There’s No Place Like #StayHome: Week 7 – Higher Education And The Sharp Beak of #Covid19’s Black Swan

Finding Work & Life Balance in 2020

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” C.S. Lewis, Author

There is no homogeneity of the effect of Covid-19 on organizations and institutions; nobody’s “black swan” is the same hue or sizeBlackSwan.

The black swan theory states that after an unforeseen event and related major consequences, the event is inappropriately rationalized (after all, hindsight is 20/20 – or 20/15 for those afflicted with hubris).

Higher education has an ornery black swan to deal with. In recent years, when “Corona” usually meant beer, an increase in college closings and consolidations were already looming, particularly for small private colleges. The abrupt closing of Mount Ida College in Massachusetts was one high profile example.

As many families live paycheck to paycheck, many colleges live semester to semester. Revenue from tuition, dorms & dining plans, summer camp fees, philanthropy, research grants is measured and watched on a week-week basis. Spring and Summer 2020 revenue is already in the firmly in the red. Committed & paying incoming freshmen in the fall of any year are necessary for financial health; they represent more than one semester of revenue – they are a source of potential 4 years (or more) of tuition, fees, books, and coffee.

In the early spring, institutions typically are cheerily planning commencement. Instead, they are dealing with a terrible calculus – traditional Fall semester or not? Among the considerations are:

  • Length of time institutions can financially survive with dramatically lower revenue, and what investments and programs to shelve temporarily or permanently 
  • Student interest and willingness to go longer completely online – what percentage will simply opt for taking time off or a less expensive online option.
  • Difficulty and complexity of Town-Gown issues. Many students live off-campus, and virtually all interact with businesses in the community. Will towns and cities want the influx of young adults before a vaccine and/or proven treatment is widely available?
  • Logistics and complexity of “hybrid” learning, i.e. small classes in person, large classes online. The heroics required of IT departments alone to modify systems to deal with this will be staggering.
  • Logistics and complexity of staggered and partial campus occupancy and amenities – lower residence hall occupancy, reduced dining and gym capacity .
  • Last but not least, the feasibility and complexity of process and protocols to prevent or mitigate the inevitable bloom of Covid-10 on a campus.

Fall or No Fall is a question but not the right question. Many institutions are wasting their time on a decision related to about 16 weeks (albeit an important 16 weeks) of operation. The question is, what is the best use of the resources available to the institution, to create and sustain products for which customers will pay. Presidents, Boards and Cabinets should be viewing “Fall 2020” as a new piece of the black swan that has been swimming around for over a decade. The pandemic has made the swan bigger and with a much sharper beak.

Higher education cannot change their beginnings – the prior decisions to increase discount rates, accept slim operating margins, construct more science buildings and sports venues – but they can act now to get a better ending for their students, faculty, staff and local community. Their black swan is not going to turn into a fluffy white cygnet in retrospect.

In 2018, the late Clayton Christensen predicted that 50% of all colleges would close within the next decade. Many thought that number was inflated. Now, he may have been the most prescient of us all.


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