Anxiety and Uncertainty: Higher Education Lessons From 2008 as We Face the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 20, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

As colleges and universities navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to reflect on the role of information during this incredible time of rapid change and uncertainty. To what extent can we learn from past events that significantly shaped the way we think about higher education altogether? After the financial crisis of 2008, higher education was forced into a hyper-competitive environment that has had a lasting impact with many universities still working to recover. Today, we face a new challenge that threatens to present “new normals” that many may not be ready for.

Never before in human history have we had access to the staggering amount of information (and misinformation) at our fingertips. Yet as we consume vast amounts of content, one of two things is likely to happen; first, scholars have referred to the resultant anxiety associated with constant message streaming and content consumption as “information overload.” Secondly, as immediacy becomes the normative standard for information access and delivery, our tolerance for uncertainty diminishes. This can produce tension as information simultaneously serves as the cause of, and remedy to, anxiety and uncertainty.

Enter COVID-19.

In these unprecedented times of uncertainty amid constant streams of information, it’s hard to see beyond immediate closures, containment strategies, and classroom delivery adaptations. In order to fully ascertain the magnitude of COVID-19, we need to begin thinking beyond the short term as we tirelessly work to lead and serve during this critical moment.

Looking back to the 2008 financial crisis

Let’s go back even six weeks ago. I would have then characterized my work with universities of all shapes and sizes from around the country in this way: these are tough times for many campuses when it comes to enrolling optimal cohorts capable of delivering purposeful demographic distributions coupled with much needed revenues for operation.
Current enrollment challenges are the primary evidence that many institutions still have scar tissue from the 2008 economic crisis. These realities are further exacerbated by the waves of the predicted birth dearth, which are already hitting many enrollment shores.

As such, past recessionary environments have had a far-reaching ability to erode notions of college affordability and test the collective value of college education models currently being delivered, even as economists publish the value of the college investment.

But a lot has changed in the past six weeks—even in the past six days, for that matter.

The immediate concerns COVID-19 present need to be assuaged by the lessons we’ve learned from the subsequent (and lingering) responses to the 2008 recession. Although there are many possible outcomes, below are three scenarios that may significantly influence recruitment practices and awarding strategies for the next several cycles.

Potential shifts toward greater-need-student profiles

As financial portfolios plummet, they may take time to rebound and rebuild. In the near term, this may create a greater percentage of need, which could strain current scholarship and grant strategies through current institutional financial aid methodologies. As need rises, so does the gap in a university’s ability to meet it.

Remember 2008: as families quickly lost investment value, need took off in unexpected ways. Work ahead now and anticipate what COVID-19 will do to increase need profiles, and creatively plan to address this on your campus for the next several cohorts.

Increased tentativeness with borrowing for higher education

Students and parents are unlikely to meet the looming recession with an aversion to the greater likelihood of increased debt needed to finance their kids’ college tuition (particularly in light of investment losses). This includes home equity scenarios that may not be as readily available, as market impact on housing is sure to be a major factor as well.

Remember 2008: as published higher education costs annually increased, students tended to borrow more. This behavior then triggered a widespread and lasting conversation over a “student loan crisis” informing the expectation that families will actually reduce their participation in loan programs (and in some instances, higher education altogether) unless a student chooses a major “worthy” of borrowing money (sorry institutional mission, I need a job more than a holistic experience).

Simply put: don’t plan on student and/or parent loans as the primary strategy to address need gaps.


Exposed value propositions for colleges and universities

University missions will have to effectively and distinctively demonstrate a meaningful value proposition that generates a willingness to pay among a tightening demography of those with financial capacity. This challenge will be pronounced for those institutions that rely on residential students with low commuter volumes.

Since 2008, colleges have been messaging their unique value in hopes of making a favorable disruption in key markets necessary to meet institutional goals. Those universities that have been time and tone sensitive have moved the needle the most with regards to optimal enrollment.

Self-monitoring behaviors moving forward

These unprecedented times call for self-monitoring behaviors that seek the well-being of the greater whole. Institutions that follow this “we all carry a part of the solution” mode of operation have the greatest chance at weathering this storm. Develop comprehensive and integrated strategies that are both mindful of history and aware of what we may be facing beyond the moment and into the next six to 18 months.

It’s our work now to battle anxiety through the overload of information while balancing the need to reduce uncertainty. Enter this tension with purpose and clarity knowing that how we involve ourselves during COVID-19 will, in profound ways, shape our ability to inform the best possible reaction to the next crisis.

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