COVID-19 Implications for Higher Education

Think back to your most vivid memories of college. (For some of us, “back” is a lot of years ago.) Tailgating before the big game and rushing the field after a big upset. Frat parties or small group Bible studies (or, for some of us, both!). 9:00am lecture hall and late-night study sessions, ugh. And of course, graduation.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic whose severity and length are as of yet unknown. Which might make the memories I described above not cherished but anxiety-inducing, as we cope with the new normal of “social distancing.”

But even before the COVID-19 outbreak, universities were dealing with massive disruption, and justifiably so. Soaring tuition rates have left students, parents, and lawmakers alike wondering aloud if it’s all worth it. Entire industries are contemplating a complete overhaul in how the future workforce is educated and credentialed, while technological innovations are upending how higher education is dispensed. Will the crisis we are currently living through portend the complete unbundling and virtualization of higher education?

At such an uncertain moment in our history, the only honest answer is “maybe.” But let me boldly suggest another response, which is “not so fast.” To be sure, the university business model warrants a complete overhaul; commerce has evolved too far and technology has advanced too much for us to be doing things the same way we did a generation or three ago.

But think back to those cherished memories you had. Get over the current anxiety of being in a crowd, and consider how important those social gatherings were to your college experience. How you gained knowledge, how you grew up and became an adult, how you formed connections that last to this day…all of that was through physical proximity. I was heartbroken to hear that this year’s senior class at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, will not have a physical commence ceremony, which confirms for me that we long for rituals like graduation to feel connected and fulfilled.

For universities to fulfill their august missions now and into the future, they must challenge the basic assumptions that govern their operations, their curricular approaches, and their very reason for existence. But I suspect that the need for a physical campus, for a distinct period of time in which you study towards a degree, and for social gatherings and life markers like football games and late-night dorm discussions and commencement, will survive. We may have come a long way, but we are still human, and so much of higher education’s core purpose is fulfilled when we connect on a human level, in places such as frat houses, football stadiums, and lecture halls.


Lee HuangLee Huang is Senior Vice President and Principal of ESI. Lee brings over 20 years of experience in economic development experience to his public, private, institutional, and not-for-profit clients. He has led consulting engagements in a wide range of fields, including higher education, economic inclusion, environmental sustainability, historic preservation, real estate, neighborhood economic development, non-profits, retail, state and local government, and more.

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