Looking Ahead to 2021 in Higher Education

Since 2013, I have concluded the calendar year by writing annual lists of what I see as the top ten and not top ten events of the year in American higher education. I spend time throughout the year saving and compiling clips for potential inclusion later on, and it is something that I have greatly enjoyed putting together every year.

I started down my normal path again this year, but it was clear by the first week of March that one event would dominate everything else going on in American higher education. While my university (along with most other universities) was still operating in-person classes the week of March 9, I was scrambling to get both myself and my department prepared to finish the semester online. I thought at the time that things would be back to something near normal in the fall—and that was wrong.

I have written plenty, both on my blog and for The Chronicle of Higher Education, about the difficulties that higher education has faced this year. But there have also been some bright spots. In spite of incredibly difficult odds, no private nonprofit college has announced a major closure since early July (although Judson College may close at the end of the year if it cannot raise $500,000). Colleges have operated remarkably well on a remote basis this year, and it is clear that being absent from physical campuses has made the heart grow fonder for the traditional experience for many students.

Let’s finally close the book on a brutal 2020 and look ahead to 2021. There is clearly a light at the end of the tunnel at this point as multiple vaccines will begin to be available to millions of Americans in the next few weeks. I’m incredibly optimistic that society will be back to something near normal by June or July of 2021, with a possibility that normalcy could come sooner if cases do not spike in January and February. Given those bright spots, here are the five questions that I have as I look ahead to 2021:

(1) Can colleges safely welcome students back to campus in January? Hundreds of thousands of coronavirus cases occurred among college students and employees this fall, and research suggests that cases spread from relatively low-risk students to high-risk community members. While some colleges managed to get through the fall semester with cases under control, other colleges were not as lucky. I tracked colleges’ flips to online classes this fall until too many colleges to capture started to send students home in November—in many cases without providing or requiring exit testing.

It seems likely that coronavirus cases in much of the country will be far higher in January than in August or September, making it much more challenging for colleges as they attempt to welcome students back to campus. Colleges feel forced for political and financial reasons to try to have in-person classes, but it will be difficult for many colleges to succeed unless they have strict quarantines and get lucky. I would not be surprised if some colleges postpone in-person classes until March if vaccine distribution is promising, and some may even try to delay the academic calendar into late May or June to take advantage of improving public health conditions.

(2) How will the vaccine affect colleges in 2021? While I hope that the vaccine will return American colleges to normalcy by fall, there are tricky questions regarding the vaccine. The first question is whether certain college employees will be classified as essential workers so they can get the vaccine earlier. Food service employees and student-facing staff members could qualify, but are they more important than K-12 staff? The second is whether colleges will require students and employees to submit proof of vaccination before returning to campus in the fall. Expect a fight over exemptions. Finally, in the shorter term, will employees and their unions require access to the vaccine before agreeing to resume normal campus operations? This fight will certainly play out in K-12 education and may spill over into higher ed.

(3) What will come out of Washington? The Georgia Senate runoff elections in early January will loom large here. If Democrats take control of the Senate and have a (tenuous) grip on both houses of Congress, more money is likely for state and local governments. Democratic control is probably also beneficial for direct funding to colleges, but state and local government funding appears to be a much bigger partisan sticking point. And watch how state support is distributed to higher education. Does it go directly to public colleges in the form of supplemental appropriations, or does it go to student financial aid that can often be used at private colleges?

(4) How deep will program and employee cuts be? The higher education workforce has been decimated since the start of the pandemic, and many colleges have announced program cuts and layoffs. I wrote earlier this fall about how permanent cuts are coming at many colleges that are concerned about the pipeline of future college students. The newest projections going out to the high school graduating class of 2037 are pessimistic, and birth rates are likely to fall over the next few years as a result of the pandemic in spite of my personal effort to counter the trend. Colleges will also be more hesitant to invest in new programs after seeing their liquidity tested this year. Expect more cuts to come, but they may depend on…

(5) What will fall 2021 enrollment look like? Although overall enrollment this summer and fall stayed strong, new student enrollment plummeted this fall at community colleges and private nonprofit universities in particular. Declines were largest among older undergraduate students and men, which suggests that students tried to find employment during the recession instead of going to college like during normal recessions. Childcare issues could also be a concern, but enrollment among women held steady while enrollment among men fell. If students are staying away from college because they wanted an in-person experience, fall 2021 enrollment should be strong. But if students are skeptical about the value of higher education and feel the need to work to support their families, it will be a tough time going forward.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to interact with so many wonderful people in the higher education field and beyond this year. Please stay safe, be well, and take time off to spend with loved ones to the greatest extent possible. See you in 2021!

Author: Robert

I am an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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