Should We Believe Scott Galloway’s Predictions of Soon-to-Perish Colleges?

What Did Scott Galloway Do on July 17?

On Friday, July 17, in an article on his website titled USS University, Scott Galloway published a list of 89 colleges that would perish and 129 colleges that would struggle in the coming months. Galloway based his conclusions on a formula that attempts to measure 1) a college’s value for its cost and 2) its vulnerability to COVID-19 related factors. Within hours, the Twittersphere was hopping with comments on his new post. I shared his results on my Linked In page Friday and received more views on it than anything I have posted in the last year.

We all like easy answers to complex problems. One of these problems is who and what is going to survive COVID? Most of our efforts are spent on people who are most likely to be fine (healthy and under 65 years old) or not (over 65 years old with additional health issues). The survival of entire industries is also receiving serious attention. Package delivery companies are getting rich while restaurants without take out are barely making it. But what about universities?

Galloway plays on a recent analogy of comparing colleges to cruise ships to suggest that the conditions aboard cruise ships are similar to colleges. Both venues bring large numbers of fun-loving people together to socialize and let loose for a period of time before returning to reality (in a number of weeks in one case or years in another). The CDC had a “no sail order” for cruise ships through July 24, 2020 – we can imagine how their industry is doing.

Because the college “cruise ships” (I realize colleges are much more than this) have not left the dock yet, there is still much hope that the condition of their passengers and the ship rules will prevent any similar CDC order. Scott Galloway has made his best first attempt at recommending which of these colleges’ guests may want to avoid getting on board.

At the risk of overwhelming readers, it is important to know what factor Galloway is using to make his predictions. Galloway describes his big variables as I) value and II) vulnerability. A college’s value is based on three factors A) Credential, B) Experience, and C) Education.

The Credential factor is based on a college’s a) their undergraduate admit rate, b) the amount of times the college’s name is searched in Google, and c) the institution’s rank in U.S. News. It is worth noting that the U.S. New rank is based on 15 factors of varying percentages.

The Experience factor is based primarily on millions of student responses to surveys from on the culture of their campuses. Galloway divides these three factors by their net price to students (i.e. the average price a student at their college pays.)

The Education factor is rooted in the return on investment for degrees 15 and 30 years out (i.e. how much a sum of money in the future is valued today; including costs, future earnings, and the length of time it would take to invest and earn a certain amount of money over a fixed horizon). The third component of the Education factor is the amount of money institutions spend on instruction/teaching per full-time student.

The scores from these three variables (after changing them to scales from 0-1) are multiplied and divided by the net price or average cost to a student (after changing to a 0-1 scale).

Galloway’s other measure of university’s likely survival is based on their vulnerability to COVID. This measure is based on two numbers – their endowment / student and the percentage of international students at their institution. He probably selected endowment per student as it is a respected measure of the college’s ability to have savings from which to draw during challenging financial times. He uses the percentage of international students knowing that they often pay high percentages of the listed price of tuition which results in major revenue (that would be at risk during COVID).

Galloway wisely suggests that he may have left out a number of variables that could improve his rating of colleges’ likelihood of survival. He mentions potential value coming from the percentage of commuting students or colleges with hospitals.

Galloway also acknowledges that one of his main goals to simply get the discussion going on what is going to happen to colleges. He welcomed feedback, including critiques, at

What is the Value of Galloway’s Research?

I don’t think we can say that Scott Galloway is not making an informed attempt at what many of us are trying to figure out. Galloway knows the value and of and uses the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) along with integrating the fifteen factors which make up U.S. News Rankings and the ten factors in’s rankings.

A number of the factors Galloway uses have been shown to demonstrate institutional instability. Endowment per full-time student is a commonly used measure of institutional strength. Admissions selectivity, although recently removed from U.S. News rankings, is still a factor that has been used in several reports to demonstrate institutional instability. First to second-year student retention has a strong correlation with institutional success.  Instructional expenses per full-time student demonstrate how much of an investment colleges are putting into the education of their students. Lower amounts on this measure have been correlated with institutions that close.

Although the amount of international students in the past would have only been used as a positive factor to an institution’s strength, Galloway is one of the first (after the Chronicle of Higher Education,) to use the percentage of international students as a risk to an institution.

We have struggled for centuries to figure out how to describe a student life culture in any meaningful quantitative manner. Galloway attempts to put some value on the culture of the college and surrounding community by using data from millions of student feedback points collected by

What Should We Question in Galloway’s Analysis?

While Galloway is transparent in providing his methodology, he does not explain in much detail why he selected and gave the various weights to the items. I am not a skilled data scientist – more of a fan and proponent of the new ways of intelligently using the information we have. This leads me to call several of his selections into question.

I will probably be one of thousands of critics of Galloway’s decision to include the student rankings of the party scene in the likelihood of an institution’s survival. While an active social life can be important to students, I am not aware of any correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed (score is linked to closeness of bars to campus) and the existence of a university. This is particularly evident when we examine the fast-growing adult-focused institutions growing faster than most traditional age college students. Does the almost entirely online Southern New Hampshire University’s party scene put them in trouble? I am not saying this is not important to a section of students but to have it as a factor in a university’s potential demise seems excessive.

I am way out of my league on understanding search engine optimization and Google keyword planner use. Galloway uses the latter as a third of his score for a college’s credential. I have never seen this measure be used as a measure of evaluating colleges but I am open to understanding it more. It strikes me as a creative quantitative measure of an institution’s popularity, but it also concerns me that this is the first time I have ever seen this criterion used.

Galloway’s incorporation of the return-on-investment of colleges, labeled as net present value, is welcomed. The data on this value was published for the first time in fall 2019 and has generated mostly positive attention. The primary drawback of this data is similar to what most rankings systems struggle with and that is the inability to disaggregate the students going to elite institutions versus the students going to less well-known colleges. Students lacking some established privilege would likely not be as successful if the institutions with high return-on-investment are not intentionally structured to provide additional assistance to them.

Last but not least, it would help if Galloway had explained why he gave his various factors certain amounts of weight. For example, the admissions selectively and Google search volume are worth the same amount as the  U.S. News ranking, which is a ranking comprised of fifteen different factors including graduation rates.  U.S. News has reduced admission selectivity to less than 5% of an institution’s ranking before eliminating it last year. Galloway not only brings admissions selectivity back, but makes it one third of a college’s credential score, equating that one measure with the sum of all fifteen of the U.S. News ranking factors.

What Is Missing from Galloway’s Analysis?

Because the fall of a college is a rare phenomenon, the examples from the past several decades have been thoroughly studied and used to attempt to provide greater predictability looking forward. In fall 2019 I led an independent study on the topic of institutional instability. We finished the semester by creating a list all the factors that had been published in various articles and reports that were linked to institutional closure. As already mentioned with regards to Galloway’s factors, many of the factors we identified were connected to the universities’ closure but were rarely identified as causal factors to the closure.

In comparing the list that we came up with last fall to Galloway’s factors there was some overlap. For example, endowment per student and instructional costs per students were both commonly mentioned factors in many reports along with student retention rates and net price.

However, many of the factors on our list were left out of Galloway’s analysis. Galloway might respond by indicating that many of these measures are not maintained in easily accessible locations on a national level. In most cases, that is probably true. On the other hand, making a prediction about a college’s closure is significant enough that a thorough review of the potential factors is warranted.

Examples of data that could be located but was not included includes variables with regards to institutional and student debt, fundraising and grants, budget cuts, leadership experience, online courses, student enrollment changes, and institutional type. A list of 50 factors that Galloway did not include in his analysis, but that have been mentioned in the research on college closures is available by emailing the author. Not all of these fifty factors are easily measured or accessed, but many of them would offer a more complete picture of institutions that may be identified as perishing.

Scott Galloway was recently described in the Chronicle of Higher Education as “Higher Education’s Prickliest Pundit”. His USS University article on July 17 was true to this descriptor. Depending on how you look at it Galloway has either catalyzed an important conversation or needlessly scared and offended hundreds of colleges. Both are probably true.

In 2015, Sweet Briar College’s Board announced they would be closing that summer. They still had 80 million dollars in their endowment at the time. They had a beautiful campus in the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Unfortunately, they did not want to co-educate, they were geographically isolated, and their enrollment numbers and yield rates were declining. None of these factors are a part of Galloway’s predictions.

However, when Sweet Briar made this announcement the alumni rose up in opposition and reversed the decision. The little women’s college still exists today, albeit still small and struggling financially. One of the lessons taught to me by a former mentor who just so happened to have served on the Board of Sweet Briar and had a hand in encouraging closure, is that it is almost impossible to kill a college. There are many examples of colleges that were expected to disappear (e.g. Antioch – see picture) that did not because there were alumni who would not let it happen.

I share this because one thing Scott Galloway may need to get credit for is that the shock he just gave several hundred universities may lead to a push for survival that would not have occurred without Galloway’s conjecture. In short, I predict the colleges on the “Perish” list are now going to take more urgent and informed steps to prevent their demise. They may be the lucky ones who just received a shot of the virus in the form of a vaccine that will ultimately strengthen them for the coming months. Let’s certainly hope so.


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Colleges Must Adapt or Be Left Behind

(this article was also published in a shortened format in University Business)

Integrating the use of online video to improve and expand education was the focus of “The Greatest Shift in Learning Ever?” (my last article you might want to read first but you don’t need to). This relatively recent transition is evidenced by the growth of online education providers (predicted $133B in 2023,) in addition to existing universities expanding their online education efforts. Adding a world-wide pandemic and the declining numbers of high school graduates to the growth of online learning, many traditional universities are at a breaking point.

Experts in higher education are predicting the collapse of hundreds of institutions in the coming years (mostly small private colleges). In April, Richard Vedder, a distinguished professor, wrote an article in Forbes titled “Why the Coronovirus will Kill 500-1,000 Universities.” “Dawn of the Dead” was another piece, from November 2019, based on data analyzing “balance sheet strength and operational soundness, plus other indicators of a college’s financial condition, including admission yield, percentage of freshmen receiving institutional grants and instruction expenses per student.” The result, pre COVID, was 61% of colleges grading out at a “D” (and 53% at a C).

The coronavirus-caused move to online learning has taught the college-going public much about what actually happens in the classroom. Once the aura of college was stripped down to the 15 credit hours students typically spend in class each week, the reality of some aspects of college teaching emerged. Many students realized that their faculty members were not synchronously interacting with them, but instead operating like correspondence courses of old – sending out readings, assignments, and tests. Although this asynchronous learning is a more equitable approach with regards to students in multiple time zones and without high speed internet, this equity comes at the cost of meaningful faculty-student interaction.

Why haven’t universities, especially during a world crisis, better solved the challenge of effectively using video-based online learning to educate? This article presents five main reasons higher education should be welcoming the increased adoption of video and online learning.

  • Learning from video has shown to be just as effective as reading. I am not stating that learning by video is better than reading; just that the existing research has not come to a clear conclusion on one format being better than another. It often depends on the quality of the instruction in the video and the writing of the author. What this means, therefore, is that watching a video on course content is often just as effective for learning as reading outside of class. The current generation of students has a clear preference for video over reading. If learning from video is equally effective as reading, and students prefer video, why not allow students to watch video of course content, in addition to reading, to prepare for class? Furthermore, thankfully, we no longer need to allocate time in class to show videos – we can quickly transition into questions, discussion, and reflection.
  • Student-faculty interaction, the factor students identify as one of the most essential to a quality college experience, is actually going to increase with the use of video in online learning. Faculty will still lead classes, but their focus will be on implementing more high impact practices for learning – discussion, practice by doing, teaching others, etc. The focus should shift from presenting lectures that try to keep everyone listening to engaging with the students and increasing their exploration of the content. In addition to emphasizing students’ learning (vs. teaching), this shift should also allow faculty to more meaningfully engage with course content and result in more scholarship (e.g. research, presentations, etc.)
  • Higher education has been and will continue to constantly adapt. The first 150 years of higher education in America was centered around learning Greek, Latin, the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Students used to start college in their early teens. Before the late 1800s few colleges taught the applied professions (e.g. nursing, business, agriculture, engineering, technology). In the 1900s, higher education integrated genders, races, ages, ability-levels, nationalities, and much more. Even in recent generations, asking parents or grandparents what college was like in their time will result in widely different descriptions. In short, higher education has been adapting to the needs of students and society for centuries.
  • Universities are already teaching using online video – they just need to acknowledge and welcome it. A 2019 report revealed that 99% of colleges had faculty who are regularly incorporating video into their courses. Eight out of ten classes were using video in the classroom and two-thirds were integrating video for student assignments and flipped classrooms. It leads one to wonder if there is a fear that universities that promote the use of video in learning lessens the quality of the learning experience when in fact it can improve it.
  • Using video of renowned teachers is more effective than using existing faculty to teach the material. The current assumption is that in-person teaching is just as good, if not better, than a video of one of the best teachers on the topic. The reality is that this is rarely true. Unfortunately, this is what many students and parents discovered March through May 2020. The fact is, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of professors elsewhere better at using video to teach.

If faculty are not going to create more active in-class learning experiences, why do students have to sit in classrooms and lecture halls to listen to talks they could just as easily watch on the treadmill or in bed? Let’s briefly study the topic of adoption of video in learning using an analogy. Assuming you like college football, answer this question – would you rather watch one of the best college football teams in the nation on television or attend a game of lower division football team trying to maintain a .500 record? With the former, you can eat, relax, and takes breaks when desired. With the latter, students often mentally check out and start to check in with friends and focus on their post-game plans.

The answer to this question for today’s college students is clear. In a March 2020 article in CBS Sports, data indicated that “in 2019, college football attendance hit a 24-year low according to the NCAA’s official numbers. The average was the lowest since 1996.” In describing a meeting of experts to discuss the issue, it was noted that “none of them have been able to figure out what has become a chronic problem in college football.”

The answer seems somewhat simple to me (and some others). This generation of students would prefer to watch the game in the comfort of their temperature regulated home, with a 70-inch television, high-speed wireless, a refrigerator nearby, and no lines at the bathroom. They don’t have to spend time dressing up, traveling, and finding parking either.

Students seek the same thing in the classroom. Why should they have to set an alarm, get cleaned up, travel to class, and sit in an uncomfortable chair to listen to someone talk at them for 50 minutes? It is time for professors to learn how to create more active learning experiences in the classroom and use video to deliver engaging content outside of class.

It is an anomaly that Baylor University has maintained one of the highest percentages of student attendance at college football games. The root of the solution began in 1970 – all new students are given a Baylor football jersey and on the back is their expected graduation year and their personally selected nickname above it. They wear this jersey to the game where, a few minutes before kick-off, they run across the field in front of the fans and to great fanfare. Next, they transition to their front row seats in the middle of the stadium where their own cheer leaders regularly engage them in a variety of yells and songs they learned during orientation. In short, students are incentived to attend, celebrated in front of thousands, and given an engaging environment to maintain their interest.

While it would be hard to replicate this experience when attending class, the use of quality online video and active learning experiences are becoming the future of successful college learning. Unfortunately, most universities will likely continue to study and copy the colleges several places above them in the college rankings. However, there comes a point where universities must step out of their comfort zones and make informed and independent decisions about their college’s approach to education.

A generation ago the use of video and online learning was considered universally substandard. Now it has been shown to be at least as equally effective as in-person lectures and clearly preferred by this generation of students. If colleges do not start making proactive decisions about the future of teaching and learning, students will use their college choices to make those decisions for them.

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The Greatest Shift in Learning Ever?

What do the following companies have in common: General Electric, Disney, Microsoft, Netflix, Airbnb? They share the same thing in common as Texas A&M, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, and Brigham Young University. All these companies and universities were founded in the middle of an extended recession. These are just a few of many examples. I wonder what great companies and colleges are getting their start during the COVID recession?

Many new organizations (and many adaptable current ones) will start doing some things different as this crisis continues. One of the most significant changes will be the use of video to broadcast great teaching and stimulate increased learning.

Great Teaching Pre-Internet

At the University of Virginia, where I attended college, I was able to see great lecturers.  Albeit, I was packed into lecture halls of 300-500 students, but the performances I observed were memorable.  I saw Francis Carey teaching organic chemistry from the book he wrote, which most colleges in the nation were then using. I listened to Ken Elzinga teach economics by telling parables and having us read engaging fiction novels he had a written to subtly teach economic concepts (see picture below).

I heard and watched James Childress teach Theology, Ethics and Medicine, based on the seminal book he had written. In class, he would describe real-life examples of when he had been called to consult on doctor’s and patients’ life or death decisions. Taking these professors classes in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was the equivalent of watching weekly TED talks.

There were also many other teachers who lectured and were not effective. These were often brilliant researchers who were focused on ground-breaking new knowledge which could alter the course of human history but had never been taught how to teach. In college, I learned don’t take classes with interesting titles, take classes with interesting teachers. Some of my most boring classes were titled and described in a fascinating manner, and some of my most powerful learning experiences came from a teacher for a class that sounded mundane in the catalog.

Learning to Teach

When it finally came time for me to teach my first class, in my mid-20’s, I was petrified. There was no way I could replicate the masterful lecturing I had been able to experience in college and there was no way I wanted to be like the professors we all complained about. I was going to be the guy no one wanted to take because he barely knew what he was doing – but we all have to start somewhere.

At first, I tried to write out my lectures but that tied me to my notes and was less engaging for the students. Then I tried to speak extemporaneously in an engaging way but I would eventually end up in silence when I had nothing else to say and was not sure what to do. I tried to include humor but I have never been good at remembering jokes so I would forget key parts. Even when I put my all into what became a great lecture, I had to spend hours writing it, memorizing it, and practicing the performance. In short, I quickly learned that I probably not become a great lecturer.

While I knew I would not be the person who could regularly rally a room around an important topic with my words I still wanted my students to be able to experience moving talks in the classroom. Fortunately, the 1990’s were an era where VCRs had emerged as a popular communication tool and I learned that movie clips of great scenes were an excellent alternative. My students could learn from Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption, Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans, or one of my favorite actors, Robin Williams, in Dead Poet’s Society or Good Will Hunting.

It was not an easy set up back then, I had to buy or rent the tapes, check out a VCR and TV, cue up the key moment, and hope the sound on the TV was loud enough. But it was worth it. Showing one good movie clip could lead to an excellent discussion for the remainder of class. Seeing a powerful performance energized the class and almost transferred the clip’s passion into the discussion. It is hard to play it cool when Coach Boone tells his players, on the Gettysburg battle site, that they must come together and play as a team to avoid a Civil War ever again.

In the 2000’s, advances in technology allowed me to try another approach to bringing great speakers into my class. I was teaching a course in a higher education master’s program. I reviewed the winners of the best presentations at professional conferences and identified great topics linked to top presenters. I reached out to them to see if they would be willing to share a shortened version of their recent conference talk with my class. In addition to shortening their often 45- to 60-minute presentations, they would need to download some software that would allow the class to see them (and them to see the class). The result was that we ended up with many of the best speakers on the topic in the nation, meeting with my students in Boone, North Carolina, where the closest airport was two hours away.

My friend, TED

In the 2010’s, even better technologies emerged that allowed me to bring influential and powerful presenters to my classes. The introduction of TED talks in 2006 was a game-changer for me. One of the first six TED talks ever, “Do Schools Kill Creativity” by Sir Kenneth Robinson, became a talk I have shown almost all my students on or before our first day of class. (I actually use the version of it from a few years later that has been animated by RSA and gets to the meat of the matter a bit quicker.)

In recent years, I have been teaching a course on organizational behavior and leadership that lends itself quite easily to the use of TED talks on many of the topics we cover in class. There are other talks, outside of TED, that I and others also use, but the benefit of TED talks is that they are all 20 minutes or less – which has demonstrated to be the amount of time most students (and church-goers in my opinion) are willing to track with an engaging talk.

This short-attention span is based on multiple studies, but Donald Bligh’s 1971 book, “What’s the Use of Lectures?” helped many educators start to realize that “students’ attention spans and memory stamina vary widely so breaking the lecture into smaller increments of no longer than 20-30 minutes was optimal…” However, Bligh did not give up on the power of great speaker to influence as he stated that there could be “inspirational teachers whose lectures were so compelling they could hold student attention for hours.”

In the past few years, a group of researchers from MIT and EdX completed the largest study of video learning engagement. They used data from 6.9 million video watching sessions and discovered that “shorter videos are much more engaging, that informal talking-head videos are more engaging, that Khan-style tablet drawings are more engaging, that even high-quality pre-recorded classroom lectures might not make for engaging online videos.” In short, it had better be short and amazing to maintain attention. They shared several graphs showing that after six minutes of watching any speaker behind a podium, the drop off in viewer engagement was a steep trajectory down. Fortunately, TED talks can be sorted by a number of variables, and analysis of the most popular TED talks reveals that they are 12-14 minutes, have many viewer comments, are translated into many languages and obviously, have a high view count.

Another benefit of publicly available talks like TED talks is that students (and instructors) don’t have to spend time in class watching the videos. For the past several years, my students’ homework assignments are to watch at least one assigned video of a talk per week and to either discuss it in an online platform or in class. If you are saying to yourself that this concept sounds familiar, it should. This is the idea of flipping the classroom while “hiring” the best speaker on the topic to offer the out of class talk.

Flipping the classroom is more than a fancy term that sounds like a fad. Think about this – for over 2,000 years one of the primary methods of learning has been to be in the presence of someone who can teach (e.g. Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi). Now, with the advent of film and video, for the first time ever we can record great teachers and show them over and over. While we can’t go back and watch a Moses or Muhammed TED talk, for centuries going forward, anyone can watch MLK, JFK, or FDR.

What Do Multisite Churches, the Khan Academy, and Universities Have in Common?

While there are thousands of organizations trying to spread a message that have capitalized on this trend, let’s take a brief look at the multisite church movement. While they began in the 1990s, there are now thousands of multisite churches. How do they make this happen? Many, if not most, of them provide multiple “video venues.” Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, speaks by video to over 24,000 people at 15 locations in California and four international locations each Sunday. How does one pastor like Andy Stanley minister to his over 40,000 weekly church attendees? In short, he doesn’t. He has hundreds of staff members who facilitate thousands of small groups, Bible studies, Sunday School lessons, and affinity groups each week.

There is a parallel movement to multisite churches in higher education. One of the best examples is Coursera, a platform for online courses anyone can take. Some are free, and these are typically called MOOCs – massive online open courses), and some cost money. Currently there have been over 2.6 million “students” in Coursera’s “The Science of Wellbeing” taught by Laurie Santos of Yale University. The class is ten weeks long and requires ~20 hours of work. Financial aid is available and course completers receive a Course Certificate. Coursera is one of many online learning opportunities. LinkedIn Learning, formerly Lynda, has become a major higher education partner and has many courses with hundreds of thousands students. Other top online course providers with thousands of students include: Udemy (50 million students and 57,000 instructors teaching courses in over 65 languages), Udacity (100,000 graduates), Khan Academy (5.7 million subscribers and 1.7 billion users,) and Codecademy (50 million users).

These online course providers identify one of the best professors/teachers in the world on a topic and pay them to provide talks that walk learners through the content. Students in these programs are paying a fraction of the cost to take courses from educators significantly better at teaching than most college campus professors. For example, a Coursera course costs between $30-$100. The Khan Academy courses are always free! On the flip side, the cost of an average course at a public university is $1,000 and a private university is $3,000.

Let’s Not Have Another Yale Report of 1828

In the early 1800s, empirical and practical education were starting to find a place within higher education. However, in 1828, Yale University published an infamous report defending the classical curriculum and the necessity that all students learn Latin and Greek. Although Princeton, Harvard and many other colleges followed Yale’s lead, most higher education historians agree that the report set college curriculums back decades. It was not until the Morrill Act of 1862, when the federal government made its first major entrée into higher education, that incentives were designed to assure more modern curriculums.

In 2020, we are living during one of the greatest shifts in learning ever. We do not need another Yale Report defending the requirement that educated people are only those who experience face-to-face learning. How can we get universities to wisely incorporate more online learning? Reasons for this will be explored in my next article called “Why Colleges Must Adapt or Be Left Behind.”

Until then, let’s celebrate that greatest teachers of this generation can now be living anywhere in the world (with decent internet). Many of them are already on the internet teaching millions of students. Let’s use this unfortunate crisis as a building block for one of the best opportunities higher education has ever had to improve and expand student learning.

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The Second Wave is Coming and the Amplifier Could be Our Colleges

Is It Really a New Normal?

Our nation has been dealing with COVID-19 for three months now and the nation-wide quarantine has been lifting one state at a time. As of the end of May, all fifty states have had some restrictions lifted and the states are reopening various establishments each week. It is nice to get out of the house and see friends again and visit places we have missed.

But this is supposed to be a new normal – a normal defined by social distancing, mask wearing, and lots of hand sanitizer. I don’t know about you, but this new normal only seems to be reaching certain people. As various sources have documented, many pools are packed, parks crowded, and protests filling streets (this last one for some good reasons).

I am sure the majority of people are still practicing recommended behaviors for safety, but this is a virus that only needs a small group of people to act as transmitters. Why are we not practicing the Centers for Disease Control recommendations universally?

Psychologists have demonstrated that many people are not good at estimating health risks. Witness the people who refuse get flu shots each year, don’t vaccinate their children, or smoke in spite of endless warnings. We think that we will be the George Burns who lives to 100 while smoking cigars for 86 of those years.

This article explores the way in which the human mind and culture, and in particular, college students and their campuses, are designed such they will most likely increase the spread of COVID-19 when the second wave of COVID-19, which will happen, arrives.

Learning to Alter Behavior

So if we can’t get people to take their health seriously, why can’t we appeal to their altruistic nature to protect the people around them? Sadly, it is just not that simple. Time and time again, disasters strike various parts of the world and efforts to fundraise for the people living there struggle to succeed. I remember a study a while back in which a U.S. oil spill was killing many sea animals. The study asked how much money someone would give if they knew 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 animals had died. The results were not significantly different – the amounts went up slightly but came nowhere near the proportionality of the deaths. This is often referred to as Psychic Numbing. Our minds can’t fathom the size because it is so removed from us.

There was one factor, however, that significantly increased giving. When the organization told the story of one duck became trapped in oil, and showed video of the duck slowly dying, donations increased exponentially. What happened? The organization made the issue personal to the giver. Fundraisers call this the Identifiable Victim Effect.

In a similar vein, have you ever noticed that the people fighting most for certain issues are often people who have personally been impacted by that issue? One of my counseling professors used to say that “we actively master what we passively suffer.” Parents who lose children to suicide, drunk driving, or all sorts of unique medical issues become champions for these causes, raising millions to help others. Have you ever attended an American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life? If so, you will be hard pressed to find anyone there not touched by cancer in some form or fashion. This ability to impact donors based on a personal story is often referred to as Sympathy Bias.

Bringing this back to COVID-19, why are so many people ignoring social distancing and the need for facemasks? When they hear that 100,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 their minds are Psychically Numb to this. But if they know of one friend or family member who suffered severely or died due to COVID-19, they take it much more seriously. This is the Identifiable Victim Effect. If they hear a story about someone who has lost a close friend or family member they are touched by the Sympathy Bias.

Thankfully, because so much of the nation responded quickly by staying at home, the deadly impact of COVID-19 was lessened, and therefore has touched less people. We know Tom Hanks, Madonna, and Boris Johnson had it, but most people have not been personally touched by the coronavirus.

And therefore, people have started think they won’t be impacted by COVID-19. In the last week, I have talked to friends who went to the dentist and the optometrist and at both places, only one person wore a mask. I have heard descriptions who walked on Baylor’s campus and saw no one wearing a mask. I went to Lowes Hardware and besides the employees, only a few people were wearing masks. When it was time to check out, I stood on a designated square 6 feet from the next person while others walked right in front of me to get in line. I finally figured out everyone was ignoring the floor marks.

“Those Who Cannot Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat It”

This quote from George Santayana in 1905, best summarizes what most of the United States is going to experience in the coming months. One hundred and two years ago, the Spanish flu emerged in March 1918. It was similar to the seasonal flu in terms of symptoms and death rates. That summer the number of cases dropped significantly and much of the nation, if not world, held hope for the fall of 1918. Sadly, that summer was the calm before the storm.

James Harris, Ohio State University historian who studies both infectious disease and World War I, indicated that the fast spread of the Spanish flu in the fall “was at least partially to blame on public health officials unwilling to impose quarantines during wartime.” For example, it was known in Britain that a lockdown was needed to stop the spread of the virus but the need for military supplies outweighed the lockdown. One government leader was quoted as saying that “the relentless needs of warfare justified incurring [the] risk of spreading infection.”

Unfortunately, in 1918, the flu virus mutated and became much more deadly that fall resulting in almost 200,000 U.S. deaths in October alone (including my grandfather’s big brother who was 18 when he died). In fact, more people died due to the Spanish flu than both the Civil War and World War I.

Thankfully, there is no World War occurring right now but there is another problem that can be just as dangerous for the spread of the virus. In 1918 the economic engines of the United States were industrial – machinery, iron & steel, automobiles, and electrification of the nation. However, in 2020, the economy is significantly more service-based with retail, restaurants, theatres and other small businesses making up over 75% of employment (with industry at only 18%.)

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, according J. Alexander Navarro of the University of Michigan’s Center for History of Medicine, “(the government) could shut down places of public amusement and not have the same type of impact on the local economy in 1918 because the manufacturing sector was so dominant. This is an economy that’s built on the service sector. So I think we’re in for a much greater and more severe economic impact today than we were in 1918.”

If Navarro is correct, the pressure that led many nations to err on the side of the wartime production needs over population protection from the Spanish flu, could be quite similar to the pressure in many nations today to maintain the massive service-based economy. In short, the economic survival of 2020 could be just as dangerous for the spread of COVID-19 as World War I was for the Spanish flu.

So what happens this fall? According to historians of pandemics, there are typically two options for the end of a pandemic. The first, medical, occurs when a vaccine or other medical intervention emerges that causes incident and death rates to drop significantly. The second ending, social, occurs when the fear of the disease fades and other priorities take precedence. Gina Colata, in the New York Times, explains the social ending as “an end can occur not because a disease has been vanquished but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease.

Where Does This Leave College Students?

If you had to identify one group of people in the U.S. who think they invincible, want freedom from rules, and are generally left to their own to make decisions about their future, who would it be? The first group that comes to my mind are college students.

Psychologists like Dr. Gary Wenck tell us the reason college students feel invincible is that their frontal lobes are not fully developed yet (i.e. neuronal myelination is still occurring) and won’t end for women until they reach 25 and men until they reach 30 years old. Its our frontal lobes which help us best identify risky behaviors.

So we take these developing brains and pack them in to large residence halls, with typically 200 to 400 students, who often share bathrooms and roommates (a concept only a small minority of teenagers have experienced before coming to college).

We then tell these young adults that they are in charge of making decisions about their lives and provide them very few actual adults for them to see and interact with outside of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday (although very few have Friday classes in today’s college). The large majority of college students don’t even live on campus and are therefore free to operate however they want outside the ~15 hours per week they are in classes.

The result, for the almost 60% of students who graduate, can be transformative and lead to a lifetime of job satisfaction, social connections, higher earnings, and improved health. But this newfound freedom, absent many adult role models, and with still developing brains also leads to significant alcohol abuse, sexual assaults, and drug experimentation.

Most of the mistakes college students make impact primarily themselves. Skipping class, not sleeping enough, and abusing substances all often lead to poor grades. This may concern their families but not many others. This fall, however, a handful of students who make poor decisions could put the health and lives of thousands at the college, and millions in the nation, at risk. Secret parties in crammed rooms and apartments, ignoring self-quarantines after road trips, and refusing to wear masks are behaviors that could turn colleges into the new national hot spots.

Putting the Facts Together

The fact is, the new normal in the United States has not taken effect as many public health experts had hoped. There are thousands of people ready to return to the old normal and who refuse to wear a mask and keep their social distance. And the psyche of people is such that they are going to need more than encouraging to begin to implement the public safety standards needed to prevent a second wave of COVID-19. Descriptions of the millions infected and the thousands dead means little to humans designed to act when something personally impacts them. Last, but not least, this fall colleges will be home to over 20 million young people, most of them under the age of 25, who will enter environments where they are free to make decisions on their own and which may ultimately result in colleges becoming the new national hotspots for the second wave of COVID-19.

What should we do? I don’t want to be one of those people, often in higher education, who is insightful enough to poke holes in any theory but unable to offer palatable alternatives. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. The safest thing to do would be to shift to fully online teaching this fall. Why aren’t more colleges doing this? Study the colleges who are making this decision – you will find that the colleges who can afford to do this 1) have an almost unlimited supply of eager students (California State system), 2) teach students who are already only on campus a few hours a week (community colleges), or 3) have an unlimited supply of savings to use on the losses that will occur (Cambridge and Manchester in the UK). In short, the business model of most colleges cannot sustain any significant drop in students that an online fall semester might bring. So similar to WWI production outweighing Spanish flu protection, the economic survival of going online will put the over 4,000 colleges and universities in the nation at stake.

One option would be to do what many Americans have done and tap into savings that were protected for such a time as this. Living off our savings, or in colleges’ case, endowment, is a survival mechanism until we are able to return to the new normal. However, in families, the option to layoff or furlough family members is not a realistic option. It is, however, the option most colleges seem to be taking as layoffs and furloughs dominate the news significantly more than any additional draws from endowments. Endowment managers will be quick to explain that there many valid reasons they cannot or should not be skimmed from in order to retain university faculty and staff.

  • Top 10 University Endowments (e.g. Harvard = $38 billion in 2018)

Top 10 Endowments (Billions)

So the option I am left is to mirror nations like Korea, Germany, and Austria, who acted quickly, aggressively, and comprehensively to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Universities will need to decide if they are willing to challenge the perceived invincibility of many college students and create multi-pronged systems of safeguards and protection that curtail the college experience, but ultimately, keep people alive. Many students will not like this, but their alternatives are limited. Staying home potentially poses even more restrictions and options like travel or work are either even more dangerous, or difficult to get, respectively. The same way many 18 year olds who join the military learn the reality of subjugating self to the larger good, colleges will need to teach similar messages using a multi-faceted series of safeguards that protect our students and allow them to learn on campus.

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Why Social Distancing for College Students is Not Going to be Easy

College students are known for making decisions without fully understanding the impact of the long-term consequences. The first table below provides evidence to back up this claim.

The second table demonstrates why the lack of good decisions for many students in the first table, if replicated for behaviors in the second table, will have a significantly larger impact than the students or others may realize.

No longer is growing up in college a time when it is just the students learning from their mistakes. This fall, a handful of students who make poor decisions could put the health and lives of thousands at risk. How do we help students understand this?

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Top Resources for Reopening Colleges in Fall 2020 (as of May 22)

Organization Title Date Length Webpage
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Considerations for Institutes of Higher Education 21-May 5 pgs
National Association of Independent Schools Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Schools 21-May Long
National Association of College and University Food Services Collegiate Dining’s Response to COVID-19 21-May Several pgs
Johns Hopkins University 2020 Planning 19-May Long
Duke University Guide for Returning to the Workplace 19-May 12 pgs
University Risk Management & Insurance Assoc. and NACUBO Returning to Campus 18-May 6 pgs
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes 7-May 6 pgs
American College Health Association Considerations for Reopening Institutions of Higher Education in the COVID-19 Era 7-May 20 pgs
AIHA: Protecting Worker Health Reopening: Guidance for General Office Settings 6-May 12 pgs
Connecticut Governor’s Office Report of the Higher Education Subcommittee to Reopen Connecticut 6-May 18 pgs
U.S. Department of Commerce State-by-State Business Reopening Guidance 4-May N/A
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Minimum Standard Health Protocols for Career and Technological Education Programs at Texas Higher Education Institutions 1-May 3 pgs
AFT: A Union of Professionals A Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools & Communities 29-Apr 22 pgs
Governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas Texans Helping Texans 27-Apr 66 pgs
Cushman & Wakefield Recovery Readiness: A How-To Guide for Reopening Your Workplace 22-Apr 34 pgs
White House and CDC Guidelines for Opening Up America Again 16-Apr 20 pgs
Akin Gump Privacy Versus Pandemic: Health Privacy Considerations in Response to COVID-19 25-Mar 6 pgs pdf
Huron From Pandemic to Transformation: Higher Education During COVID-19 17-Mar 7 pgs
U.S. DOL and OSHA Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 9-Mar 35 pgs
Kuali Ready Higher Ed Return to Campus Guide: COVID-19 Phase II 5 pgs
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Our Universities are Ships and We’re in a Raging Storm: COVID-19’s Impact on Colleges Told through an Analogy

On May 14, Steven Dubner shared the newest episode of his podcast, Freakonomics, titled, “418. What Will College Look Like in the Fall (and Beyond)?” In it, Dubner interviewed three university presidents, including Michael Crow, considered one of the top college presidents (Time), if not one of the greatest leaders in the world (#44 in Forbes).

In the episode, Crow describes the imagery he share with his board chair, Bob Zollars, to help him understand the current state of higher education. As Crow states, “I sent a picture of a battleship in heavy seas, 40-foot waves. The entire front end of this battleship is under the wave. And I said, ‘This is us today, 40-foot waves and we’re doing okay. We’re fully functional, delivering our services.’ And I said, ‘But there’s two worries I need to let you know about. One is there are now rogue 100-foot waves out there: A loss of international students, a loss of out-of-state student revenue, a decrease in the investment from the state legislature. There’s also a possible tsunami out there that none of us can understand or predict.’ If any other significant disruption was to occur in the middle of this disruption, then the outcomes are very, very unknown at that point.”

As I listened to this quote, the power of the imagery impressed me and led me to run with his analogy to organize the following pictures that might best describe the state of higher education in the past five months (and the next five months). We know that a picture is worth a thousand words. My hope is that the following pictures (and the brief description below each of them) express our feelings looking back and forward.

January – What’s Going On In China? 

(all fine in the US but virus hitting China hard)

February – Smooth Sailing on the College Cruise Ships

(The Chronicle’s top 5 trends in higher education on 2/20/20 – no mention of COVID-19)

March – Shift to Online Education

(taking a week off to shift classes online so the curve flattened)

 April – What Can Be Cut?  

(what can be removed from budget to allow for refunds and to go forward?)

May – Thanks for the Memories!

(celebrating graduates who made it through the semester)

June – Time for Furloughs or Layoffs?

(admission deposit deadlines reveal smaller incoming class and needed personnel cuts)

July – How To Open Semester Safely?

(wisely spend on safety improvements to protect students)

August Scenario 1 – The New Normal  

(challenging environment with everyone back but bumpy seas!) 

August Scenario 2 – Some Back, Some Online

(more challenging environment – different options, prices, etc.)

August Scenario 3 – Fully Remote

(most challenging environment – virus prevents return to campus)

Every College’s Dream Scenario

(all colleges fully enrolled and sailing safely to success)

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There is One Secret Not Being Explored In Order to Secure the Fall 2020 Class

Incoming Students Crave Connection to Each Other

Graduating from the college in the early 1990s, I remember thinking (more like mourning) that almost all of my college friends were married within a few years out of college. Working within universities since that time, my perception of this rate of marriage after college has only slightly lessened. This hypothesis was confirmed when I found that in a 2013 study, almost 30% of couples were finding their spouse in college and another 15% in high school.  So even in the age of the iPhone and internet, almost half of the married nation is finding their spouse in high school or college.

This fact illuminates the power of propinquity in finding friends. In other words, the people who we will know the best will be those with whom we share the greatest physical vicinity. Recent research suggests that the reason for this is the amount of time we spend with people is a strong predictor of friendship.  In a 2018 study, researchers discovered that:

Casual friendships emerge around 30 hr, followed by friendships around 50 hr. Good friendships begin to emerge after 140 hr. Best friendships do not emerge until after 300 hr of time spent.

This extensive time together building a memorable experience is one of the reasons universities have been so successful over centuries. Colleges are literally, friendship, marriage, and mentorship machines. By taking hundreds, if not thousands, of primarily late-teens and cramming them into residence halls, we have the first ingredients of relationship formation ready. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the powerful impact of residence halls in forming a sense of belonging that is strongly linked to increased retention and graduation.

Second, we require students to interact with their faculty members in class for only ~15 hours per week.  If they want, they can get to know their faculty members more during office hours, but anecdotal knowledge and research have shown that office hour use by students is rare and the majority of visits are less than ten minutes (Nadler & Nadler, 2000). A 2017 article in the Journal of Scholarly Teaching was titled even titled, “Office Hours are Kind of Weird,” confirming most students’ perceptions.

Third, outside of class, students are only studying ~15 hours per week. Even though the federal definition of a credit hour explicitly states that students will spend two hours per week reading and studying for every one hour in class, twenty years of the National Survey of Student Engagement data from thousands of colleges surveying over a million students has demonstrated that the college students on average spend a little over one hour per week studying for each hour in class.

The result of these three factors, as briefly described in “How to foster student success outside of online classes,” is that students have ~80 hours week to hang out and build relationships that last, in many cases, a lifetime.

The Problem

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the hallmarks of the college experience. One of the main challenges facing the ~2,500 four-year colleges in the U.S. right now is how to create the transformational experience of a physical campus in an online setting. If these colleges are not able to articulate how they will do this in the fall of 2020, students are not going to pay the premium asked of them for this experience. There are several avenues for developing a student sense of connection to your institution using an online setting. In the rest of this article, I would like to tell you about one practice that could significantly impact your students’ yield and retention.

Create a friend-making setting for students

I recently watched The Social Network, a movie that loosely chronicled the development of Facebook. What the movie reminded me was that pre-Facebook, there were many university facebooks. In fact, I have a copy of my college’s 1988 “The Faces Book” which included me and fellow first year student Tina Fey. So when Zuckerberg got the idea for an online faces book for all of Harvard in December 2003, it did not surprise many people that it was going to be successful. Literally, within the first 24 hours of creating the site for Harvard, approximately 1,500 students had signed up and started using it.

If you watch the movie, one of the most important factors of Facebook’s popularity, early on, was its exclusivity. People without a “” email address could not join the website. Before Facebook, the only times when most students at a college might come together was at a sporting event (for sports enthusiasts) or at orientation or graduation (really just one quarter of students). But in the new Facebook, all the students of the university could connect with each other.

When I arrived in 2010 as the Dean for Student Learning & Engagement at Baylor, I became involved in strengthening the deposit and yield rate of incoming students. I soon noticed that each year one or two initiative-taking incoming students would create an incoming student Facebook group. As a “student” of students and their engagement, I studied this group. Each year I was given access to the group to read what high school seniors who were coming to Baylor were talking about nine months before they even arrived!

In most years, the first wave of admitted students created and/or discovered the group in November or December. A routine of topics emerged each year, in which students would begin by making an introduction to their fellow admittees. They would then use their introductions to recognize geographic connections. By identifying who was coming to Baylor from their home state or city, they were able to share mobile numbers and create a group text that allowed for smaller scale connection and friendship development. Eventually I discovered that many of these groups were organizing social hangouts in their respective locations and starting to form friendships with their soon-to-be classmates.

In January, most of the students in the group would start to talk about which dorms to live in and in February the conversations would center around specific living-learning centers (LLCs) (over half of Baylor’s freshman live in an LLC or residential college). In March, the topic of conversation became which of Baylor’s ten Orientation sessions or eight Line Camps (extended orientation experiences) students were attending. A group text for each session would result and further conversations would ensue. In April, many students said goodbye to their virtual friends as they came to realize that they could not afford Baylor with the financial aid package they received. Interestingly, most of the high school seniors who decided to go elsewhere stayed in the group – I am guessing this was because of the friendships they had made. Their peers in the group would often beg and plead with them to come to Baylor, often suggesting significant debt so that they could be together. As today’s youth are apt to do, they would periodically swear lifelong allegiance to each other, even though they had never met face-to-face. This online connection is mirrored in the research indicating at least one-third of marriages today are the result of online relationships (and the locations where these partners are found are most often are online dating (45%), social networking (21%), and chat rooms (10%).)

Once orientation started in June, I remember seeing groups of students gathering together on the morning of the first day. I assumed this was because they had attended the same high school. What I learned was that this was sometimes the case – but often it was a group of new students who had met in the incoming student Facebook group and were meeting each other in person for the first time.  In fact, in one memorable instance, at the start of the opening session of one of the orientation sessions, there were a group of fathers in the front row high fiving and hugging each other. From the stage, the university chaplain asked them if they had gone to Baylor together and they responded by telling him they were all meeting for the first time in person – they had become friends through the Incoming Parent Facebook Group and had arranged to meet in the front row at the first session!

After several years of watching these groups of incoming students form online, I noticed two things:

  • First, I was not the only person who realized that these groups were incredible opportunities for influence. The race to establish the first and best incoming student Facebook group became important and students were not the only ones starting the groups. A number of college-student focused companies started hiring young staff and training them on how to initiate incoming student Facebook groups at colleges across the country. It took me a while to realize this was happening. I kept getting confused as to why various “new Baylor” students were trying to sell so many things to their peers. It took a savvy social media colleague to help me understand that since there was not university oversight for these groups that they had become the “Wild West” of marketing and there were businesses taking advantage of the new students’ trust in what they thought was their fellow student to tell them what they needed to buy in order to “successful” in college.
  • Second, after learning about this trend, I asked the admissions team about formally taking the lead in overseeing these groups. While admissions was supportive of the idea, they indicated that they already had social media accounts (including Facebook). They also shared that they had learned what most university social media sites eventually discover – that university-sponsored social media is really a platform for pushing out great content that does not result in quality member-to-member interaction.

It was around this time, in 2015, when my staff and I realized that we needed help and expertise in communicating effectively to this generation of students. Landlines were disconnected, mobile numbers were not easily accessible, emails had become junk mail, flyers were useless fire hazards, campus radio stations were relics, and a small percentage of students indicated they read the student newspaper.  Local apartment complexes, in an effort to maintain occupancy, were even hiring planes to fly back and forth over campus with advertising and/or hiring large trucks emblazoned with their apartment deals to drive around campus for hours each day.

We created a student outreach and engagement coordinator role in 2016. In November of 2016, he created the first Baylor University Class of 2021 (Official University Sponsored) Facebook group.  Thanks to his work with Admissions, every admitted student’s offer letter included a link to this Facebook Group. Soon, thousands of students were using the group for the same reason as described earlier in this article.  To maintain distance between the high school seniors and university staff, we hired an upperclass student to monitor the page and periodically and subtly message current Baylor happenings and correct any miscommunication fellow students were giving their peers.

We learned that these groups have a lifespan that winds down once students arrive on campus. The physical setting and in-person relationships begin to outweigh online communication. However, I am a believer that the online groups we created, which often led to even smaller group connections, were a powerful form of student-to-student connection which could easily be replicated for not only the fall 2020 new students, but the entire student body.

I encourage other universities to take the lessons we have learned to explore the creation of virtual communities for students to connect, bond, and build memories. If you chose to give this a go, the following questions might help you get started:

  • As with all projects, what are your primary goals and what will be your measure(s) of success?
  • Who will oversee, and I mean that loosely, the group (do not post much at all)?
  • Will Admissions help the group form by messaging new admits? Will Student Life help by messaging all students?
  • Will students be admitted to the group based on some university identifier (e.g. ID#) or removed once they say something inappropriate and you discover they are not an incoming student?
  • Where will the group be housed? Facebook?  Instagram?  Twitter or one of the emerging friend-making platforms/apps? (which I really don’t know anything about)
  • Do you have current undergraduate students who might like to help with this project (ideally they are paid)?
  • What are a few open-ended prompt questions that result in stronger interpersonal connection that could be posed to students in this group?
  • How often will the site be checked and who will remove any inappropriate posts (rare but possible)?
  • Could your marketing team come up with an attractive logo/profile image to use at the site?
  • How might you incorporate video sharing by students to strengthen the connection?

Remember, almost all universities are trying to learn how to get students to come in the fall – it is time to step out of the box and try some new things. This might be one.

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The students and faculty are online, but what about the staff? How student affairs and academic support staff adapt to COVID-19

Originally published on April 7 in Inside Higher Ed.


This article steps back from existing structures and staff within student affairs and academic support services and reimagine what might be best for students in a solely online learning world the next few months.  Recommendations that will be proposed include:

  1. Use the Learning Management System’s data on students as an early alert
  2. Collect student feedback on their success as online students
  3. Implement a coaching program
  4. Create staff-initiated student conversations among the students
  5. Interact with students outside 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  6. Focus on students most at risk for dropping out
  7. Hold staff office hours

Setting the stage

Higher education is having an early wake-up call. Although many universities have successfully shifted more of their education online in recent decades, many universities are still novices at this. The higher education news of the past few years has been littered with examples of, and warnings about, universities hiring Online Program Management firms to market and oversee their online offerings.

The United States has traditionally been one of the best examples of physical campus-based learning in the world.  Unfortunately, this is an expensive educational model and when stripped of much of its value (i.e. during COVID-19), it forces traditional campus-based education to compete with much more nimble and reasonably-priced alternatives.

As Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens put it in the New York Times,

“…the hard fact is that this delivery format is an extraordinarily expensive way of purveying college degrees. Americans’ obsession with residential education as the sine qua non of academic excellence is a big part of what makes higher education roughly twice as costly per student here than it is in European countries.

We recognize that residential programs provide a great deal more to students than mere coursework. They are relationship machines, generating countless friendships, intimate partnerships and professional network ties. That machinery doesn’t translate easily to digital life, which is why residential-campus students, when told to complete their coursework on computers, feel cheated out of much of the value associated with residential college attendance.”

This is the setting higher education is facing in the spring of 2020, when almost all universities have been forced to move education online.  This article focuses on the specific roles of staff who facilitate and oversee the residential campus, typically referred to as student affairs and academic support staff.

The arena of student affairs and academic support staff

I’ve worked in student affairs for almost 30 years and have earned to clearly articulate the benefits of student life to many students, faculty members, and parents. The argument is really quite simple: a student only spends about 15 hours a week in class and another 15 hours a week studying. Allowing time for sleeping and getting ready in the morning, that leaves about 80 waking hours a week when a student is neither in class nor studying for one.

That’s the equivalent of two 40-hour work weeks within one week. And that time is when most student affairs and academic support staff attempt to make a meaningful impact through living-learning experiences, student organization involvement, intramurals and fitness classes, tutoring, career advising, mentoring, volunteering and the like.  For decades, student affairs staff like me have argued that we can have just as much, if not more, of an impact on students.

But the COVID-19 outbreak, the closing of many campuses and the move to online classes potentially nullify the impact thousands of student affairs and academic support staff across the nation can have. And the question worth asking is, “What does student affairs and academic support look like when most students are no longer on campuses?”  Academic support staff members, such as those in counseling, academic advising, tutoring and career placement, are in a similar situation.

Thankfully, many student affairs and academic support staff are quickly learning how to deliver and scale their services in a virtual manner. And now is an excellent time to rethink how students are educated outside the classroom in an online environment. How can we best reallocate our student affairs staff to roles that foster student success in online learning environments?

Here are seven actions we might consider in the coming weeks:

What is happening in student affairs and academic support units?

When it comes to solutions, it is important that we step out of the box because what we are dealing with is a situation where we have a staff potentially have a large amount of time and very few on-campus students to assist.  For example, let’s say that a campus has ten residence halls and therefore ten residence hall directors (RHDs).  Each of these RHDs likely has about 0-10% of their residence hall occupied.  One staff member at the Education Advisory Board even likened germ-laden residence halls to cruise ships this week and the person they were interviewing confirmed that this would be the case unless the local health department took over running the residence hall.  With occupancy rates this low, these residence hall directors are eventually going to have a significant amount of time on their hands.

I interacted with a hall director on March 23 who affirmed this. Their comment to me was that about 8% of their halls were occupied and “this last week was a lot of responding to student and parent emails, (communicating) with student staff, and packing up students’ items and shipping them to them. This next week will be continued planning/trouble shooting within the halls. In a couple weeks I expect things to really slow down.”

The same might apply to the student activities staff who work with student organizations, the student union, Greek Life, and student social programs.  These staff members now have no students to gather together to develop and offer leadership growth opportunities. Student groups can’t meet in person and in-person social events are eliminated (at least university-sponsored ones).  With university recreational centers closed, campus recreation staff have more open schedules without a facility to oversee nor students to play intramurals or participate in fitness activities.

Academic support staff members are in similar situations. Most are not set-up to run on-line tutoring, career guidance, supplemental instruction, mentoring and other common practices that typically occur in person and are most often led by other students. Thankfully, many student affairs and academic support staff are quickly learning how to deliver and scale their services in a virtual manner. Most of these staff members are trying to figure out how to best replicate their in-person work with students in an online manner.  This can take a lot of time and can include counseling and health appointments, tutoring, academic advising, career placement, and others

I am suggesting, however, that now is an excellent time to rethink how students are educated outside the classroom in an online environment.  Any review of some of the best online programs’ student engagement and academic support reveal that their approach is fundamentally different than campus-based student support.  If we don’t take the time to learn a new way of doing business, this first “solution” becomes more of a likelihood, especially at small private universities with less than $100 million in endowment.

Potential solutions

#0. Layoffs – Let’s get the ugly out of the way first (then we can focus on more helpful alternatives)

I am calling this option zero because no one wants to consider it as a realistic option.  However, one solution in a protracted campus shutdown would be to lay off staff, which might include student affairs and academic support staff.  So much of the work in student affairs and academic support is done face-to-face that shifting online may prove untenable.  In addition, many universities are moving to refund spring semester students on their housing, food, etc. As of March 18, a number of colleges, including Amherst, Brown, Clark, Emerson, Harvard, Northeastern, and Tufts have already announced that students will get a refund for room and board if they return home.  While most, if not all, of these universities can easily handle this additional cost due to their massive endowment/student, many other colleges will not be in this situation.

For example, the Hotel at the University of Maryland closed on March 20 and laid off 150 staff.  I would expect layoffs to grow exponentially throughout April as universities plan for their fall budgets and realize cuts are necessary.

Layoffs are further damaging to universities because of the loss of university morale, the destruction of employees’ lives, and further contribution to the national recession.  However, when it comes down to the survival of the institution vs. the survival of individual faculty or staff members, the university almost always wins.  There are countless examples of universities painfully choosing to lay off faculty and staff when the survival of the university is at stake.  Just ask the staff at DePauw, Hardin-Simmons, Miami of Ohio, Northern Colorado, and Oberlin who were let go in the last year.

What if, instead of layoffs, we could find another way to creatively allocate student affairs staff during what is hopefully a somewhat shorter, rather than longer, COVID-19 crisis period?

What if we consider best practices in engaging and supporting online learners and reallocated our

student affairs staff to roles that fostered student success in online learning environments?

#1. Use our learning management system’s data on students as an early alert. If you are in student affairs or other types of student services, find someone at your university who has reporting access to the learning management system (LMS). Work with them to run a report to see which students have not engaged on the system for over a week.  Come up with a plan for reaching out to those students or their faculty members so as to understand their situation and nudge their online engagement. Baylor started doing this last week, and we are finding ways of helping our students navigate the technological, mental and emotional hurdles keeping them from engaging in their online classes.

Champlain College has gone a step further, according to EAB and identified “students most in need of academic intervention by highlighting “risk phrases” in students’ online discussion board posts.  The institution developed a list of frequently used key words and phrases that signal academic risk, (e.g., help!, tried over and over, frustrated, don’t understand).  An automatic script identifies all instances of the words in posts, and instructors are provided a prioritized list of students to proactively contact.”

You can also use your institution’s LMS is to build a predictive model using the data commonly associated with lack of retention.  Many institutions already use predictive models for retention but few that I am aware of integrate data from the LMS.  According to EAB, “Progressive institutions are developing algorithms to predict the risk of attrition using historical records, demographic data, and LMS usage metrics. …Data gleaned from enrollment and admissions information can be paired with in-course activity data, including the number of log-ins and page views, number and length of online postings, minutes spent on the course website, and attempts at practice quizzes or other formative assessments embedded in the online course environment.”

#2. Collect student feedback on their success as online students. One of the challenges most student affairs and academic support staff have is that we can only provide help to the students who seek it.  Many more students don’t know how to ask for help or don’t feel comfortable asking for it. What if the university was able to reach these students in order to learn about their challenges and support them?

A number of institutions employ brief surveys at the start of the semester that give student affairs and academic support staff a pulse on the students.  For example, at Baylor University, we learned through such a process that students were about five times more likely to leave the institution if they responded by “disagreeing” (vs. agreeing) with this question, “Do you feel like you belong at Baylor?”  We also learned that attendance at orientation and welcome events were key factors in student retention, along with their not skipping classes and arriving to class on time.

At the end of March, Baylor sent out a short survey for students that is being used to guide our outreach to them.  The questions were a mix of multiple choice and a few open-ended options. Several of these questions included, among others:

  • How would you describe your overall well-being since Baylor moved to online classes?
  • If you are not doing as well or struggling, what are the main reason(s) you are not doing as well or struggling?
  • Is there anything limiting your ability to participate in your Baylor online learning? Which sources of information from the university have been most helpful in keeping you up-to-date on changes as a result of COVID-19?
  • How would you evaluate your professors’ efforts on what may have been their first week teaching online?
  • What do you think Baylor needs to know about Baylor students like you at this time?

In the first 12 hours, we received over 3,000 responses, and with reminders, we heard from more than 6,500 — or almost half of all of our undergraduates.

And we’ve learned a lot from their answers. Administrators in various departments have reached out to students experiencing technological challenges, those concerned with issues in their specific classes, those needing financial assistance, and those who have self-reported mental health difficulties.  We’ve also created a dashboard and circulated it among university leaders to offer a quick glance at the state of Baylor students.  For example, we know that 20 percent of students are struggling with online learning, although more than half of those who replied to the survey are either surprisingly or extremely impressed with Baylor faculty’s adjustment to teaching online. We also have learned that student respondents also prefer communication in the form of a weekly email from the president.

#3. Implement a coaching program. Coaching programs are one of the fastest-growing student support initiatives of the past decade, and multiple research studies show the effectiveness of such programs. One reason they are thriving is that they are student-centered versus university centered:  you can direct each student to various specialized departments to help them with their distinct needs and guide them to the best resources.  Virtual meetings with students might include conversations about academic behaviors, financial matters, social integration, personal struggles, career guidance, self-care, or setting priorities.

One of the coach trainers at the University of Central Florida’s coaching program for online students, Natasha Williams, describes the role:  “A success coach is an additional layer of support to help students feel like they’re more than just a number. A coach empowers students to do things for themselves by walking them through difficult processes while addressing everything else that they have going on in their lives outside of school.”

Think of a coach as a doctor who is a general practitioner.  Patients start out with a general practitioner often receive all the help they need from them.  However, sometimes, the general practitioner might refer the patient to a specific doctor for specialized care.  Think what might happen if we simply told patients to choose the type of specialist they think they need or want.  They might not make the best decision and have to be directed to several other specialists before finding the right one.

A coach saves the student time by providing a concierge like service to what that student will most benefit from doing.  One of the fastest growing student coaching companies is Inside Track.  Coaches at Inside Track are trained to ask questions of students to learn about what aspects of student success are most relevant at that moment in the student’s life.  Virtual meetings with students might include conversations about academic behaviors, financial matters, social integration, personal struggles, career guidance, self-care, or setting priorities.

In a December 2018 article titled, “Student Affairs Goes Digital: Translating Student Support to the World of Online Learning,” Kevin Kruger and Dave Jarrat share about the University of Central Florida’s coaching program for online students. One of the UCF coach trainers, Natasha Williams, describes the role of a UCF coach as,

“A success coach is an additional layer of support to help students feel like they’re more than just a number. A coach empowers students to do things for themselves by walking them through difficult processes while addressing everything else that they have going on in their lives outside of school… Coaches help students develop personalized plans to graduate by empowering them to understand their degree requirements and take accountability for their own success.”

The coaching idea does not come without challenges.  For starters, it typically requires being willing to re-envision many student affairs and academic support staff roles instead of just hiring a group of entirely new coaches on top of existing roles.  However, the COVID-19 online learning environment is a perfect time to do this.  If a university is ready to give this idea a try, they must be ready to identify coach’s job roles/descriptions, selection processes, required training, and a process of evaluation.

The next big challenge comes in successfully contacting and connecting with students.  Our current communications arena is multi-faceted but with no dominant format.  Although most staff might default to email or phone calls, often texts or video chats work even better. Which option works best will often depend on the student. Once the connection is made, coaches will need to remember that their students may not understand the role of a coach and how to best use this resource.  Coaches will need to help students understand the value they offer.

Baylor rolled out a Bear Care Coaching program the last week in March.  Several hundred university staff volunteered to serve as coaches and watched several short videos made by existing staff about how to coach, how to log comments in a database, and how to connect students to other campus resources.  The coaches contacted students in the survey who evaluated themselves as struggling or who expressed a desire for someone to reach out to them.

#4. Create staff-initiated student conversations among themselves. The current online educational delivery model at most colleges and universities is centered on course delivery.  But students will still want to communicate with each other outside of class time. As former Tulane President Scott Cowen stated in a recent article about how his university responded to Hurricane Katrina, “Institutions should also ensure that groups within the larger campus community — such as individual programs, clubs, and student organizations– remain in close dialogue and find ways to still pursue their interests and plans.”

Ask yourself, “What mechanisms exist that help student affairs and academic support staff to gather students together to talk about how they are doing?”

Most learning management systems allow for non-credit groups to use the course platform, and many colleges and universities have purchased web conferencing software like WebEx or Zoom that can work within their LMS to allow students to communicate with each other. You could also work with your institution’s IT staff to use existing labels in the enterprise resource planning system to put the members of various student organizations in “courses” for ease of communication.  Many students use group use text messaging for this, but the LMS functionality, with staff guidance, may strengthen the connections among students not included in text group chats.

One successful similar idea is Oregon State’s Ecampus Learning Community, which gives students in shared majors the opportunity to connect to each other and their adviser. Another option:  some universities have purchased student organization platforms, like CollegiateLink and OrgSync, that allow students to communicate with one another.

At Baylor, the student affairs staff creates a Facebook group for each entering class before they arrive on the campus. Unprompted, students interact and engage with each other, asking who is going to live where on the campus, who is taking what classes and so on.  Often, students who meet each other on these Facebook groups have even decided they wanted to room together in the fall. You could create a similar-type social media group for current students geographically separated by COVID-19 campus closures, allowing them to talk to and support each other. The staff overseeing the group would only interject if a question came up that no students could answer.

#5. Interact with students outside 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. As a former residence hall director, I always found it fascinating to see how, at 5 p.m., students emerged from their dorms and turned the campus in to their playground while almost every non-student left. What message did that send to the students about faculty and staff willingness to help?

In the COVID-19 era, physical campus-based institutions need to take every possible step to engage, encourage, and equip students for success.  If student affairs staff work from home and potentially have some daytime interruptions like children, pets, and household work, they might also consider an expectation that to best serve students they might need to be available and willing to help later in the evening and on weekends.  For example, Wayne D’Orio writes in a piece on rethinking student services for online education: “Take Sunday evening, which for most colleges is a time when many of their support services are unavailable, waiting to reopen on Monday morning. For a student juggling a job and a family, however, Sunday evening can be a prime time to do schoolwork.”

Knowing that the number of high school graduates is declining every year for the foreseeable future, and that colleges will be fighting tooth-and-nail to attract and keep these students, student affairs and academic support staff would be wise to consider how they can best provide a level of service above their peers.  As Sue Ohrable, a college advising consultant puts it,

“With the growth in popularity of online education, there is a great deal of competition for these students. Establishing a point of difference in support will help attract new students. A popular phrase that’s heard when discussing these strategies is ‘concierge-level service.'”

I am not saying people must work outside of traditional work hours, nor am I saying that there should not be a balance between work and a personal life. Not everyone, every day, has to work nontraditional hours. But colleges that do provide availability and outreach outside traditional work hours are most likely to be successful in serving students effectively and staying competitive in a rapidly changing educational environment.

#6. Focus on students most at risk for dropping out. Many universities already know what groups of students will be less likely to stay in college and graduate.  At many traditional campuses, where 18- to 22-year-old white students make up the majority of students, these groups might include first-generation students, underrepresented minorities, older students who are parents and many others. Unfortunately, the structural and cultural bias towards more traditional students at many higher education institutions can make it difficult for many underrepresented students to succeed.

Student affairs and academic support staff could identify and reach out to students who fall in one or more of the groups that are particularly less likely to remain and graduate. The challenge with this approach is that it can be seen as stereotyping a group of people without knowing them individually. But I would argue that the university is reaching out to students whose success we want to make a priority. By using some open-ended questions like those in the previous survey, we might open the door to further dialogue. Baylor has decided to act on this idea by reaching out to students who are graduating in May, those who studied abroad this spring, those with low G.P.A.s and those who had received more than one early alert this semester.

#7. Hold office hours. Before COVID-19, students typically could come by our offices and/or schedule meetings with us. This can continue — virtually. We can decide how to best reach out to the students and let them know what times they are available each day and week. We can use various software to create the schedule and host office hours including WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Duo or Google Hangouts.

The week before Baylor restarted classes online, the IT and library staff hosted office hours each day for professors going online.  There were designated time slots for: 1) help with the LMS, 2) web conferencing, 3) media services and 4) instructional design.  What if student affairs and academic support services did something similar with office hours for: 1) class help, 2) personal help, 3) social support, 4) financial questions, 5) library use and 4) spiritual care?


In Scott Cowen’s March 20, 2020 article on what he learned from Tulane’s response to Hurricane Katrina that might be helpful with COVID-19, he states,

“In the end, community is about a sense of belonging and trust. Open, responsive, and reliable communication is the foundation, but there are many other ways for colleges to help build community. As Tulane learned in the fall semester of 2005, it requires ingenuity and experimentation, but it can be done even in the most challenging context. In fact, I would argue that the extraordinary conditions and the collective experience of adapting to a new normal deepened our sense of community. To this day, Tulane’s “Katrina class” is known for its loyalty and special bond with the university.”

In conclusion, now is the time for student affairs and academic support professionals to get out of our comfort zones and try something different.  How can we re-envision our work to re-engage with our new online learners so that they continue to know they are a part of a community that cares about their success?  What do we want our students to say about their college experience during COVID-19 and how we impacted their lives outside of their classes?

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Helping Students to Succeed in College by Learning to Ride a Bike (Part 2)

Ideally, you will have read Part 1 of this post before before reading this entry.  In the first post, the Significant 7 factors for student success before and in the first year of college were introduced.

In this post, we transition in to the sophomore year through graduation for student success.  And since the Big 3 Factors (Co-curricular, Academics, Paying for College = CAP) were featured in the first post, this post is framed as…

Beyond the Big 3 – Moving from Tricycle to Bicycle

The Big 3 Factors were symbolically represented by the need to have three wheels to move  a tricycle.  However, not many, if any, adults, still ride tricycles.  Eventually, we are ready for less support and more challenge.

Usually, students become more autonomous in navigating college and their family support becomes less essential to their success.  Family support still exists, but less in the “hovering above you” sense.  The major shift from a tricycle to a bicycle comes in leaving a wheel behind and learning to balance life on the two remaining wheels.  The wheel that is left off at this point, paying for college, is not one that is forgotten, but it typically becomes  less of a focus after the way forward is figured out in year one.  Tuition is still paid, and part-time work and debt may be needed, but the approach to paying is usually established by year two.

This leaves only the two wheels to ride on: academic and co-curricular engagement.  The academic components continues to be guided by the extent of academic engagement and faculty interaction.  And co-curricular engagement, while seen by some as less important, is just as necessary to thriving in college – as necessary as a second wheel is to a bicycle.  However, there are several new additions to most bicycles versus tricycles.  The three major complexities and improvements in bicycles over trikes are described below.

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.  Albert Einstein

8. Identifying Purpose – What is the end goal for this bicycle trip?

Although the tricycle may have focused on making it down the driveway and back, bikes are designed for much longer trips.  In a similar respect, universities are designed for more than just retention and first year success.  Universities are expected to have overarching goals for students and to align students’ education with them.  Without these larger goals, universities become more like factories, putting a bunch of parts together (i.e. courses) and stamping it with a trademark (i.e. diploma).

Similarly, students need to know why they are going to college.  Many college dropouts become disillusioned with their end goal and with no new plan to guide them, leave.  On the other hand, if they discover some purpose for their career or discernment as to their calling, they are more likely to persist through tough times.

Several of the common longer-term goals that help colleges and students identify purpose include:

  • Graduate and be hired in a well-paying job
  • Go to graduate school to study a passion in more depth
  • Find an area of study that leads to a fulfilling job
  • Develop a desire for lifelong learning
  • Discover a passion for lifelong service and leadership
  • Find and build lifelong friendships

9. Navigating Crises – Bicycle brakes help us handle challenges

More often than most people realize, students experience at least one external crisis in college.  These challenges, like the death of a grandparent, a parent’s loss of job, or a major health crisis, can result in the journey through college stopping and/or slowing down.  In a bicycle, these external crises, like gravel, sharp turns, and pedestrians or cars, are dealt with using the brakes. These situations are often unforeseen and therefore, also, unplanned.  From a college’s perspective, helping students through these challenges require resources that reduce the negative impact of crises.

Some of the resources for helping student navigate crises, include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Appropriately staffed counseling center
  • Comprehensive array of health services
  • Campus pastors
  • Physical disability services
  • Learning accommodations
  • Financial aid resources

10. University Effectiveness – Gears allow for multiple speeds

Attending college is more than just showing up to class and taking tests.  There are a wide range of other campus resources that are often needed to ultimately graduate.  The effectiveness and efficiency of these processes can play a major factor in students’ success.  For example, colleges now offer course registration online and have learning management systems for faculty to more education more effective.  Universities are creating pathways for students to operate in their highest (or fastest) gear.  Colleges do this by understanding life through students’ eyes.  When this happens, universities discover efficiencies that can increase students’ ability to progress to graduation.  This factor might also be called an effective university culture.

Areas in a university that are often able to improve student persistence and graduation, include, but are not limited to:

  • Libraries (access to learning resources)
  • Housing (providing comfortable shelter)
  • Career Center (guiding job placement)
  • Dining (offering nutrition and food
  • Registrar (course registration)
  • Public Safety (police and security)
  • Information Technology (wireless, websites, classrooms)

In short, there are three important factors that lead to students’ success that are often most apparent beyond the first year of college.  Their impact may be more subtle than paying the bill or getting a good grade, but without these three factors, many students will neither be satisfied with their college experience nor graduate college.

Beyond the Big Three…  

factors that can increase or decrease the speed of the bike, reordered from above result in the acronym UNI

1.  University Effectiveness

2.  Navigating Crises

3.  Identifying Purpose

The acronym here is UNI 

which can be remembered by “we perform even better with a uniform on”.

If you have made it to this point, thank you.  I hope you have learned something new.

Overall, in this blog post (Part 2) and Part 1, I covered ten major factors that lead to student retention and graduation from college.  The picture below captures these ten factors and supposedly learning theory would indicated that by linking the student success factors to components of biking will make it easier for you to remember these ten factors.  Click on the image to enlarge it.

A reminder of the factors and their connection to biking

The first four were labelled pre-college factors and tied to the acronym SAFE, and you might say, what makes a student SAFE to go to college.  These four factors…

Our ability to pedal the distance – using our Self-management stills

Using our head – preparing to ride – Academic preparation

Help from family to not fall off bike – our Family’s investment in our success at the start

Our knowledge of the terrain – awareness of External challenges may face due to uncontrollable life situations

The next three factors were labelled The Big 3 Factors and tied to the acronym CAP, and you might say, you have to put your CAP to play ball.  These three factors included…

Using the two wheels to stay balanced – getting to know and building meaningful relationships with peers and faculty through Co-Curricular and Academic Engagement.

A third wheel needed to get us started – a solid plan to Pay for College

The last three factors were labelled Beyond the Big 3 and tied to the acronym UNI, and you might say, you play even better with a uniform on.  These three factors included…

Our bike’s ability to increase our speed – the University’s Effectiveness in operating

Using our brakes – Navigating Crises

Using our eyes – knowing where we are going – Identifying our Purpose

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