Higher Education and the Revolution of 2020

By Dr. Barry Ryan,  President Emeritus of Sofia University, California and Edu Alliance, Advisory Council Member May 24, 2020. 

The Plague quote

 Neither should do so.  Of course, the precise timing of its arrival, nature of the beast, it’s spread, and duration may have been unpredictable.  To use legal language, though, we all “knew or should have known” that a pandemic was coming.  Yet the world was woefully under-prepared.

The immediacy of the threat to the health of millions upon millions around the planet was overwhelming – not just medically, but emotionally and psychologically as well.  It was followed closely by the realization that an economic disaster was unfolding concomitantly with the plague itself, escalating worldwide fear and stress like little else in history.  In a very few short months, life on earth changed.

Higher education has, obviously, not been spared.  University research resources and hospital systems have been turned to as trusted sources of scientific knowledge and hope for the development of treatments and vaccines.  But what about the non-scientific research aspects of higher education?

Simple questions have not generated simple answers.  Campuses were closed, residential housing emptied, students sent “home” (very difficult for many, particularly international students).  Faculty and staff, likewise, wondering whether their jobs would survive and, if so, in what form?  Administrators, boards, presidents felt the full burden of making decisions that, perhaps for the first time in their professional lives, had life or death consequences.

In such a crisis, the immediate impulse was to try to save the Spring academic term (and preserve some vestige of “normalcy”) by pivoting to online delivery of course content for those already underway.  Was there any other choice?

That decision, though, was fraught with challenges.  Some institutions had well-developed online programming and experienced faculty.  A few, of course, were already exclusively online in all their programs, while others had at least one entire program available in that format and approved by accreditors.

But many institutions had little or no such capacity, experience, or resources.  Online curriculum delivery was not merely a matter of hooking up a Zoom link and providing “chalk and talk” from the instructor already partway through the course.  Some, particularly smaller institutions, didn’t have the IT resources to make even that possible or to support such rapid change.

Many faculty members who were pressed into some sort of online format had no prior experience, no training, and little support.  Often, the courses themselves had never been designed for the online world.  Such curricular development takes time and expertise, neither of which was sufficiently available.

In many cases, the quality of instruction slipped, at best, and both students and faculty added confusion and frustration to their already heavy burdens of anxiety and fear.  The questions came louder and more frequently – is this what I’m paying for?  The financial concerns increased, especially given the unfolding economic disaster and job losses hitting students and their families.  Had their education, which now looked very unlike what they had expected, become an unnecessary luxury?  Did it have sufficient meaning any longer?

In-person events, including athletic, performance, and commencement ceremonies, were taken off the calendar.  Many of the summer courses are not face to face and what will campuses look like in the Fall and beyond?

The answers have been, understandably, tentative. I’ve been in touch with a dozen presidents. All are struggling with the strong desire to “re-open” their campuses as soon as possible.  However, this plague and the efficacy of efforts to diminish its effects do not operate on a timeline of our choosing.  The economic damage to colleges and universities is already enormous, and each week, only deepens the losses.  There is an almost overwhelming compulsion to return to normal.

It is clear many students (and their families) have little appetite for having to bear the costs of an education that is online only, without the “college experience” that they had expected.  Many faculty have similar concerns about that same thing. How long will they go along with an online solution?  The California State University Chancellor announced that the Fall of 2020 classes will be online (with a few small exceptions) for the nation’s largest system.  Will those students accept online, or look elsewhere, or nowhere?  Will they come back in January, if at all?

Will new students take a “gap year”?  Or shift their enrollment to community colleges, at a fraction of the cost?  Projected first-time freshmen enrollments were already a challenge for most traditional institutions, even before the plague.  Will international students even be able to attend institutions in the US, this Fall or even in 2021?  These are health care and political questions with a national election in the US in the midst of it all.

What to do now?

There will not be a “return to normal” for vast swaths of American higher education.  Ever. This pandemic has acted as an accelerant for massive changes in how colleges and universities function. It had already begun in recent years but has now become a tsunami.

The technological changes and the virtual nature of education that is being forced upon us all are irresistible and unavoidable.  Yes, preparation for high-quality online curricula and delivery modalities, with well-trained faculty and robust IT support, must happen.  But the technological aspect is only one of the catalysts for a revolution in higher education as we know it.

Another element that has been simmering, but now reaching the boiling point, is the value proposition of higher education in its traditional forms.  It is most obvious from students and their families, who anticipated a “college experience.” It is characterized by a residential campus, multiple levels of interaction with everyone in the campus community, and face to face instruction and support, are now demanding refunds and reduced tuition for what is perceived as a pale online/virtual substitute.  Cost/benefit analysis will not generate kind results for much of higher education.

Even beyond the spring 2020 context, the reality of vastly increased online aspects of higher education will accentuate the demand for new value propositions, reflecting new operating realities.  Colleges and universities need to plan now about how to meet what will be increasing demands – from students and their families, but also consumer advocates and even governments.  This change is coming, and it is unstoppable.

A hugely significant aspect that has received little attention may turn out to be the biggest game-changer of all: the role of corporations in educating their prospective employees apart from traditional higher education.  It has already begun, as large companies – tech and otherwise – have tired of asking for changes in traditional higher education, so their workforce will be better prepared.  They are already engaged in developing their own educational systems, focused very specifically on the demands of their research, development, production, and marketing.  No degree necessary.

I believe there are three enormous challenges for higher education institutions in the midst of the pandemic:

  1. Technological preparation, curricular design, and instructional excellence for online modalities
  2. Improvement of operational efficiencies and pricing to create a better and more convincing value proposition regarding the worth of a variant of traditional higher education
  3. Develop market-sensitive higher education programs that include practical “clinical” training that demonstrates higher education’s competitiveness with corporate, educational alternatives

It is foolish to attempt to predict precisely what all this will look like, and what the results will be.  But this is not just about the pandemic.  It’s about how life and higher education went through revolutionary changes that began in earnest in 2020.

Camus, again: “Once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended.”  Note carefully:  the plague did not end when hope stirred.  But its dominion did.  We must be prepared for the opportunities when that occurs – much better than we were for its onset.

Barry-RyanDr Barry Ryan is President Emeritus of Sofia University in California and from 2013-19 served as a Commissioner for WASC Senior College & University Commission. He has extensive background in teaching, academic administration, accreditation, and law.  As a first generation college student, he fell in love with higher education in all of its many forms.  Barry has served in large public universities, as well as in non-profit, faith-based, and for-profit institutions of all sizes, in traditional and online educational contexts.

Barry’s international experience is equally varied.  He has focused on international education and throughout his career, established programs for US universities throughout Latin America and Europe.  As part of a long history of involvement in regional accreditation, he has just completed his second term as a Commissioner with WSCUC (“WASC”).  Barry has also worked with HLC and SACS, as well as a number of programmatic accreditors, including the ABA, APA, ACPE, CACREP, ACOTE, CODA, ACBSP, CCNE, CAPTE, and ATS.

In university settings, Barry has lengthy and recognized service as a faculty member in multiple disciplines.  He has been in the roles of department chair, founder and director of a center for teaching and learning, dean, vice president, provost, and president.

One Reply to “Higher Education and the Revolution of 2020”

  1. Excellenr commentary Barry. The challenges you leave us with are not new and have been simmeering under the serface for nearly a decade – almost like the roaring 20s and then the crash. This time a pandemic was the catalyst for the crash but the immediacy of your challenges take on a new urgency. And, when the dust settles, many institutions will be left behind while others will post a sign similar to our old Drive-In theatres – Closed for the Season – and in fine print we won’t be re-opening. Dr. Don Olcott, Jr., FRSA, former President and Chairman of the Board,, United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA).


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