Reimagining the campus experience in the age of COVID-19

By Cooper Jones September 21st, 2020

How higher ed supports the 2020/21 campus experience will dictate future success

While higher-ed institutions have proven success with online learning, the big question on the minds of students, parents, faculty, and staff is: “What is the campus experience going to look like this year?”

With many students set to begin by late August, institutions are still making decisions based on the pandemic situation in their states and communities. And, with that situation changing rapidly and COVID-19 cases increasing across the U.S., it’s hard to know whether any decision will still be the right one when classes begin.

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Whether the institution opts for in-person instruction, online learning, or a hybrid approach, it’s certain that students will have a vastly different campus experience than before. Parents and students are asking themselves, “What are we really paying for, and is it worth it now? If I can’t enjoy campus life, in-person classes, dining halls, clubs, sports, activities and access to faculty, then why should I pay full tuition?”

These are valid questions, and ones that institutions should be addressing now by reimagining student life and community engagement and innovating a new campus experience in the age of COVID-19.

For students, campus life is a significant motivating factor for determining the college of choice as it shapes the total college experience. Of course, students go to college to learn, but they also go for the opportunity to mature, develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, explore new activities, and form lasting relationships. These things matter at least as much as the learning that prepares students for their next stage in life. An online learning experience just isn’t going to cut it. If students aren’t on campus, there is no campus life. Very few institutions have found an effective work-around, and unfortunately, their current technology doesn’t offer a solution either.

Most digital transformation on campus has been around streamlining processes that were previously done manually, such as those for registration, credit transfers, and study abroad programs. But activities that happen in person, such as helping students connect with a mental health professional on campus or making an appointment with the wellness center or career services, or even finding a group of likeminded students or students with similar interests, are not scalable to an online-only environment.

Institutions need to rethink how they’re engaging every student–not just the ones that want and have the ability to be involved. This includes non-traditional, first generation and at-risk students. Student affairs needs technology to help promote campus engagement, but also deliver services that normally occurred in person.

Some emerging concepts that could help preserve the campus experience during the pandemic, while balancing the cost and risk of sending students back to school, include student life platforms and a campus-as-a-service model.

Connecting the campus community with next-gen student life platforms that include self-service portals, appointment setting, event planning, and campus discovery features help provide a comprehensive view of campus activities and services. This can facilitate online social activities along with tracking participation and measuring engagement. Traditional student life software was designed for marketing or focused on one particular function like student organizations. Today’s technology must deliver one-stop access to critical campus resources, groups, and events that are relevant for students and facilitate student and community engagement.

Higher education needs bold ideas. One such idea is the campus-as-a-service model, where institutions partner to offer on-campus services to remote learners. As an example, a student of University A, who would normally be on campus, elects to stay home in another state and take classes online. Obviously, that student can’t take advantage of University A’s services, such as wellness, library, or career counseling. But the student lives quite close to University B, which has similar services to University A. With campus-as-a-service, the student would continue to pay A, while receiving services from B in a revenue sharing arrangement. Similarly, there are many cost centers across the campus that can be turned into revenue generators through shared services to help supplement tuition revenue–all the while expanding a university’s brand and, most importantly, helping facilitate success for all types of students, no matter who or where they are. Universities across the nation are already doing this in partnerships between public four-year institutions and neighboring community colleges. Why not do it at scale?

The future of higher education is at a crossroads. Pre-pandemic students and parents were already questioning the value of in-person higher education as tuition and costs soared. The quality of the campus experience was often the main justification for attending an in-person institution, rather than turning to a comparable online instructional degreed program. Now, many families are re-evaluating why they should pay a premium for a degraded campus life and online learning when there are more cost-effective alternatives.

This is exactly why innovation is needed, especially by the institutions that might be at risk of financial ruin if the pandemic continues to prevent in-person instruction. In a recent analysis, NYU Professor Scott Galloway looked at the 436 institutions in US News and World Report’s Top National College rankings. Based on various factors of resiliency, the schools were categorized into those expected to thrive, survive, struggle or perish if students don’t return in the fall. Half the schools analyzed fell into the “struggle” and “perish” quadrants. Plus, there is still a looming college enrollment bust coming in 2025 due to shrinking birthrates in 2008. Higher ed could be in crisis mode then too and what they do today will determine whether they can manage the future storms rolling in.

It’s not too late for institutions to think about how they will protect student life and offer an enriched campus experience for the physically distanced 2020-2021 academic year. Innovation will be required to help bridge the gap between the pre-pandemic normal and our new normal on campus.

About the Author:

Cooper Jones is CEO and co-founder of Rah Rah.

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