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AUGUST 18, 2020 //     

Every Crisis Creates Opportunities, COVID-19’s Impact on Higher Education is No Exception 

By: Scott Pansky + Michael Ares

The abrupt shutdown of college campuses across the country midway through the 2020 spring semester took an unprecedented toll on students, faculty and staff alike. Forced to quickly shift instruction from primarily face-to-face to exclusively online, institutions struggled to deliver an educational experience on par with pre-COVID times. With the broad spectrum of approaches set to roll out this fall – ranging from modified on-campus instruction to completely remote curriculum model – leaders face mounting pressure and high expectations to deliver on the core principles of scholarship, research and professional development. 

Yet, every crisis presents opportunities – opportunities to learn, to pivot, and in some cases to completely overhaul policies, processes and methods. For higher education, these opportunities are particularly promising, offering the potential to remedy issues and inequities that were ripe for change well before the recent impacts of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter movement demands. 

  • Diversity and Economic Inequality 
The coronavirus pandemic impacted college students unequally along key demographic and racial lines, with those in lower income brackets suffering the most. Whether that was the lack of reliable internet service that denied millions of students access to online instruction, food insecurity issues resulting from the closing of on-campus meal programs, or stay-at-home working mandates that created housing, childcare and a host of other financial challenges, the gap continues to widen. As classes – and in some cases, students – return this fall, colleges have the opportunity to remedy these inequities in access and support, address more diverse sets of needs, and invest in more sustainable initiatives that champion those most affected.  
  • Technology Adoption 

With some exceptions, most colleges were ill-equipped from a technology perspective to easily switch to an online education modelInvestments have since been made in systems, networks, software, curriculum and training for both instructors and students to improve online instruction modelsincluding efforts by colleges still attempting in-person instruction this fall. These investments should continue – and even increase. Online instruction at some level will remain an important delivery model for the foreseeable future, and strong online curriculum can offset fluctuations in on-campus enrollment rates that are increasingly difficult to predict. Investing now will pay off, delaying the inevitable won’t. 

  • Communications 

“Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.” Words to live by in any crisis and particularly applicable to the challenges college communicators face in keeping all stakeholders abreast about circumstances and decisions that change – understandably – daily. Communicating effectively with higher education’s most important target audiences – students, families, faculty, staff, partners and donors – is critical to ensure success in today’s constantly changing landscape. In-person, event-based engagement campaigns are now largely out the window, while social media plays an increasingly important role in reaching key constituents. It is more important than ever to be authentic, responsible and transparent across all delivery and engagement platforms. Those institutions that take a strategic approach to allocating expanded strategic and tactical resources to college communicators and their teams will emerge in a much stronger position than most.  

In the end, recognizing these “lights at the end of the tunnel offers higher education leadership the opportunity to lead at exactly the moment their leadership matters most. 

If you work at a higher ed institution, please feel free to contact Scott atscottp@allisonpr.comor sign up for ourweekly COVID-19 updates. 
 
Scott Pansky is a co-founder of the agency and leads Allison+Partners’ Social Impact group. Scott has extensive experience providing communications and crisis counsel to education, corporate and nonprofit organizations. 

Michael Ares, Principle Owner of MDA Corporate Marketing, LLC, is a Higher Education Consultant providing strategic counsel and market positioning communications services for leading institutions, businesses and executives who lead them.

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