The Great Pandemic Pivot

College Leaders Reflect on the Impact of COVID-19
Dec. 8, 2021

When colleges and universities shut down nationwide in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, few institutional leaders foresaw how such a sudden crisis would cause a dramatic and lasting shift in higher education. Institutions were forced to pivot overnight to fully remote operations. For many colleges, this was a new frontier. They went from dabbling on the margins of online education, with perhaps some courses or programs here or there, to having all classes and support services moved fully online.

The pivoting did not stop there. Institutions had to rethink auxiliary revenue streams as parking lots, event spaces, and residence halls went empty. Selective colleges had to reimagine their admissions process, since few high school students were able to take the SAT or ACT and many had GPAs that were greatly impacted by the pandemic. Community college presidents, in particular, had the tough task of trying to prevent a steep enrollment decline as their students were the most impacted of any kind of student by the havoc caused from pandemic-related shutdowns.

Each semester presented new challenges with new considerations. Students have started returning to campus, but things are nowhere near normal. Remote learning is still a reality on many campuses, along with navigating the politics of mask and vaccine mandates. Enrollments continue to decline at worrying rates at community colleges. The economy is in a strange place, where the nation’s economic recovery feels tenuous, unequal, and uncertain.

All of this has weighed heavily on college and university leaders. To reflect on the immediate crisis of March 2020 through the summer of 2021, New America contracted with Lake Research Partners to conduct in-depth interviews among 24 college presidents and senior-level administrators. These interviews were conducted across five sectors: public two-year community colleges, for-profit colleges, regional four-year public institutions, private nonprofit less selective colleges, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). These interviews were conducted between April 19, 2021 through June 7, 2021. A roundtable with eight of the participants occurred virtually on July 27, 2021. (The full report from Lake Research Partners is available here. Please note: some quotes within this brief have been edited for clarity and length.)

While these conversations are not representative to higher education as a whole, we generalized the conversations into several themes that illustrate the serious challenges and difficult choices encountered by college leaders. In this brief, we explore the challenges faced by institutions and students, and how leaders are planning for an uncertain future in terms of finances and enrollment.

Institutions had to pivot, pivot, and pivot again.

Institutional leaders in our interviews acknowledged that hardships during the pandemic not only came from revenue loss and the pivot to online operations, but also changes in how they needed to support students in a new, predominantly virtual environment. As communication with students proved to be harder in the virtual environment, many community college presidents worried, and continue to worry, about keeping students engaged and making sure students can access the support they need to continue enrollment.

The constant uncertainty and shifting nature of the pandemic has made the situation even more challenging. Over the past year, guidance from the state and federal governments about how to operate safely has constantly changed, requiring institutions to try to keep up. “We've never planned so much and had it change on us. I mean, you thought you'd be ready to open up here and it's just this constant pivot, developing plans, and then just constantly modifying,” one community college president said.

Having said that, many presidents in our interviews describe their institutions as “resilient” or “struggling, but persevering” over the past year. Faced with new challenges, presidents believe that they have quickly adapted to continue operating and providing for their students. Factors such as institutional culture, leadership, and budget structure contributed to and continued to enable the flexibility needed in a new and constantly changing environment. One president of a public regional four-year college said: “Throughout the pandemic, you kept hearing the word pivot. I got tired of hearing the word pivot, but we had to do a lot of pivoting, like when we would have an outbreak. So I was really proud of [my] colleagues and they stayed positive and patient, and again, really worked hard to continue to provide services to our students.”

Students already struggled to make ends meet. The pandemic made it worse.

Institutional leaders across all sectors made it clear that the past year has been devastating for students. As most institutions in our interviews serve a large number of students with financial need, the presidents said that even before the pandemic their students already had full plates, juggling jobs and family responsibilities along with their education. Often these students struggled to make ends meet, and many dealt with housing and food insecurities. As the pandemic and its economic impact set in, these challenges only grew worse.

One president of a for-profit college which serves a large number of adult students highlighted the acute impact of the closure of schools and child care. Students had to take on caregiving during hours that could have been devoted to education or work.

The lack of reliable internet access became a major obstacle as learning moved online. Presidents described how students often lacked access to both the hardware and the connectivity to properly engage in online classes. One community college president said: “Of course, there's a digital divide. And it's of two kinds. [One kind is that] the students don't have the hardware needed. One of my students was trying to write an essay on an iPhone. I don't care that they have iPhones, that's not going to get you through. And the other is reliable access to broadband internet.”

The online learning mode itself added to the challenges facing students. Presidents at HBCUs said the lack of one-on-one interaction, in-person services, and support networks had been detrimental to student success.

Federal support helped offset the financial loss due to the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit colleges and universities’ finances hard. Institutional leaders in our interviews shared the numerous ways in which their budgets were hit: enrollment decline; loss of auxiliary revenue from empty dining facilities, parking lots, event spaces, and residence halls; loss of state and local appropriations; and increased expenses for public health requirements such as testing and safety equipment. Faced with budget uncertainty, institutions cut costs by offering early retirements, laying off or furloughing faculty and staff, halting hiring, and putting off scheduled salary raises. One public regional college president said, “when I say we've come through, okay, it's not pretty good, but we've been able to weather the storm and we've taken financial hits. So we're cutting and cutting and cutting. On the other hand, the pandemic has taught us to be more efficient.”

The several rounds of stimulus fundings (also known as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or HEERF) from the federal government were seen as a significant help. Presidents said that the stimulus funding was vital to their continued operations. Thanks to HEERF, some institutions are even expecting to come out of the fiscal year with a surplus, allowing them to tackle important projects and retention efforts. One regional public college’s president said, “the fact that my computer is able to run, because I have been able to pay the electric bill, let's start with the basic needs....Quite literally, without [stimulus funding], we're not open. It was in fact, a stimulus and recovery that allowed us to stay in business.”

Though there are some differences in how Congress allocated different rounds of HEERF, in general, colleges and universities were required to distribute at least half of their HEERF dollars directly to students. The presidents agreed that the federal money provided a tremendous help to students. The ways that institutions distributed HEERF dollars varied, but most used the money to help students pay for basic necessities such as rent, food, and medical expenses. Many institutions also helped students afford the technology they needed (such as internet access and laptops) to continue their classes virtually. A handful of institutions chose to apply the fund towards students’ institutional debt, giving them a clean slate.

Presidents used the remaining amount to set up safety procedures related to COVID-19, such as buying personal protection equipment (PPE), improving ventilation systems, or hiring contact tracers, so that students could come to campus if they needed to or as campus reopened. Some institutions also mentioned putting the money towards improving technology for online education. A handful of presidents stressed that some of the money went to operating costs such as staff salaries to make sure that campus communities were maintained and ready to provide the support that students need.

Having said that, the presidents showed frustration with the restrictions on how they could spend HEERF money and how unclear and changing guidance from the Department of Education was, especially with the first round of funding. “So you used creative thinking and then a year later, somebody came back and told you, you were absolutely wrong, even though they changed the rules on us, like every day. And so if we had waited in order for them to be able to really specify the rules, there would have been time and delay in getting those emergency grants to students,” said the president of one HBCU, public regional college.

Presidents worry about what to do when the money dries up.

Institutional leaders across sectors, especially those at public colleges and universities, acknowledged that even though the stimulus funding was lifesaving, it was only temporary and did not compensate for decades of state funding loss that predated the pandemic. Presidents said state and local governments have been gutting their funding for years, and the continued funding decline hurts the most vulnerable populations.

One president of a public regional university said: “our legislature has cut higher ed for the last 15-plus years. The last two years, we've gotten a little bit of a respite....but it's not going to restore funding from 10, 15 years ago. And we now have the lowest college-going rate in [our state], at 48%, that we've had in years. And one of the highest tuition increases in the country. And we're putting it on the backs of our students.” This leader said, “until our legislators see what's happening, enrollment is going to continue to decline, especially in places that serve high numbers of Pell recipients and low-income students.”

Another community college president shared the frustration: “We really confront a very uncertain, unclear, fragile future for our students. I have lost 1,100 students between the spring of 2020 and the fall of 2020. It will be no surprise to anyone that they are our most vulnerable students. They are first-generation, they are poor, they are students of color, they are immigrants, and they are undocumented students. I have got to figure out how we reach those students and get them back into higher education. But we are cratering, and I am not going to thank legislators for handing me another $700,000 when in the past decade, you have robbed me of millions of dollars.”

Presidents wanted to see guaranteed, sustained investment in higher education. They stressed the importance of the connection between investing in higher education and creating a workforce that is prepared for the future as a possible path to convince legislators to prioritize higher education. Many presidents also suggested the need for investments from businesses to train employees in their fields and the need to position higher education as lifelong learning, rather than limited for young adults after high school. One community college president said: “CARES Act one, CARES Act two, American Rescue Plan. Without those, you're talking to a probably drunk president right now. Those were epic lifesavers. But again, that's one time, short term. We are still driving this bus down the road with only three wheels. So there's just the absence of an honest conversation about policy.”

The Build Back Better (BBB) Act, a critical piece of legislation that realizes President Biden’s social spending agenda, will allocate up to $40 billion for higher education and workforce development. Some important investments in BBB include $500 million for college retention and completion, $10 billion for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, $3 billion for adult and dislocated worker employment and training activities, and $1.5 billion for youth workforce activities.

Even though several provisions were significantly scaled down from President Biden’s initial proposal, including free community college, which was cut entirely, BBB will provide an important new stream of federal fundings for higher education in upcoming years. Several provisions, such as the college retention and completion grants, will require participating states to match some portion of the federal funding, which will potentially strengthen states’ commitment to their public colleges and universities.

Enrollment declines were not as steep as anticipated but hurt community colleges the most.

In spring 2020, when New America conducted its own set of interviews with college leaders, predictions were dire about enrollment loss. Several leaders we interviewed during that difficult time of widespread uncertainty projected that enrollment losses could be 20 percent or more. The worst of those predictions did not come to pass. The overall enrollment decline for undergraduates was about 4 percent.

The loss, however, was not felt equally among all sectors. Last academic year, community college enrollment dropped 10 percent, which is concerning given that the sector enrolls a plurality of the nation’s undergraduates. It is also particularly worrying for educational equity, since community colleges are often access points to higher education for low-income students, students of color, and adult students, all populations hit hard by the pandemic. Unfortunately, that loss of enrollment has continued into this academic year, with an overall undergraduate decline of 3 percent and a decline of about 6 percent at community colleges.

Most of the 24 college leaders we interviewed this past spring and summer had experienced enrollment declines at their institutions. The community college leaders saw larger declines, but they noted that their sectors had been shedding enrollment for years and the pandemic sped up that process. The losses came not only from prospective students who never enrolled, but also from current students who dropped out.

Across all sectors, institutions struggled with student retention. The community college leaders we talked to were discouraged, noting that it will be incredibly challenging to reenroll the students who stopped midway through their programs. Said one community college leader, “we lost between 900 and 1,000 students between spring ‘20 and fall ‘20. They were overwhelmingly poor students, first-generation students, and students of color. And while we have made Herculean efforts to reach out and try to get those students back, it’s highly unlikely we’re going to recover some of those students. We should be really alarmed by that.”

Another huge loss to institutions was being unable to recruit and retain international students, especially as students were unable to come to the physical campus. This was due in large part to the pandemic, but also Trump administration policies which were hostile to international students. Recruitment “is dormant,” explained one college leader representing an HSI. This leader said, “there was a period where we were actually reaching out to international students,” but “the Trump administration policies made it very difficult and unappealing for international students to come to [our state].”

Institutions entered a new world for admissions and recruitment.

While the majority of colleges interviewed were open-enrollment or nonselective institutions, some did require standardized test scores before the pandemic. Most institutions interviewed that required standardized test scores went test-optional or -blind, a decision that many said would remain in the future. “We’ve had to develop an entirely different admissions rubric,” explained one college leader from an HSI. “It worked. At least we think so. We’ll find out next year.”

Recruitment strategies that were standard pre-pandemic were also upended. Admissions officers were not able to participate in local college fairs, visit high schools, or give campus tours. All of these efforts had to be recreated virtually, which posed a serious challenge in helping prospective students understand the culture and community of the school.

Enrollments will recover, but perhaps not in the likeliest of ways.

Many college leaders emphasized the importance of retaining students in the future or getting those who stopped out to reenroll as a strategy to shore up enrollments. In order to limit stop outs, institutions focused on extensive personalized outreach. Some established new programs that focus on maintaining contact and fostering engagement, such as centralized call and communications centers with large digital and social media footprints.

Some institutions have also become more determined to reenroll students who dropped out during the pandemic. This includes sending texts, postcards, and emails, and calling students to offer a smooth on-ramp back into school. One community college president explained that “we have lists of students who used to come here and we’re doing deliberate outreach to them....Phone calls are followed up by a postcard. Come back. We want you back.”

For some colleges and universities, there was, and continues to be, one shining light in terms of enrollment trends. Most who offered graduate-level education saw enrollment increase and those that had strong health science programs also saw enrollment in those programs increase. One HBCU leader explained that a doctor of health care administration program had been wildly successful at attracting students. A community college leader noted that every program experienced enrollment declines except for those in health sciences.

The growth of graduate programs and health science programs will be one strategy that institutions will rely upon to increase their enrollments, but with that growth and expansion could come further scrutiny from the federal government. Graduate students have seen growing debt loads, with cumulative debt loads for graduate students of color exploding. Between 2000 and 2016, for example, average debt for Black graduate students grew 112 percent, to $94,000. Despite the growing debt burdens and taxpayer dollars spent on these programs via federal student loans, there is very little oversight and accountability when it comes to offering graduate-level educational programs at colleges and universities.

The future remains unclear.

When we completed our interviews of college leaders in July 2021, many were optimistic that with the arrival of vaccinations, they would be able to return to a mostly normal academic year for 2021–22. They looked forward to putting many of the acute coronavirus challenges that their campuses and students faced behind them.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty that the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 brings means that college leaders must continue to pivot. Said one president of a for-profit college: “I think the greatest challenge has been the uncertainty of not having a pathway that we knew for sure. Our whole focus was on safety and continuity of education, so we continued to really focus on those two points. There’s still a lot of uncertainty we face,” since “it changes monthly.” Uncertainty, for now, has become the certainty.