3 investments colleges can make during COVID-19 to reduce risks for learners

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Jul 14, 2020

As the beginning of the school year draws nearer, the debate over whether or not to reopen college campuses is progressing from a simmer to a boil. 

Justifications for reopening range from the duty-bound to the counterintuitive conclusion that an in-person semester would be safer than an online one. The opposing side suggests institutions’ leaders are responding to the wrong incentives, succumbing to (very real) financial concerns, or deluding themselves to cite any other reason for opening campus.

A high fixed-cost business model is clearly playing a part in how campus leaders are weighing risks for learners. One need look no further than student-unfriendly residential housing refund policies—one rescinded after just a few days of prompt backlash—to see the financial concerns at play. The business model of traditional institutions was already struggling before the pandemic, and keeping campus closed would be a stunning blow for many. 

But failing to optimize for learner risk isn’t a new problem for college business models. Too few institutions participate in credit transfer arrangements that could increase completion rates. Too many institutions offer the bare minimum of support for their graduates to get good jobs, resulting in underemployment rates that exceed 40% in the face of ever-rising college costs. 

Higher education needs more strategies and business models that allow institutions to survive, if not thrive, without forcing students to take on unnecessary risks. Here are three investments that institutions can make to sustainably improve learners’ risk profiles during the pandemic and the subsequent economic recovery.

Deliberately designed online experiences

There were already reasons to invest in online learning before the pandemic, including increased flexibility for a broader pool of learners. The fact that online learning could also be necessary to save lives going forward is yet another reason for investing in this modality.

As this past spring reminded everyone, investing in online learning is different from trying to replicate the in-person experience over a group video call. While a valiant stopgap effort, hastily prepared remote learning experiences proved frustrating for learners and instructors alike. 

Rather, successful implementations of online learning have rethought a number of assumptions about teaching, learning, and how the surrounding business model should look. Examples include Minerva School’s flipped classroom, integrated curriculum, and active learning platform, and Western Governors University’s (WGU) restructuring of faculty roles, implementation of competency-based education, and an all-you-can-learn tuition model. 

Schools that provide equitable access to an online learning experience that plays to the modality’s strengths will be cutting through the Gordian knot that many campus leaders face with their in-person models this Fall.

Completion strategies other than “degree or bust” 

College-goers have, on average, fared better than those with only a high school diploma when it comes to staying employed and earning more, both pre- and mid-pandemic. The lion’s share of those benefits only accrue, however, to college graduates. If a learner stops out without actually obtaining a degree, the earnings bump for the work the learner did complete in college doesn’t typically amount to much. Hopefully they didn’t accumulate much debt along the way.

Financing gaps are a common hurdle—roughly three million learners stop out due to time-sensitive financial crises of less than $500, and in a survey of learners who stopped out, 54% of respondents said they left school so that they can work to make ends meet. Solutions range from issuing emergency aid in partnership with companies like Edquity to offering income share agreements to learners who are close to graduating, an approach that the University of Utah rolled out last year.  

In addition to helping more learners complete their degrees, some institutions have also structured their degree programs such that learners earn portable badges, certificates, and certifications along the way. While returns on these credentials aren’t typically as high as those of a degree, they provide learners with a softer landing should they need to step away from school and, if institutions do the hard work of structuring their programs accordingly, stack into degrees should learners come back. But perhaps most importantly, schools that have taken this approach, like BYU-Pathway Worldwide, find that it correlates with improved learner persistence.

Enhancements in graduate employability

Inserting industry-valued skills and credentials is not just useful for learners who are at higher risk of stopping out—any college graduate can benefit from a more seamless transition into the workforce. Institutions looking to enhance their graduates’ employability and immediate ROI have a growing array of options to that end.

The Northeastern Co-op model—in which learners spend a semester working full-time with an employer as part of their postsecondary journey—is a prime example of a business model that combines academics and job-ready skills. Dominican University is leveraging a partnership with Make School to learn how to give Dominican students the latest in-demand digital skills. Finally, institutions can develop competency-based models that center learning experiences around employer-validated outcomes and skills.

Institutions can also reach out to companies that have found new ways to plug in. Examples include Riipen, which helps embed company projects into the curriculum; Parker Dewey, which helps college-goers taste-test a variety of career options through paid “micro-internships;” and Pathstream, which helps institutions offer digital skills courses that result in certificates from employers like Facebook and Tableau.

Oh, the risks you can risk!

At the beginning of the year, I expressed my hope that learners would see an increase in the number of tools designed to help them manage the growing risks of accessing higher education. In what have turned out to be halcyon days, I was thinking specifically about financial risks, unaware that just a few months later the risks would extend to their very lives.

Colleges and universities must deliberately bake into their business models a stronger consideration of learner risks, both financial and existential. Learners shouldn’t have to risk gambling away their future—or that of their families, instructors, and communities—in the pursuit of a better one.

As a research fellow on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.