Colleges need to think beyond this fall

Campuses need to be more flexible, accessible

IN THE MIDST of all the discussion among colleges and universities about whether to return to campus this fall, who can return, or how to return, I fear we risk losing the big picture: What can colleges do to ensure students stay on track and well prepared for their future?  It is critical to stay laser-focused on helping college students achieve their goals in this time of monumental upheaval.

Certainly, it is true that the pressures on colleges at this time are real and sobering. The pandemic has pushed higher ed’s financial picture into brittle space, a picture already threatened by changing demographics, untenable cost models, and a host of other challenges. Combined, these factors will permanently alter the higher education landscape and the way students and families think about the value of a college education.

This shift has significant economic ramifications for Massachusetts, where higher education is one of the state’s largest and most important industries. More than 150,000 students attend schools in the Boston area, and they and their visitors spend billions of dollars each year. That is perhaps why much of the higher-ed related conversation has centered around fall planning.

But, we should not let this focus on the immediate future derail a much longer-term truth. Higher education needs to adapt so that it can become more accessible and more valuable for students – not just for this fall, but forever. This was true before the pandemic, and it is even more imperative now. While the coronavirus continues to cause much strain for students and their families, it also gives those of us in higher education the opportunity to re-imagine and re-commit to our students’ success, and a college degree’s value proposition. This moment is a clarion call for higher education to rethink how we deliver value and how we support student learning and development in the midst of the pandemic, and on the other side of it.

Higher education has often, and fairly, been criticized as slow to change. But now, colleges face existential decisions regarding their futures. Institutions that are nimble and forward-thinking are those that will be in the best position to not only survive this period, but emerge from it stronger. This is particularly true for tuition-dependent, modestly endowed smaller universities such as mine. It is vital that institutions like ours evolve in ways that complement our core missions, supporting students whose needs are vastly different than even a decade ago.

This will mean a substantial amount of student-centered reinvention: a careful assessment of student learning styles and outcomes, the adoption of hybrid course delivery models for greater flexibility and accessibility, innovative technology platforms for effective online instruction, refreshed curricula adapted to the new technologies, and opportunities outside the classroom to grow as leaders.

Lynn Perry Wooten is the president of Simmons College. (Photo courtesy of Simmons College.)

Here at Simmons, we launched a comprehensive effort this spring to redesign all of our 300 undergraduate courses for robust, fully online delivery. We did this with two purposes in mind: in the short term, in case we needed to remain virtual this fall in a way that keeps our students engaged and on track; but with the longer-term goal to grow and make a Simmons education accessible to a larger demographic of students who have had their educations interrupted, but who want to complete a degree in a flexible, completely online format.

Founder John Simmons was far ahead of his time when he established a college in order to give women more agency and independence over a hundred years ago. I have spent many years studying and teaching about the leadership qualities necessary to lead through change successfully. Those skills are ever-more critical if today’s students are to have their own agency to lead the change this world so sorely needs.

When I announced that we made the difficult decision to remain fully virtual for the fall semester, I wrote that “one size does not fit all” about this tough choice. For our university, we chose what we assessed as the best path for students to stay on track toward their degree safely with the fewest possible disruptions, focused clearly on their long-term launching pad rather than just the next few months.

Meet the Author
Life post-pandemic will not return to a “normal,” nor should we want it to.  There will be a host of permanent changes to how we live, work, and operate – many long overdue. Making a college education more flexible, more accessible, and more dynamic for students is an enormous priority for Massachusetts and the nation.

Dr. Lynn Perry Wooten is the president of Simmons University