Jeff Selingo: The Future of Higher Ed—and Admissions—During and After the Coronavirus

May 13, 2020

            Noted author, columnist, and higher education strategist Jeff Selingo spoke at a webinar today with Mark Sklarow of the Independent Educational Consultants Association about the future of higher education in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

            “All of our crystal balls are bit cloudy right now,” said Selingo, echoing the sentiments of admissions officials across the nation.

            Selingo’s talk examined the sustainability of residential campuses, now and in the future. Speaking to an audience of college consultants in IECA, he outlined three areas to consider when looking at a school’s ability to survive during and after the pandemic:

  1. Financial Health of Colleges and Universities
  2. Differentiation of Programs and Missions
  3. Changes to the Admissions Process

Financial Health

            How can we find the institutions that will thrive? Selingo says to check out bond ratings through credit rating agencies like Moody’s or Fitch, or to look at their IRS 990s for surpluses or deficits. Third, look at risk factors, such as small enrollment, deficit spending (which can be found on the 990), and high tuition discounts.

            Most likely to survive, according to Selingo:

  • Top-50 public and private national universities,
  • Top-25 national liberal arts colleges,
  • Regional public institutions in high-growth states, such as in the South, and
  • larger private and public institutions that differentiate their offerings

            What’s left? The institutions that are facing financial trouble: the small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast (those with fewer than 2500 students), and regional public colleges that rely on the state for financial resources, as many states are facing reduced revenue and higher expenditures due to the pandemic.

Differentiation of Programs and Missions

            Even before the coronavirus hit, schools were looking at a downturn in enrollment starting in the next five years as fewer high school students will be entering the college pipeline. Schools will need to think in new ways about their programs, but the current crisis may force colleges to speed up their transition to a new model.

            What does differentiation look like? In the past few years, community colleges have seen an increase in the percentage of students from families earning more than $100K. Many of these students go to community college as a transfer pathway; in fact, the California university system strongly encourages this. Selingo thinks that because community college enrollment generally increases during economic downturns, more schools may become transfer institutions. Expect to see more experiments with low-residency, no-frills experiences as the coronavirus crisis pushes this scenario to the forefront this coming fall.

            Colleges and universities are showing greater interest in retention and graduation data; Georgia State University looks at data analytics to see what’s working and what’s not, focusing on getting their students through to graduation. Selingo predicts that schools will need to pay closer attention to student success through academic advising and financial aid.

            Another pathway to differentiation lies in merging work and school. Beginning with the recession of 2008, the number of students majoring in the humanities decreased markedly (English hit the bottom of the data barrel this year), while career-boosting STEM majors grew more popular. With more students expecting college to lead to a solid career, schools will need to build work experience into education. Northeastern, Drexel, and Cincinnati universities have robust co-op programs that might provide models for institutions hoping to build work-school programs. Some colleges combine credentialing with degrees for “credegrees.” (Brandon Busteed coined the term in Forbes in March 2019 to “describe a program where a student graduates with both a traditional bachelor degree and some sort of industry-recognized skill or credential.”)

Changes to the Admissions Process

            This year many colleges moved their deposit deadlines from May 1 to June 1, some have proposed to start the fall semester two weeks later than usual, and some have moved early decision deadlines to later in November. These changes reflect the short-term effect of the loss of a common calendar. With the cancelation of SAT and ACT tests through at least June, dozens of institutions moved to test-optional admissions for the class of 2021, some temporarily, others permanently.

            Virtual tours and virtual college events have proliferated in response to the restricted travel. Selingo says that if fall is still impacted by social districting, canceling college fairs and high school visits by admissions representatives, virtual experiences will have to fill in. This could enable more students to see more colleges in a shorter period of time and “widen the lens” of how students create their college lists.

            These changes have, in effect, brought about “the return of junior year to students,” said Selingo. Usually, juniors have gone “into overdrive” with college visits and SAT or ACT prep and testing. This year, they have a larger piece of their junior year to focus on high school rather than on the future, a positive move toward sanity.

Q & A

College consultants asked Selingo to address questions at the end of the webinar, and here are some of those questions and answers, paraphrased.

Q: If there are fewer colleges (due to closures brought on by financial distress caused by the coronavirus) to choose from, will admissions become more competitive?

A: The colleges that close will be lower- and mid-tier schools. What happens, then, with the selective schools? It will put more pressure on full-pay students. The dip in international students (who may have trouble getting visas) will have to be made up with domestic students at mid- and top-tier schools.

Q: What will be the effect of students asking for deferrals? Will class of 2020 students postponing entry to fall 2021 make it harder for this year’s juniors to get in?

A: Davidson University made their freshman class today and had the same number of deferrals as usual, but once they announce plans for the fall (if they cannot open with “business as usual”)  they expect requests to increase. Selingo said that colleges are saying they expect to open as usual so they can get deposits in. They’d rather give a confirmed entrant a deferral than take the chance of losing that student. It’s a bird in the hand. Deferrals shouldn’t have too negative an effect on the class of 2021 because if this year’s freshman class is small, colleges will want to admit a larger class next year to balance out their numbers.

Selingo noted that students considering a gap year should make sure they fill that year with something worthwhile. When admissions look at a gap year, they want to know what you did with your time, and it had better be more than sitting on your couch playing video games.

Q: How can you determine if a school is overly dependent on tuition (and therefore financially unstable)?

A: Looks for wild swings in enrollment. George Washington University is shrinking its classes, but that plan had been in the works before the pandemic hit. Look for big changes in enrollment or revenue. How much do they have to spend on merit aid? If it’s going up and yield’s going down, that’s bad. Look for consistency.

Miscellaneous discussion points:

  • Middle-class students will get squeezed because international students and out-of-state students have helped pay for middle-class students. Going to community college for two years and transferring will become more attractive.
  • The image of college will probably persist; people complain about cost but love the experience of four years on campus. Converting to no-frills, non-residential college would take away the soft skills that are developed by living away from home at college.
  • Colleges could save money through mergers, deeper networks, course sharing; less-selective institutions could share admissions and departments.
  • College Board and ACT will do all they can to have in-person testing this fall because their business depends on it; online testing has equity issues; after complaints over AP testing this week, there’s “not a lot of trust” in testing being secure and viable.
  • Division I schools will lose money if they can’t put crowds in the stands. Division II and III athletes often go to these schools so they can play. If they can’t play, will they want to go?

So what’s the future of higher education and admissions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic? The one thing all the experts can agree on is that their “crystal balls are a bit cloudy right now.”

The Future of Higher Education