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The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

Key Takeaways
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a “new normal” is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student’s family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.

In our efforts to understand COVID-19, contend with the suffering that it causes, and mount an appropriate response, it is tempting to resurrect well-worn clichés. One cliché in particular, the idea of a “new normal,” stands out to us. One does not need to look far for thoughtful descriptions of how COVID-19 and its cascade of catastrophes are shaping so-called “new normals” for individuals, families, communities, and industries. But for one industry—higher education—COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious problems more than it presents new problems. For higher education, the new normal is partly an old normal that many ignored.

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The notion of a new normal has always been compelling. You may recall this term being used widely in the wake of the Great Recession to describe the sea change in the U.S. labor and housing markets and the decreased public funding for higher education that followed. The phrase itself emerged from Vice President Dick Cheney’s characterization of heightened security in the wake of 9/11 as a “new normalcy.” Its perennial reuse reveals how the complex, highly interdependent systems that comprise our “normal” are designed to function only in a fragile state of equilibrium and are seldom prepared to adapt to unexpected shocks.

We know something about these shocks and the new normal they each created in higher education. For example, our institution, Arizona State University (ASU), is one of the largest in the country and the largest in the state that during the Great Recession cut more from higher education than any other. While we can learn from past negative events, we must appreciate that the conditions COVID-19 asks us to embrace as part of its new normal have been around for years—or even decades. While some of these have been widely appreciated, others were emerging suspicions. We describe a few of each here.

[F]or one industry—higher education—COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious problems more than it presents new problems. For higher education, the new normal is partly an old normal that many ignored.

First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there’s higher education. Higher education as an “industry” involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.

These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education’s unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as disruption, technology management, and so-called “mergers and acquisitions” in higher education. In each of these spaces, the “market forces” and “market rules” for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.

Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education’s capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, shareholder interests—are placed above student well-being.

Photo: Getty Images

Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person instruction.

Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.

As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.

Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.

Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.

In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional closures and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.

While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose “let them fail” mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail.

Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19’s new normal seems to be confirming this.

For ASU, and universities like ASU, the “new normal” of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary.

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images

A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.

Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as Harvard’s eviction of students over the course of less than one week or Yale’s apparent reluctance to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education’s legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of “gold standards” for higher education.

A graduate student protests MIT’s rejection of some evacuation exemption requests. Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America’s colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student’s family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the old normal. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.

As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.

COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years.

ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but driving innovation in higher education. We have adopted a charter that formalizes our definition of success in terms of “who we include and how they succeed” rather than “who we exclude.” We adopted an entrepreneurial operating model that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as InStride, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU EdPlus, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale.

For ASU, and universities like ASU, the “new normal” of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 enrollment speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than “new normal” we might just say, it’s “go time.”


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