Policy Pub: Higher Education in a Post Pandemic World

This post is based on a webinar sponsored by Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.

The year 2020 brought massive changes to almost every industry, and higher education is no exception. Tim Chapin, dean of the FSU College of Social Sciences and Public Policy and professor of urban and regional planning, discusses some of the ways that higher education will be different in the years ahead, both in terms of campus life, teaching, research and community engagement and in how these changes affect the economic, cultural and social life of our city.

COVID-19’s Impact

COVID-19 has brought tremendous impacts to our world. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought major loss of life, made millions more physically and mentally ill, shuttered businesses, created budget crises, and caused major health and economic challenges in about every corner of the planet. Moreover, COVID-19 has also majorly impacted mortality rates, birth rates, housing choices, personal incomes, workplace dynamics, travel behaviors, consumer health, and so much more. In sum, the impact of COVID-19 is truly immeasurable. Due to these impacts, it is not difficult to surmise that the shock to the system brought about by COVID will likely create lasting impacts. For our purposes, this webinar will delve into the specific ways in which I believe higher education will be impacted post-COVID-19, and what this means for Florida State University, specifically.

Where is FSU Now?

To begin, currently, Florida State University has a healthy mix of in-person, fully online, and hybrid courses during the Spring 2021 semester. While faculty and staff are now allowed to work on campus, the staffing levels remain modest and building access is limited. Moreover, Florida State University is holding in-person graduations starting in April and is planning in-person events for 2020 grads in May. Continuing with this trend, staffing levels in Summer of 2021 are expected to ramp up as the university begins to edge toward normal operations. By Fall of 2021, the University expects to return to a “new normal,” entailing a return to campus activities, mostly in-person courses, and a buzzing Tallahassee community once again.

Changes to there Workplaces and Workforce

While the idea of returning to normal is enticing, the shock to the system COVID-19 created will have lasting impacts. To start, COVID-19 will likely create major changes in the workplace and workforce. Like many organizations, universities will allow more remote work and more flexible work house and settings for many employees. Flexible work arrangements will provide for better working conditions, happier employees, but also require new management practices to measure work output and performance. Collaboration and project management tools, like Canvas, Microsoft Teams, and Wire will become ubiquitous, proficiency with these tools will become requirements for much of the higher education workforce. Moreover, social ties and office cultures will be harder to forage and harder to maintain, bringing challenges to places like Florida State University, which promotes student success through cultivating a friendly environment with accessible people there to help. Lastly, flexible work arrangements and reduced social engagements will bring more business-like interactions and office dynamics, making universities more efficient, but perhaps at the cost of friendliness.

Instruction and Learning

COVID-19 also has changed other aspects of higher education. COVID has sped up forces that have been reshaping teaching and learning. Online/remote instruction/learning will become even more of a staple at all institutions. COVID forced all faculty and students to learn new skills and these new skills are here to stay. Asynchronous learning will continue to grow in demand from both traditional students and post-baccalaureate students. Flexible course design and devilry will flourish in universities ready to embrace these practices. Hybrid courses, course intensives, multi-college and multi-university partnerships, and other innovative models will emerge and they must be supported through their incubation periods. These changes will bring challenges related to access, behavior, affordability, and course assessment. Universities need to invest in the skill sets of their faculty and staff, as well as pay attention to student needs and capabilities.

The Student Experience

As with the coming boom in tele-medicine, tele-education will become entrenched as a standard business practice. Students will be largely advised remotely, do more and more university business via online portals and connections, and have the option to attend many classes, performances, and events from afar. Webinar engagements will continue to be widespread, allowing connections with alumni, speakers, and industry leaders at rates never before seen, but at the cost of the development of their social skills and networking opportunities. Flexible work and technology centered models will become more standard for non-classroom experiences, finding their way into projects, internships, community activities, and professional development opportunities. For in-residence universities like FSU, supporting and protecting the social, active, engaged student experience will need to become more purposeful. Well-led student organizations can help fill the gap, but they require resources, more faculty/staff support and clearly articulated missions.

The Future Campus

University campuses will need to adapt to new demands while also promoting social connections, spontaneity, joy, movement, and engagement in people and place. The 24/7 wraparound experience of in-residence universities (like FSU and FAMU) remain in demand, but this will be harder to deliver. Changes in employee work arrangements, instructional models, and the move to tele-education will lead to fewer in-person interactions, possibly less connection. Campus space utilization, facilities management, and transportation and working will require a rethink. Spaces will need to be retooled for remote engagement and online event viewing. Office space will be in less demand, hoteling arrangements may become common. Campus parking and transportation will also be in less demand, yielding benefits to the on-campus pedestrian experience, bur reducing revenues.

Higher Education Needs to be Forward Looking, Not Backwards Facing

Higher education has been evolving since its inception and, frankly, universities have been on a trajectory to pursue many of the ideas presented today. The COVID pandemic brought true disruption, though, presenting a shock to the system so large and powerful that it has propelled us forward and change higher education forever.

The defining features of the future of higher education are going to be centered upon work flexibility, curricular innovation, attention to maintaining social ties, strategic investment in people and place, and more generally, embracing new ways of doing old business.

Q: Being that curricular innovation, such as current online instructional methods are going to continue to be utilized in the future of higher education, will that worsen the current digital divide between students? Does this change the demographic of the average student coming to FSU and the skills they have to come in with?
A: I do think COVID has promoted greater stratification and certainly not reduced it, if you look at the health impacts, the economic impacts, etc. The top 20%, if you look at the stock market and the real estate market, are probably better off at the end of COVID as a whole in terms of their wealth and in terms of their holdings. Whereas those at the lower end have suffered greatly and lost their jobs, and tend to be sicker. For higher education, I definitely think it will augment existing problems around stratification.

Q: In the push to maintain and expand the student experience, do you see an increasing role for athletics? Do you see the university making tradeoffs between academics and athletics?
A: Athletics at larger universities, such as FSU, are seen as being sort of the core of social life of universities and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. How to balance academics with athletics is an ongoing debate for every sports-orienting university. It is important to the experience of students at FSU and other universities. Paying for that is often expected to be an auxiliary operation that the academic side shouldn’t subsidize athletics, but sometimes it happens. It’s an ongoing challenge that is not going to go away anytime soon.

Q: I’ve noticed that previous events that were put on by FSU that were open to the public are now virtual, and these events are now limited to admission by FSU students and their guests. Will these events continue to be restricted or is the hope that with the public, those folks with no FSU connections will be included, as they were before?
A: This is something that I think many universities are struggling with. In private university world there are oftentimes general access issues to on campus or virtual campus events and I think this trend will accelerate for some of these types of institutions. For public institutions, there has been this idea that because we are funded by the state of Florida open to community residence, to non-official university of people are joining in those events. Some public universities will remain committed to that. Sometimes, however, the technology we’re working with tends to get in the way of allowing as much public participation as we’d like. Public institutions like FSU will remain committed to public programming for a lot of our events.

This post is based on a webinar sponsored by Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. You can watch the full webinar here.

Dr. Chapin is Dean in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy and a professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. Chapin’s current research interests revolve around how Florida’s demographic trends influence urban patterns and transportation systems in the state. You can learn more about Dr. Chapin here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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