Colleges and universities have important missions: preparing the next generation of leaders in business, education, government, health care and virtually every other sector of our society.
In addition to profession-specific knowledge and skills, we strive to instill critical values, such as social responsibility, community involvement and environmental stewardship, so students and graduates make positive impacts in the places where they live, study and work.
Doing this vital work has become a lot harder.
The past decade brought the stark reality of decreasing demand for our services. The number of high school graduates in West Virginia and nationwide (not to be confused with graduation rates) has been, and will continue to be, on the decline. Last year, 250,000 fewer students nationwide enrolled in higher education, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Concerns about student debt have brought greater scrutiny on higher education’s return on investment. More recently, the novel coronavirus is disrupting the way we typically deliver the college experience. Our students and employees share concerns about social and political discord plaguing our society. University leaders are now simultaneously navigating demographic, economic, health and social crises — or trying to.
The fundamental issue for higher education institutions today is how to ensure the health and safety of our communities, while enabling students to achieve their personal and professional goals. How do we capture and process data in a rapidly changing world, craft plans while recognizing that agility and adjustments are givens, and implement them knowing a major pivot might be just a day away?
Taking these crises one at a time, here’s what we are doing at the University of Charleston.
While we continue to design and launch new programs to increase our appeal to traditional, full-time undergraduate students, we also have successfully diversified our portfolio and the audiences we serve.
Working adults, for example, are mostly interested in pursuing their education online. An increasingly important group at UC, about half of our students are now enrolled in fully online programs. We help such students throughout the state, country and world gain credentials and leadership skills that will open new job opportunities and advance their careers. Doing so at the quality level we desire is not an easy task. We have to be like Barnes and Noble for our in-seat students, and Amazon for those who never come to our campuses.
There are not many businesses that have mastered both brick and mortar and e-commerce models, yet that is what we are doing at UC.
And more and more, our economic model leans closer to Amazon. That is, either through low tuition or scholarship discounting, we try to make our cost of attendance compelling. While we are proud of our small class sizes, excellent facilities, safe campus environment and other hallmarks of a small- to mid-size private university, what might surprise you is that students, on average, graduate with a bachelor’s degree from UC with less debt than those who attend larger, public universities. Good economics for customers, however, creates economic pressure for us.
The health challenges posed by COVID-19 are daunting. We are thoroughly monitoring federal Centers for Disease Control and prevention and West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission guidelines, working closely with state and county health officials, and partnering with CAMC and the West Virginia National Guard to do everything we can to safeguard our students, employees and neighbors.
In the past weeks, we have launched online return-to-campus training videos and quizzes, an app for daily health assessments, and we installed temperature screening and facial recognition devices to monitor community health.
Students living on campus this fall will be tested and quarantined upon arrival. Everyone will wear face coverings indoors, when not alone in individual offices and rooms. Plexiglass shields, disinfectant wipes and new cleaning equipment are now in use.
With these measures and many more in place, employees who had been working remotely since March have begun returning to campus. Small groups of faculty and students have come to classrooms for training, enabling us to test our new systems. We will continue to learn and improve our health and safety procedures as we have more employees and students on campus leading up the start of the fall semester.
In addition, we need to continue productive dialogue on today’s social and political issues. With the best intentions to have students return to our campuses this fall, we also know that, if necessary, these conversations will have to occur virtually.
We will be promoting participation in the upcoming election, encouraging students to use this opportunity to exercise their voice. Enlightening our views by deepening our awareness and understanding of contemporary issues will make us better agents of change and, frankly, better people.
Summer in higher education is usually a time to pause, reflect on the past year and plan for the one ahead. Not in 2020. What is usually a 10k run transitioned rapidly this spring into a marathon. Ask any higher-ed leader today and they will say it is now an Iron Man event.
Long hours spent navigating through multiple crises is what we have to do — to ensure that the next generation is prepared to lead us with vision, skill and grace.