Of the many aspects of American life altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps none has shifted as quickly as higher education. An industry some considered recession-proof lost its swagger almost overnight. If long-running issues like sky-high tuition and a declining wage premium exposed cracks in the business model, an airborne illness that thrives on indoor gatherings has seemingly broken the dam wide open.
As parents across the country begin to imagine a future in which their college-bound child stays home or learns remotely while living on campus—even as they are required to pay most of the in-person tuition costs—colleges and universities will need to innovate in order to survive. And survive they must. Because while there are systemic issues inside both higher education and indeed our country, education is still the great equalizer, and it plays a critical role in a healthy economy and democracy.
We live in an uncertain world. Be it today’s public health crisis or tomorrow’s climate change disruption, higher-education institutions will need to be more flexible in the delivery of instruction in order to re-skill our labor force. New and nontraditional methods will have to be developed to provide and ensure access, equity and better outcomes for all stakeholders. Moreover, the delivery of online learning needs to be more than just a contingency plan; it must be a fundamental part of an institution’s programming.
The upshot is that colleges need not go it alone. Nor should they. Increased private-sector collaboration in terms of technology and services can enable the faculty and administration of colleges and universities to focus on their core mission: to generate and disseminate knowledge to millions of students every year. And as we saw with the shutdowns that began in March, many schools had neither the know-how nor the infrastructure to pivot to high-quality virtual learning in a timely way. Conversely, those universities that were already delivering courses online—many graduate programs, for example, are already offered entirely through online platforms—were able to more easily transition to a 100 percent distance-learning environment to continue their spring terms once the pandemic arrived.
If nothing else, collaboration between private enterprise and higher education is essential because these partnerships can fill important gaps. New financial strains as a result of COVID will only worsen the deep and steady cuts in state and federal funding, forcing even well-financed institutions to cut staff, services and programs without the ability to raise tuition or rely on revenue from athletics. For the regional state universities and the larger percentages of minority students who attend them, this could be particularly disastrous and could create a vicious cycle wherein fewer services and courses lead to fewer enrollments and the revenues that those students bring along.
By harnessing the foundational elements of capitalism and applying them against longer-term policy objectives, private enterprises have developed the online tools and platforms that can solve key postsecondary education and labor market challenges. These innovators create new ways for educators to engage with their students and enhance the quality of the student experience. Private enterprise, meanwhile, has always benefited from the generation of knowledge that makes America’s higher-education system the envy of the world and the resultant human capital that drives our economic growth.
Crises have a way of bringing the future forward. The widespread shift to virtual learning as a result of COVID is just the most recent example proving that private capital has been a significant catalyst for innovation across the higher-education landscape. Yet the way forward will require a collaborative approach that blends the academic rigor and vibrancy of our higher-education system with the innovative private sector. Our economic recovery depends on it, and our students and communities deserve it.