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The Measurable Impacts of Covid on Education

“I think that it’s really important to think about – what will higher education learn and take forward from this experience to be able to continue to deliver life-changing education to their stakeholders?… What we’re seeing right now is institutions are making strategic decisions about how they will work in the virtual education space.”

Nicholas R. Santilli, PhD, Senior Director for Learning Strategy for the Society for College and University Planning

Covid-19 has drastically altered the landscape of life for everyone, but what does this mean for the higher education industry and its stakeholders?

The National Center for Education Statistics recently published the 2019–20 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:20): First Look at the Impact of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) Pandemic on Undergraduate Student Enrollment, Housing, and Finances. Preliminary data quantifies the impact of Covid-19 on higher education and students, providing insight into the tumultuous period’s impact on the education sector. spoke with an expert who has studied the impact of Covid-19 on education to gain his insight on the pandemic’s evolving challenges for students and higher education.

Meet the Expert: Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli

Nicholas R. Santilli, PhD, serves as the senior director for learning strategy for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). In this role, he drives the development of learning content for individual practitioners and institutions looking to build the professional competencies of their faculty and staff. He is also the lead for the SCUP Planning Institute, the premier professional development program to create institutional capacity for integrated planning in higher education.

Dr. Santilli is a longtime member of SCUP, co-chairing two SCUP annual conferences; serving on the SCUP board of directors for three years (two years as chair); facilitating for the Planning Institute; overseeing the development of the Planning Institute curriculum; and working with the Planning Institute’s Facilitator Corps.

He joined the SCUP staff after a 34-year career as a faculty member and administrator in higher education, which included positions in the assessment of student learning and development, institutional effectiveness, accreditation, integrated planning, vice president for academic and student affairs, and provost.

Dr. Santilli is also a member of the peer reviewer corps for the Higher Learning Commission—the largest regional accrediting body of higher education institutions in the United States.

Q&A with Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli What have been the most striking revelations of Covid-19’s impacts on post-secondary students, teachers, programs, and institutions?

Dr. Santilli: It’s had a broad impact. I think that we probably have certainly expected that there would be change, and one of the things that has been so striking is that it’s involved the entire scope of the sector at a systemic level.

Everyone was touched by this. And so it’s not just one area that may be impacted. That’s one of the things that makes it such a challenging planning problem when you start thinking about the next stage during this pandemic.

Clearly, students were impacted and moved to virtual; some were okay with it and others struggled with different things like basic access. There needs to be equity to the kinds of support that students have to be successful. And so you begin to think about all of these kinds of things from a student perspective: how did this impact their progress and what becomes their view of the system?

With all of the work we’ve seen from pandemic surveys, a substantial number of students have lost confidence in higher education. Some loss of confidence is also extending to other sectors in society, like adults and governmental agencies.

Institutions that were already economically fragile or financially fragile saw an increase in fragility. I’m not so sure that we’ve seen the last of it now that many schools are opening campuses up again because I think that the economic fragility is going to continue to ripple ahead for the next couple of years. I don’t think that institutions are out of the woods yet. They’re going to be stressed and will have to continue to be strong.

On the positive side, while there are certainly a lot of challenges, institutions demonstrated that they were able to adapt quickly.

Many institutions that had only dabbled in virtual education models adapted and provided education for students. It may not have been perfect, but it still was an educational opportunity for students to be able to continue their educational experience.

Institutions realized that they could legitimately question some of the ways they were doing things before and may have realized that virtual is a viable option to do a lot of work. There’s going to be a lot of demand for people to do remote work. Institutions will begin to carry forward practices that were borne due to the pandemic. Other things that emerged during the pandemic, like those related to racial and social justice concerns that individuals have equity and access issues, have surfaced.

It’s really important to think about: what will higher education learn and take forward from this experience to be able to continue to deliver life-changing education to their stakeholders? How do you think student enrollment and completion in higher education programs will be impacted? And do you think this is due to impacts stemming from Covid or larger pre-existing trends in education?

Dr. Santilli: There are a few things operating here. One of the things we have to ask is what type of student enrollment are we talking about?

Talking about traditional-age students, like the eighteen-year-old high school graduate moving on to a two- or four-year institution, we already knew prior to the pandemic that the numbers of high school graduates are in decline. Significantly fewer students will be available as high school graduation rates are bottoming out in research on demographic trends. That led to the idea of the demographic cliff. Among those institutions that fundamentally rely on traditional-age students, there will be more institutions fighting to enroll a smaller number of individuals. So that will have a considerable impact on institutions.

Competition will depend on whether or not people feel that they are getting the robust education that they are expecting from the institution, as well as the expectation that institutions are supporting them in their educational journey.

As institutions assess what they’ve learned through Covid, the social justice movement, and the pre-pandemic decline of numbers of students, the things that are important to recognize here are what lessons were learned to help students persist in completing their education. It’s a matter of thinking about how you are providing the kinds of tutoring some students may need, access to broadband that some students may need, and all those things students need to be successful.

When you think about enrollment and completion, it’s a complex issue.

And then, to a growing extent, many institutions are beginning to think about if they are not serving adult students now, how will they serve them in the future? What kind of adult completion programs should we have and what kind of programming might we develop as an institution? And this may be where stackable credentials come in and some of the workforce upskilling perhaps may come in for some institutions.

Many institutions might need to continue to bring in traditionally-aged students while thinking about how to also attract adult students. So now we’ll see how institutions may modify their business model to be able to take advantage of providing educational experiences or training experiences for those adult populations.

This was something that was suggested prior to Covid but has only been intensified during the pandemic period.

Education is now in a space where it’s more than just getting back to normal. This is a liminal moment—a transitional moment that will require evolution and really will push institutions to evolve to a newer model. Those that do will be the ones that will survive. What do you think the long-term implications are to online programs and degrees in education?

Dr. Santilli: What we’re seeing now is institutions are making strategic decisions about how they will work in the virtual education space.

You have that whole range of institutions who did not have a presence at all, some who offered classes but not degree programs, some that offered classes and some degree programs, and now institutions moving more degree programs and certification programs of various types into the online space. So it’s really a continuum.

One of the things that happened at many places was crisis teaching—and this is not a full robust online presence. These were virtual presentations of courses and degree programs. Meanwhile, there are institutions that do that work for their complete model and they were further ahead when the transition to virtual happened.

The big question is what strategic decision will those institutions make regarding continuing to develop a robust online presence. It’s more than just pivoting courses into being offered online and stitching a bunch of them together for certificates and programs. There are serious consequences to making that decision.

Do you have the bandwidth? Do you have a learning management system? Is your faculty prepared to deliver programs online? Do you have instructional design support? Do you have a teaching and learning center that’s able to help faculty make the transition?

It’s more than just saying let’s go online and offer degrees now. What are the consequences of that strategic choice? And how long will it take for an institution to be able to transition to those built online learning programs?

In addition to that, you have all of the support services that are also required. How will career services be done online? How will mental health and counseling be done? Academic advising?

Those are still things that accreditation bodies are expecting institutions to develop—no matter what modality, both face-to-face and online. These are serious decisions that institutions need to make. It’s a strategic choice that requires integrated planning. How do you think federal or state programs should be restructured to better support students, especially those of color and or underserved communities?

Dr. Santilli: One of the things that we need to rethink is what does infrastructure mean?

There is a debate that’s going on right now at the federal level of just what is infrastructure. The conversation is backward-looking toward the 20th century, not the 21st century. What we need to do is have legislators both at the state and federal level realize that 21st-century infrastructure is an investment in people.

I’m not saying that investment in roads, transportation, and infrastructure isn’t important, but human resources will be the difference for the 21st century. And until the federal government gets their heads around a forward-looking, priority-setting infrastructure and realizing that the investments in people—what the Biden Administration has been arguing for—is an investment in infrastructure.

The best approach for us moving forward on the federal and state levels is continuing to invest in people and to consider that an infrastructure investment, especially with respect to individuals who are in underserved communities—whether they are underserved by employment, schooling or healthcare. All of these various things should be addressed to be able to invest in people because ultimately people will carry us forward.

What I would suggest is that there needs to be a more citizen-centered approach to federal and state programs to invest in people to really begin to invest in the kinds of things that will help American citizens thrive in the environment going forward. Academic administrators, faculty, staff, and students need to go and talk directly with their legislators about this, especially at state levels.

I’m in Ohio and yesterday, the governor signed a bill that will prohibit state institutions of K-12 and higher education from requiring vaccinations. That’s a public health issue that I think is unwise.

There isn’t a week that goes by that some study is saying that people are losing trust in higher education. They need to be more proactive to be champions for higher education and for education generally, whether it’s certificates, credentials, or whatever educational training that individuals have. That’s where the support needs to be.

You look at the decline in state funding to institutions that’s been happening for a couple of decades. They’re not investing in the education of their citizens. The responsibility, I think, needs to be shifted to point out how these decisions work against helping people thrive.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.