ultimately may alter the revenue formula at community colleges. As part of his American Families Plan legislation, President Joe Biden has proposed $109 billion in additional funding for community colleges so that most students would be able to attend tuition-free for three years of study, with a possible fourth if necessary. The bill represents “a once-in-a-generation chance to see a very significant change in the direction of federal policy that might significantly increase access to higher education,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs for the American Council on Education, a leading advocacy group for higher education. 

The fate of that stimulus bill was uncertain as of the publication of this article, but this federal proposal for free community college builds on the momentum created by states that already have implemented similar policies, such as Oregon and Tennessee. Even if Biden’s proposal fails to become federal law, state and local governments might dedicate more funding to two-year colleges as communities seek to get their residents trained with new skills and back into the labor force.

AMONG THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF POSTSECONDARY institutions, liberal-arts colleges perhaps faced the most abrupt shift in operations over the past year. Small class sizes that foster direct, personal interaction with faculty and classmates have long been at the center of these institutions’ approach to teaching and learning. But in mid-March 2020, virtually all of these schools switched all of their courses to remote instruction, even though most of them had never before offered courses online. None of the liberal-arts college presidents interviewed for this article expects to continue offering online courses to students once the pandemic need subsides.

“Our college cannot live up to its mission of high-touch, high-impact education if we’re not back on campus,” says Damián J. Fernández ’79, president of Eckerd College, a liberal-arts school in St. Petersburg, Florida, that has been recognized for providing a student-centered culture that fosters relationships with faculty. “This is precisely the kind of education that requires the personal. We are known for mentorship; we are known for our transformational experiences. And you just cannot do that long distance.”

The commitment to in-person education doesn’t mean that all of the innovations these colleges created last year will disappear. For example, Oberlin intends to find ways to continue an internship program it created for third-year students. In order to bring more students back to campus in the fall 2020 semester, Oberlin switched to a trimester calendar. Adding a semester in the summer made it possible to have three class years on campus simultaneously, using a rotation system (freshmen and seniors were on campus in the fall and spring, sophomores in the fall and summer, and juniors in the spring and summer).

But third-year students drew the short straw in that rotation, meaning they would be off-campus for nine months, from mid-March 2020 through January 2021. To keep these juniors engaged with Oberlin, the college created the Junior Practicum program: Students could choose to participate in one of roughly 50 virtual internships with alumni following a few weeks of online workshops. Ambar recalls being impressed watching a presentation by one group of these students, who worked with an alum who organizes blood drives in Ghana. 

“It was work done virtually, but it was substantive work,” she says. “I’m not sure they could have done any better work if they had been in Ghana in person. That practicum connection with our alumni was incredible, and that is a keeper. Even after the pandemic is long gone, there will be some version of that program.”

One of the most significant developments of the past year at postsecondary institutions didn’t stem from the pandemic at all, but from the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, by a Minneapolis police officer. The global protests for social justice added momentum to the diversity and equity initiatives that already were underway at many colleges and universities. That includes Princeton, which is launching programs for anti-racism research and partnering with historically Black colleges and universities. [See page 16 for an update on initiatives.]

While several of the presidents interviewed for this article spoke about what the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests meant for their communities, the subject is particularly relevant for Carleton College, whose campus in Northfield, Minnesota, sits just 44 miles away from the Twin Cities; many students, faculty, and staff call Minneapolis home. The college has since mandated anti-racism training for all faculty, staff, trustees, and key alumni volunteer leaders.

“In addition to the pandemic, this has been a year where the college and the country, of course, have both been called to account to talk about issues of racism, and especially issues of institutional racism,” says Carleton College President Steven G. Poskanzer ’80. “It’s forced Carleton to step back and really think about ways that the college maybe isn’t working as well as it ought to be for every student, faculty, and staff member ... .”
Photo: Carleton College Communications

“In addition to the pandemic, this has been a year where the college and the country, of course, have both been called to account to talk about issues of racism, and especially issues of institutional racism,” says Carleton College President Steven G. Poskanzer ’80. “The Floyd murder, the Chauvin trial, Daunte Wright’s killing — all of these things really point out, again and again, the work that needs to be done in our country and closer to home. It’s forced Carleton to step back and really think about ways that the college maybe isn’t working as well as it ought to be for every student, faculty, and staff member to be able to truly realize their aspirations.”

The use of standardized tests in the admissions process at selective colleges and universities has long been criticized as one obstacle preventing the enrollment of a more diverse student body. Many of these institutions suspended the SAT/ACT requirement last year because physical-distancing requirements made it nearly impossible for students to take the tests in proctored rooms. Applications for fall 2021 admissions spiked at many highly selective universities, including Princeton, probably due in part to the lack of a standardized-testing requirement. While Princeton — and many other highly selective universities — won’t require test scores for the 2021–22 admission cycle, Eisgruber said he and Dean of Admission Karen Richardson ’93 expect to resume the use of these scores once it is safer for most students to take the exams.

“Both she and I believe that it’s important for Princeton to restore the use of those tests because we take them into account as one factor among others,” Eisgruber says. “Her experience and mine is that the way you get diversity — whether we’re talking about ethnic diversity, whether we’re talking about socioeconomic diversity or any other kind of diversity — is you aim at it specifically. If you’re aiming at it specifically and taking into account the imperfections of these tests, as Karen and her team do, the tests provide another useful piece of information.”

Still, the past year has seen the role of standardized tests diminish as a rite of passage. After PAW’s interview with Eisgruber, the 10-campus University of California system said that as part of a legal settlement, it will no longer use SAT/ACT scores in its admission process. Students from the predominantly Black and Latino Compton Unified School District and their advocates successfully argued that the tests were biased against students of color and those from lower-income backgrounds. Given the size and stature of the UC system, this decision could very well influence other public universities’ decisions on the use of standardized tests.

FOR SOME SCHOOLS, THE PANDEMIC HAS PROVIDED A LARGELY unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate to their surrounding communities the value of having a major research university nearby. The relationships these institutions nurtured with their neighbors could be mutually beneficial for years after the pandemic dissipates. 

For example, Tufts University faculty and administrators played a key role in helping nearby communities and the state of Massachusetts implement and adapt coronavirus testing procedures, notes Anthony Monaco ’81, president of that university.

“There was a lot of mistrust for universities and colleges, I think, prior to the pandemic, with the idea of the ‘ivory tower’ not being open enough,” he says. “Tufts has good relations with its communities, but [in general] it’s a reputational thing that universities sometimes are not trusted as many big organizations are trusted.” In the absence of clear and consistent guidance from the federal government about how to slow the spread of the coronavirus, local leaders turned to research institutions for their scientific expertise. That shows “that universities have the knowledge and the know-how to help their communities,” Monaco says. “When [our local government] saw that we could get a successful testing program out, they wanted in.” 

When the University of Missouri in Columbia made the decision to return to remote education following the Thanksgiving break after bringing students back for the fall 2021 semester, the decision was driven by a perspective that was broader than just the rising number of COVID infections on the campus.

“The real reason that we decided to depopulate the campus wasn’t because of the number of cases among our students,” says Mun Choi *92, president of the four-campus University of Missouri system and chancellor of its flagship campus. Because it already was seeing a large influx of COVID-19 infections among residents from outside the campus community, the university hospital didn’t want to risk having to simultaneously treat a larger outbreak among students, faculty, and staff. “Our [university] hospital serves about 25 counties surrounding Columbia. We were seeing that many of the outlying counties did not have similar public-health standards, like wearing masks and social distancing, so our hospital system was being filled up with people from those counties who required COVID care.”

Many colleges and universities balanced their 2020–21 books by tightening their belts in the same ways other employers did: furloughing or laying off staff, halting matching donations to employee retirement benefits, temporary pay cuts, etc. The question for many now is how quickly they might recover financially, particularly those that were already struggling before the pandemic struck.

“Academic institutions expect stability,” says Timothy Snyder *87, president of Loyola Marymount University in California. “When you do things like lay off staff or close down programs, internally the consequences of decisions like that can ring in negative ways for years to come.

“I think we could see a shakeout where some institutions that were already in trouble prior to this will fold,” he says. “More than that, we could see more integration of institutions, programmatically or through mergers. But higher education is still going to be the solution for a future that’s going to require more and more creativity, brainpower, and collaboration interdisciplinarily. What we need to do, as an industry, is be drawn toward and by that future.”  

Kenneth Terrell ’93, a former education editor for U.S. News & World Report, is a writer and editor for AARP.

Though they’re not all quoted, these alumni — all college presidents — provided helpful information for this article: 

Steven G. Poskanzer ’80: Carleton College 

Kathryn A. Foster *93: The College of New Jersey 

Carol Quillen *91: Davidson College 

John “J.B.” Buxton *99: Durham Technical Community College

Damián J. Fernández ’79: Eckerd College 

David Wippman ’77: Hamilton College 

Timothy Law Snyder *87: Loyola Marymount University 

Mark Erickson ’77: Northampton Community College

Carmen Twillie Ambar *94: Oberlin College

Christopher Eisgruber ’83: Princeton University 

Anthony P. Monaco ’81: Tufts University

Mun Choi *92: University of Missouri 

Janet K. Levit ’90: University of Tulsa (interim)