May 24, 2021
Higher education in the United States was in trouble long before the pandemic hit. The skyrocketing cost of attendance, the student debt crisis, the perceived lack of institutional responsiveness to workforce needs and the advent of convenient, contemporary alternatives have been among key factors sowing skepticism about the value of the traditional college degree.
Those challenges, along with shifting demographics, were already taking a toll on enrollments across the nation, resulting in many colleges and universities facing existential crises before the lockdown. Regional four-year institutions were anticipated to take the biggest hit.
Enter COVID — rightly identified as an accelerant to change rather than a catalyst — and institutions are grappling with problems now that were expected to happen eight to 10 years down the road. The COVID business paradigm, whereby the strong get stronger while the weak diminish, holds for higher education institutions, as well. What was supposed to happen in 2029 is happening now. Regional institutions across the land — servants of their communities and lifters-up of their citizenry — are closing or consolidating at an accelerating pace. And we have not yet even hit the dreaded enrollment cliff of 2026.
The pandemic is not solely to blame for unprecedented change. It is compounded by another accelerant: the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The convergence of rapid digital innovations with scientific advancements in the physical and biological realms have made for a fecund global laboratory in which innovations and enhancements are informing and complementing one another at blinding speed. The realities of today are yesterday’s science fiction. The advancements of the future are close enough for us to touch.
Technological prowess is determining its own winners and losers in COVID times. Firms like Amazon and Google, employing enhanced logistics, data analytics and 5G, are hitting new stratospheres of success (and world dominion — a topic for another day). Industries reliant on traditional models — in-store retail and movie theaters, for instance — are closing fast.