Higher Ed’s path to a post-post-COVID life

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the disruption of 2020 has forced the development of new capacities, capabilities and constructs in higher ed. I compared the process to learning to write with your secondary hand. It’s difficult to write with your left hand if you’ve been writing with your right hand your entire life.

Yet becoming capable with both hands—ambidextrous—opens new opportunities to achieve greater heights than you perhaps imagined while you were being pressed on every side by the challenges of disruption.
Metaphors are great, but it’s possible you glossed over my encouragement (and it was encouragement, not criticism) because it wasn’t concrete. In that last post I posited four phases of becoming ambidextrous that parallel your path to a post-post-COVID life. Let me be more specific.

I suggested that Phase One was living comfortably with the familiar use of your primary hand. Let’s go back to what seems like ancient history: 2019. Less than a year ago, you were likely feeling as though you were managing well despite challenges. While we may yearn for those good-ol-days, 2019 was no walk in the park. To refresh your memory:

  • NACAC changed best practices to comply with DOJ directives that changed the stability of May 1 as a target we could build plans upon.
  • Not only were students granted freedom from commitment, the new CEPP opened new levels of competition and extended the recruitment cycle.
  • You were absorbing Nathan Grawe’s forebodings about the coming “cliff”
  • Campus closings became fairly regular news.

Despite these challenges in higher ed, your familiarity with processes and your expertise allowed you to respond with little more than deeper breathing and a quickened heartbeat. Throughout 2020, I’ve heard a familiar groan of “I wish we could go back to normal.” First, that’s not going to happen. Second, whatever you remember as “normal” wasn’t all that great. What we miss isn’t what we perceive to be normal. What we miss is what was familiar, of doing what we knew to do, and frankly, the ease of not having to learn something new.

The second phase I suggested in my post was a period of experimenting with your other hand. 2020 was full of disruption that forced use of your secondary hand. And, just as though you were learning to write with your left hand (if you’re a righty), your work was shaky, uncomfortable and not in keeping with your usual flow—to the point that others could detect your weakness. You were not at ease having to adjust to new tactics, changing data and uncertainty with decisions that affected you made by other institutions such as the federal or state governments. And no wonder!

In the course of the few months, the world was completed disrupted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The violent death of George Floyd triggered an outcry for justice worldwide including months of marches in support of Black Lives Matter. The marches and occasions of violent outbreaks prompted standoffs between citizens and law enforcement and included a now-famous stroll across the street for a photo opp by the US president. Relatedly, election year politics bubbled to a boil in contentious races in a divided nation. All this occurring while climate fires and hurricanes ravaged the country amplified fear and tensions.

These harsh realities forced you to adapt rapidly to unfamiliar conditions. In 2020, as a handful of examples, you’ve been required to:

  • Create and implement new best practices.
  • Manage the uncertainty of who you’d enroll and how many, especially in light of popular predictions.
  • Rethink processes and procedures, adapting them to virtual settings including campus visits, advising, interviews, admitted student events, HS visits, travel plans, orientation (to say nothing of classes and remote learning).
  • Refit campus to accommodate best health practices.
  • Train all employees campus-wide in new practices and technologies.
  • Adapt significant annual events including virtual commencements, convocations and homecomings in ways that continue to engage audiences and maintain important relationships.
  • Cancel or reconfigure athletic programs and schedules.
  • Manage as you and your team worked remotely.

No wonder you are exhausted and you have no idea what day, week or month it is. You’ve been essentially writing with your secondary hand for the past nine months. It’s tiring and messy. Your muscles ache and you’re disoriented. Life is clearly uncomfortable.

But you are still here, uncertainty is becoming more certain and you are gaining proficiency as you move toward 2021. In my post about becoming ambidextrous, I noted a third phase of learning and perfecting the use of your other hand. That’s akin to a post-COVID world; 2021 will continue to be a year of adapting, experimenting and learning. Use this new period of time to learn from successes and challenges in 2020. What did you experiment with that worked well? Here are a few suggestions for the coming year:

  • Find meaningful ways to continue breaking down campus silos initiated necessarily by COVID circumstances (this was a good result from a calamity)
  • Keep applicants for 2020 in your system and continue to court them.
  • Maintain relationships with no-shows or drops from 2020. They loved you once; they may still love you.
  • Create adaptive measures to achieve what you were unable to in 2020. Continue to experiment and innovate with your programs and processes.
  • Ensure that your digital and automated systems are refined in a way that matches your positioning.
  • Invest in greater personalization and AI to enhance remote capabilities.
  • Ideate on services and deliverables that add value and build systems to offer those students who will be unlikely to return to campus.

Another outcome of COVID has been greater consideration of interdisciplinary approaches to learning. Academic departments once considered completely independent are exploring common ground that better satisfies and serves students. Anticipate how those new models and combinations will influence not only your marketing and communications but your overall positioning (and bottom line!) as an institution.

The fourth phase on the road to ambidexterity is the ability to choose which hand you use. In this phase, your proficiency with your left hand doubles your capacity and perhaps capabilities. The post-post-COVID year of 2022 will be a year more like 2019, so build your plans from those expectations with greater confidence.

In my reading business counsel from McKinsey, I was intrigued by their recommendation to reference metrics for 2019 for the year 2022. Their team was suggesting that the post-post-COVID world may reset, for planning purposes anyway, to 2019 metrics. In that light, you may wish to

  • Determine what practices from 2019 you wish to carry over or reinstate. If, for example, campuses open up more regularly for greater physical presence of faculty, students, alumni and parents, what former practices may be worthy of repeating?
  • Likewise determine how will you incorporate new capabilities you’ve gained as a result of adapting (learning to use your secondary hand!) to new circumstances. The post-post-COVID world offers you new opportunities to implement new capabilities gained in ‘20 and ’21.
  • Consider projections for 2023 based on anticipated 2020 classes minus any population declines in your region (or add gains if you have opened new markets).
  • Build on new offerings and integrate them into your marketing.
  • If you have adapted your market position as a result of new offerings or new delivery methods, be certain to audit your marketing efforts to ensure your consistency of messaging. You may need to adapt language to better describe a more ambidextrous institution!
  • Spread the word
Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.