Pandemic Exacerbated Issues Within Higher Education

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Public higher education struggled with issues such as government funding, student mental health and diversity and inclusion prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues further.

Challenges with government funding, student mental health, and diversity and inclusion were already widely present for virtually all public colleges and universities in the United States prior to the current coronavirus pandemic. 

According to a recent survey conducted by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in partnership with the Blue Moon Consulting Group and the marketing firm SimpsonScarborough, COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues.

The survey queried 558 APLU members in Fall 2019 and includes follow-up interviews with 28 presidents in late 2019 and early 2020 in light of the pandemic.

More than three-fourths of respondents reported that government funding is a “big challenge” for institutions. There is a decline in the belief that public education is a public good, and the reputation of public higher education seems to have been damaged by the Varsity Blues admissions scandal and various sexual assault and athletics scandals.

Colleges and universities, in general, struggle with not having enough federal and state funding. Thanks to COVID-19, they are also struggling with layoffs, furloughs, program cuts and even more significant reductions in state funding as governments struggle to meet public health financial challenges.

68 percent of respondents identified student mental health as a challenge, made more difficult by the stress of the pandemic and sudden shift to online college learning.

Peter McPherson, president of APLU, shared with Inside Higher Ed., “I don’t have any doubt that with the turmoil in society, with diversity issues and the pandemic… that all of that combined is a storm that impacts mental health.”

63 percent of respondents identified diversity and inclusion as a huge challenge. The report also forecasts a busy Fall 2020 filled with student activism.

“While the environment was already primed for a politically active fall prior to COVID-19, inherent, structural racism dramatically [highlighted] by both the pandemic and now George Floyd’s death, can be expected to bring campus activism to new heights,” says the report.

Simon Barker, a managing partner at Blue Moon Consulting Group, highlights an apparent disconnect between leaders’ confidence in their ability to meet institutional strategic goals and their concern about challenges facing higher education.

Barker shares, “If you just consider the context of these surveys, we’ve just asked them about financial issues, all of these sort of negative challenges. I  think you could argue that context would make people think more seriously about the answer to the question, ‘Are you able to meet your strategic goals?’ Only 8 percent said they are not able to. I thought that was a remarkable statistic.”

Barker argues that it might be possible for leaders to not be able to see problems on their own campus as clearly as they could.

“Everyone recognizes big problems in higher ed, but it doesn’t… reflect back on their individual institution. The polling was done pre- most of the current problems. The funding is much tougher than it was when that polling was done. [Today] they would be less optimistic.”

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