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Ohio Colleges and the Coronavirus

Ohio Colleges and the Coronavirus: Five predictions about the fall

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We are now within three weeks of the start of fall semester, 2020. Soon we will learn how each college has decided to begin their fall journey – full face-to-face learning (at least for some classes), full online learning, or some hybrid approach that might include a late start, early finish, blend of online and face-to-face, or even a plan rotating students in small numbers in alternating face-to-face classes. Anyway you slice it, most colleges are one campus coronavirus outbreak away from defaulting again to full online delivery.

Other questions remain. What will campus life be like? How will residence halls respond? What happens when, inevitably, students test positive for Covid-19? Will they be isolated or sent home? What about sports? Will sports be played and, if so, under what conditions? What will the role of Covid-19 testing be and who will pay for it? The list goes on.

Equally important – will students be returning to college? We will learn how new student recruitment and existing student retention played out. This is mission critical for many Ohio colleges who rely heavily on tuition income in order to operate. The importance of enrollment and the resulting tuition income is a big deal to the many Ohio colleges with small endowments made up mostly of restricted funds – think savings account with most of the money already dedicated to a specific use.

Colleges have already cut budgets to the bone and this summer we even saw staff and faculty reductions at most Ohio institutions. Even public colleges like the University of Akron, Ohio University, and Wright State University saw significant staff and faculty reductions along with other budget cuts. What happens if enrollment drops even further?

So, against the backdrop of so many questions and uncertainties what should you be expecting? Well, in the interest of throwing something against the wall to see if it sticks, I have a few “shot in the dark” predictions for Ohio’s 4-year residential colleges for you to consider. Let’s get started.

  1. Most Ohio residential 4-year college campuses will initially re-open with an attempt at some form of face-to-face instruction and residence life. The many Ohio colleges struggling financially and will at least give opening a shot. An upfront announcement of a return to online instruction would most likely reduce enrollment, completely eliminate any chance for ancillary income sources, and precipitate a potentially debilitating financial outcome. Most won’t go there. At least some classes will actually meet and some students will be housed and fed.
  2. Covid-19 breakouts will occur and many colleges will then return to pure online instruction and close campuses. Some, however, may attempt to isolate infected students, trace, and attempt to carry on at some level…at least for awhile.
  3. Enrollment will decline for over 2/3 of Ohio’s colleges if not more. Many students will opt to stay at home and take community colleges courses or take a gap year. Selective colleges will do better but go deeper into their applicant pool. As applicant pools flatten downstream, the least selective colleges will suffer the most.
  4. Most sports will be cancelled, delayed into the spring, or played under significantly restricted conditions. Virus outbreaks will halt seasons or other wise disrupt play.
  5. A few small, private, poorly funded colleges will not make it and will close permanently by the end of the academic year.

I consider myself an optimistic person, particularly around higher education. However, I believe that the general public’s understanding of the degree of damage this unique SWAN event is reaping upon Ohio’s 4-year residential colleges is underestimated. Covid-19 has accelerated many trends already progressing albeit more slowly than now. Over the prior years, the decline of high school, college bound students in Ohio has conspired to financially pressure many Ohio colleges, particularly small, private, underfunded ones. Covid-19 has accelerated and compounded the financial devastation and some will not survive. I will keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best. Here’s to hoping our students return to their college campuses this fall and enjoy prosperity and health.

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio and exploring the myriad of majors, minors, certificates, and workforce development programs in the state, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  CBA also specializes in helping students who want to explore non-traditional educational options that do not require a 4-year college degree. Finally, CBA works with students who started college, but found that, for any number of reasons, it was not for them. College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas. Check us out at www.collegeboundadvantage.com or check out what we can do for you here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6SSjHp8n98

Ohio Colleges and the Coronavirus – Teaching and Learning Challenges

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In the prior blog, we explored the financial challenges inflicted by the Coronavirus on Ohio colleges. In this post, we will explore the nature of the teaching and learning challenges this crisis has also deposited on the doorstep of our colleges and universities.

In the decade preceding the crisis most colleges adopted web-based course management software such as Blackboard, Canvas, or D2L . This software has broad course management functionality. Faculty can put all course materials on their “course web pages” such as syllabus and other learning materials. They can post links, send notifications to students, post lecture videos, manage grades, administer and grade quizzes, establish class “chat rooms,” and even interact directly with students through functionality similar to the “Zoom” meetings we have come to know and….well…like. This software can be used to manage an online course, or to support a face-to-face class. Faculty teaching online typically use a lot of its functionality whereas faculty teaching face-to-face typically use less as they enjoy ongoing contact with students in-person.

The comprehensive adoption of course software has been challenging for some faculty who prefer teaching face-to-face and may prefer the “old fashioned” way of running a class. Faculty who teach online classes, however have readily adopted these new web-based tools in the service of strengthening teaching and learning in their courses. As time passed, colleges either incentivized or required faculty teaching face-to-face classes to adopt the online course management software to support their courses. Trainings were offered, support was provided, and slowly faculty became comfortable with some of the functionality provided by the course software.

Enter Coronavirus. Suddenly, and without warning, students were sent home and all classes converted to a fully online format. At that point colleges employed faculty with a wide range of comfort and familiarity with the use of course management software and online teaching methods. Those who utilized little of its functionality pre-Coronavirus were faced with a significant up-hill challenge as they were forced to adapt. The outcome, as it relates to teaching and learning, fell a continuum from reasonably good to…well… God-awful. Now, while many faculty were struggling to employ new online learning tools, students accustomed to face-to-face learning were experiencing learning challenges as well. These online tools require explanation to students and practice to master. Few were really ready for this!

If you ask students, the result was “spotty” at best. Some courses went well while others fell apart. Some faculty worked to employ new tools and improve their online teaching skills while others defaulted to e-mailing assignments, posting grades, and little else. Colleges worked to provide support and training to faculty as needed, but with the lock down and ongoing student demands, even that was challenging. Many students became disillusioned and contemplated a gap year for academic year 2020-2021. Others vowed to attend a local community college until things were “back to normal.” They felt that they had paid for an on-campus experience and did not want to foot-the-bill for another round of expensive online courses while living at home.

Beyond any doubt, colleges are working to find a way to open for the fall of 2020, but uncertainty has led to a variety of scenario-based planning efforts to cover multiple possible scenarios, all while, for the most part, publicly vowing to open in the fall. What happens if we have an outbreak in the residence hall or on a sports team? How do we protect older or more vulnerable faculty, staff, and students? What protocols make best sense? The questions are endless and the challenges formidable.

While little is known for sure regarding next fall, it is fairly safe to say that most colleges will at least try to re-open their campuses in the fall – financially they have to give it “the old college try.” Protocols will be established and enforced; faculty will have improved their online teaching…just in case; students will be more flexible in terms of their teaching and learning expectations and capabilities. Depending on what happens on campus we may see campuses close again or further modify their protocols and course designs to permit greater flexibility and less time on campus. We shall see.

In our next blog, we will take a deeper look at the evolving issues facing Ohio’s colleges as they contemplate reopening in the fall.

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio and exploring the myriad of majors, minors, certificates, and workforce development programs in the state, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  CBA also specializes in helping students who want to explore non-traditional educational options that do not require a 4-year college degree. Finally, CBA works with students who started college, but found that, for any number of reasons, it was not for them. College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas. Check us out at www.collegeboundadvantage.com or check out what we can do for you here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6SSjHp8n98

 

 

Ohio Colleges and the Coronavirus – Financial Challenges

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Recently the news has offered ongoing reporting of the challenges facing Ohio colleges and universities as a result of the recent COVID-19 outbreak. This post will begin a series exploring the effects of the pandemic on Ohio colleges and examining the choices they are making.

As you know, campuses across Ohio and the U.S. closed in March, sending students home to shelter in place while completing classes online. In the meantime, college campuses went quiet. residence halls were vacated, meal service halted, college sporting events cancelled, and bookstores closed. With little choice in the matter, colleges partially refunded residence hall and meal plan fees while retaining tuition income already paid by students in or around the beginning of the year. So, as the winds of change blew across campus, colleges were faced with budgetary as well as teaching-and-learning challenges. Additionally, they faced a set of high stakes next-step challenges and choices shrouded in uncertainty.

This post will dive a little deeper into the budgetary challenges posed by the pandemic and its fallout. The next post will explore teaching and learning challenges. Then we will look at college recruitment amid the crisis. Then we will dive into the choices colleges are trying to make as they prepare for fall.

Budgetary Challenges

One way to look at this is to consider that a college is actually multiple businesses in one. Unfortunately most of their businesses are not corona-virus friendly.

First, they are in the “hotel business.” They provide rooms, housekeeping, laundry services, and educational and social programming to large numbers of students living on campus. These enterprises employ residence hall directors, housekeepers, grounds keepers, and other service providers. Many, if not most, of these residence halls are supported by loans required to build them. Banks over the years have been particularly amenable to loaning money for residence halls as they have a captive student population and virtually guaranteed full occupancy.

Surprise! Students have just vanished, and related revenue had to be refunded. However, loan payments still must be paid, grounds and buildings still must be maintained, utilities must be paid, and staff retained as possible and/or necessary.

Next, they are in the “restaurant business.” Colleges provide ongoing food service to residence hall coffee shops, to faculty dining rooms, to special events, to large student dining halls, to concessions at sporting events – the list goes on. Many colleges contract with meal service providers but others take this on themselves. Even the majority who contract with others are still on the hook for some mix of shared costs. Of course they are fully responsible for all the bricks-and-mortar involved and, once again, many of these vast dining and meeting facilities are significantly mortgaged and require bills to be paid, spaces to be maintained, exterior grounds to be kept up and so forth. So, once again these facilities are now empty and colleges have partially refunded meal plan revenues while continuing to have to pay for all there related costs.

Are you getting the idea now?

They are also in the “athletics and fitness business.” The exorbitant cost of building and maintaining athletic facilities, stadiums, pools, tracks, gyms, and fitness facilities are also often undergirded by debt that is typically offset by ticket revenues, student fees, concessions, and donations. Large numbers of coaches, assistant coaches, fitness staff, campus life programmers, trainers, and others also must be paid. Since athletic programs are significant forms of student recruitment simply reducing staff is not without consequences.

Surely you are getting the idea now. I could go on and suggest that colleges are in the “medical and healthcare business” and discuss costs associated with their health centers and counseling centers. I could argue that they are also in the “social programming (entertainment) business” and discuss the costs associated with managing fraternities, sororities, and other student organizations. Not to mention, student activities and events. Once again we have costs associated with debt, staff, and facilities.

Wait…what about the fact that tuition was paid and the colleges got to keep that?

At last, a bright side…sort of. It’s true that most colleges were able to retain collected tuition. It was also fortunate that most colleges utilize the same sophisticated learning software to support both face-to-face classes and online classes. Thus most faculty were already using online learning software even if they weren’t teaching online. The conversation however was not without costs and challenges. Faculty had to be trained or find ways to learn how to deliver their classes online and there was little or no time to practice or explore how best to transition their content to an online format. The result was mixed – some faculty transitioned effectively and others struggled. As a result the student online experience was spotty to say the least. All-the-while colleges had salaries to pay, new training costs to absorb, and new virtual technologies to navigate.

The Result

As might be anticipated, the result was budgetarily catastrophic. Revenues plummeted while costs were only minimally changed. With revenues going through the floor colleges had to pivot to online learning. They cut costs across the board, furloughed or terminated employees where possible, and many even worked to renegotiate loans and otherwise reduce costs. Colleges with large endowments (savings accounts) initiated withdrawls while others, particularly small private colleges with small endowments and lots of debt, found themselves on the ropes. As if this wasn’t enough, they still had to find a way to recruit next year’s class against a backdrop of campus tour cancellations and campus closings.

The Worst May be Yet to Come

At this point, Ohio has already lost one private college – Urbana University, part of Franklin University, closed its doors in May and will not reopen. Valiant and creative efforts by their acting president, Christopher Washington, and tireless efforts of a game faculty and staff were simply not enough. Already Urbana University was a turn-around effort that was simply derailed by a pandemic they never expected.

I believe there will be more to come. Those institutions that have found themselves struggling mightily face an uncertain fall and, most likely, a reduced freshman class. Of course, the most daunting possibility is the possibility that they might not be able to open campus or, might have to close it again in the event of a spike in infections. Even the healthiest colleges and universities, including the public 4-year institutions are struggling as well albeit in a less life-threatening way.

Too Much Doom and Gloom?

So much for bad news. Most Ohio colleges will retrench, adapt, and respond creatively enough to survive and, at some point, thrive again. Unfortunately it is still raining and the storm clouds still surround us. So, in my next entry, we will dive a bit more deeply into the teaching and learning side of the current situation.

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio and exploring the myriad of majors, minors, certificates, and workforce development programs in the state, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  CBA also specializes in helping students who want to explore non-traditional educational options that do not require a 4-year college degree. Finally, CBA works with students who started college, but found that, for any number of reasons, it was not for them. College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas. Check us out at www.collegeboundadvantage.com or check out what we can do for you here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6SSjHp8n98

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