The Pandemic Has Accelerated Downward Trends in Higher Education

Colleges and universities will face a challenging fall semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have already decided to introduce a hybrid system in which around half of their students will be allowed on campus but must take all their classes online from their dorm rooms. Other students will remain at home.

The pandemic is a threat not only to student campus life but also to schools themselves, as well as the businesses that support them. To understand how higher education may be affected by the pandemic in the long term, GLG spoke with Don Kilburn, former president of Pearson North America and current CEO of UMass Online. The Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity.

The sudden abandonment of campuses was one of the most pronounced developments in the wake of COVID-19. How have institutions managed the transition to online?

It took everybody by surprise. In general, institutions mobilized the best they could to continue teaching online, and if you watched closely, they didn’t talk about it as online education, but as remote learning. The difference being that they basically had taken the on-campus experience and stuck it on Zoom, for better or worse. That experience was largely uneven — not particularly good at schools with little experience using remote modalities but better at schools where many faculty had been delivering online or remote content for two decades. A lot of schools thought that they could do online education, but when forced to go fully online, they found many of their programs were lacking. They also had a hard time justifying keeping money for room and board and other services. Some schools decided to do rebates, and that put pressure on the financials of these institutions.

What do you think of reopening plans and how they may impact enrollment?

There’s a lot of variation in approaches to the fall. Some of it is driven by the financial implications of not opening. Some schools are saying, “If we don’t open, we’ll be in bad shape.” I just don’t know how an institution will have young adults practicing any kind of social distancing. It could go wrong for schools in states where the virus isn’t brought under control, because students as a group do not actually behave in a responsible way. Schools that are building flexibility into their plans and are in states that are limiting the spread of the virus will be in a stronger position to serve their students. Absent something really changing in states with increasing numbers of cases, I’m not optimistic right now.

Generally, how does this crisis impact various types of institutions, such as public and private, community colleges, and two-year and four-year institutions?

There are a number of headwinds for higher education, among them declining demographics due to lower birthrates in 2008-09, state budgets being crushed because of declining tax revenues, pension and health care liabilities coming due, and just too much capacity in the higher ed space and not enough financially stable schools. Before the COVID-19 crisis, there were small colleges that people would look at and say, “These 200 probably are not going to make it.” COVID accelerated many of those macro trends into a period of a month. Schools that don’t have a definable brand identification and strong financial backing — including a good endowment — are faced with an existential threat.

State institutions, which long term will be fine, will face some real pressure as many depend on students paying out-of-state tuition. Community colleges were in tough straits before because they’re not particularly well-funded. With some notable exceptions, they struggle to meet their mission of helping working adults get ahead. A lot of small private schools have an existential threat now because of declining enrollments, whether it’s because students are taking a gap year or staying close to home, or because foreign students aren’t enrolling. It all depends on what we do with the virus, but there may be a wave of these schools closing or merging.

The massive open online course players had kind of been in and out. Some folks were bullish on them for a while and then bearish on them. Your thoughts?

It’s all tied to what employers think about them. Nobody wants a certificate if a corporation or others don’t recognize it for job advancement. Those things that directly get a graduate an interview, job, or promotion will be more attractive. There is certainly an attempt right now to unbundle education, whether it be credit bearing or non-credit bearing. Corporations are signing up to get more industry-specific kinds of competencies or credentials or even credit-bearing courses.

Is there reluctance among faculty or students around the transition to digital learning? How have faculty responded to having to build hybrid online courses for next semester?

The fundamental problem is if schools really wanted to create world-class courseware, they shouldn’t let individual professors create their own. There’s no common platform. What happens now is at best there may be a template to pull a course into, and then from there, there is great variability among the course experiences. If a student is great, they’ll probably figure it out. But if they’re not, figuring out Professor A’s navigation, Professor B’s pedagogy, and Professor C’s assessment strategies and then trying to gather any data that allows them to actually manage that properly is difficult to impossible. If we look at fully online programs in the country that attract some scale, they are almost never campus run. They’re usually specialized colleges that think about the whole process differently.

What opportunities do publishers have with the accelerated transition to digital?

It’s been difficult for publishers to move beyond the legacy textbook model. They’ve done successful moves into homework, especially in quantitative areas like math. But they haven’t actually been able to use digital to create the next-generation courseware, which is a scoped and sequenced course that includes textbook material. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, it’s hard. Two, professors aren’t ready for it. They’re not ready for publishers to take over a good bit of the educational experience online. That’s partly because of the way they think about publishers. Many of the core customer professors like publishers mostly because they make their lives easier. It’s not because they give greater efficacy around students.

It’s going to be interesting to figure out what the transition is from a textbook into real courseware and where content should be embedded. They haven’t gotten to the next generation of that educational experience yet, except for a few places. Their core customers tend to be conservative and legacy-bound. If that can be navigated, great. If not, this business will continue to have a steady decline over a period of time.


About Don Kilburn

Don Kilburn is Chief Executive Officer of UMass Online at the University of Massachusetts. Prior to this, Don was President of AcceleratED Pathways with Pearson. Before that he was President of Pearson North America, and before that he was Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Higher Education with Pearson. Don is a recognized expert in education, particularly in higher education technology, services and products, workforce development, corporate education, and online education. He has a deep understanding of markets, competitors, and regulatory and legal environments.


This article is adapted from the June 29, 2020, teleconference “Higher Education: Outlook Amid COVID-19.” If you would like access to this teleconference or would like to speak with Don Kilburn, or any of our more than 700,000 experts, contact us.

GLG is supporting nonprofits on the front line of COVID-19 relief, pro bono. If you represent or know of an organization that could use our help, let us know here. If you are a GLG council member whose expertise might be valuable to a relief organization, please get in touch here.

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