Got a Plan? What does the college do when no one shows up in September?

I have not seen anything addressing the following issue, so here I go.

This is college/university acceptance season. The plan over the next month or two at most American colleges and universities was to build the class of 2024. Obviously, a spanner has been dropped into the works. What are the implications?

Most of us are up to our eyeballs trying to adapt to things on the time-scale of hours or days at the moment. When you see things tagged with longer time horizons there are way too many that go no further than “the next two weeks” or “the rest of the month.” The more sober ones are things like “classes online until April this” or, better, “for the rest of the semester and commencement exercises are to be rescheduled.”

But there might be a bigger wave out there beyond the one we can see: the current extraordinary situation might well become the new ordinary for a prolonged period, one that could easily stretch into the fall. If it does, colleges and universities might find themselves with no entering class of 2024. And we might expect higher than normal attrition if what we have to offer in the fall is all online. And maybe some pushback on tuition levels if that’s the product on offer. The astute student will recognize that it’s not just classes that she pays for – the very opportunity to be learning with other people is a big piece of our value proposition.

A very small college with, say, 1000 students and effective tuition revenue per student of about $15,000 would immediately be looking at a missing $3.5 million in tuition revenue from lack of a new class. Add fees and the expected shortfall is easily north of $5m before we even look at attrition among returning students. For an institution with even a moderate endowment that sort of hit means making payroll and bond payments will be difficult. For a school of 2 or 3 thousand students with a more favorable total cost per student the hit could be an even higher percentage of total revenue.*

What’s the Plan?

Maybe schools will be able to lay off all of the Non-academic staff associated with on-campus learning, but caution: that’s an operation that could be hard to rebuild from scratch in the post-Corona era. And there might not be much in the way of net-savings because they will simultaneously be staffing up to support the online alternative.

So maybe they could just layoff faculty, hire more adjuncts. Many of these institutions have already played the adjunct card so there’s not a lot of wiggle room there. And those that take this approach will figure out pretty fast that full time faculty were their product development team not just their pedagogical assembly line workers.

For a decade or two the mindset of administrators has been that online education might be either or both the cost-cutting move and cash-cow activity that they needed. I think they are about to discover that it is neither of these. The venal administrative mindset that has seen instructional faculty as a cost center may have come home to roost.

Why? Because the thing that a fully online college or university will need a lot less of is traditional administrators. Over the past several days faculty around the world have turned on a dime, struggled, and innovated. The results are almost certainly uneven, and it was not accomplished without the able assistance of centers for teaching technology and the like. But, it turns out, the work that instructional faculty do is transformable and the personnel involved are flexible. I hypothesize that the same cannot be said for the layers and layers of administration that have accumulated in most institutions.

The responsible college or university president has to go against her instincts. Those instincts are to sit with other administrators and figure out how to do the job with fewer faculty. The presidents who keep their institutions from ratifying the infamous 2013 prediction by Horn and Christensen that 25% of American colleges will fail in the next decade are the ones who will, instead, sit down with their faculty and figure out how to do the job with fewer administrators.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s