What COVID-19 Can Do for Us

A lot of words have been spilled lately, hand wringing, commiserating and urging as we all try to figure out what’s next. Those words have varied immensely in their points of view, and in terms of the trustworthiness with which we imbue them. The only constant seems to be inconsistency.

And, anyway, this being higher education, there is no one right piece of advice we could give you all that would zip up all your loose ends and calm the flutters of anxiety you might have.

To that end, we’re taking a new approach to this Insight. We collected snippets of our own perspectives, rather than write from a single point of view. All of us here at RHB have been examining different facets of higher ed during this time. Our collective ability to see from multiple vantage points is one of our strengths. We offer this in the spirit of hoping you will be inspired to look deeper to see which ideas, opportunities or new considerations you can unearth and employ at your own campus.

Rediscover Strong Positioning

—Rick Bailey, Principal and Owner 

While the COVID-19 crisis has facilitated a state of grieving for what has been lost, most administrators we’ve spoken with have worked through those stages of grief to move on to inventing scenarios for what might be next. The residual and lasting sorrow offers tremendous impetus to create new opportunities. The sorrow you feel can release you from stale thinking and can serve to open your mind for completely new ideas. Don’t dismiss the sorrow. Instead, lasso it for good. Use your sorrow to assess what you need to cling to; what are the values that have informed the market position you have chosen? What are the characteristics and mores that tell the world who you are as an institution? What can’t you live without and what greater ways can you invent to further cement your market position? ‡

Let Cheese be Your Guide (for Real)

—Sam Waterson, President

A triage during uncertainty in professional curiosity and counsel is to first seek out fixed points. In this case there are only two: the reality of residential education is impossible today, and we don’t know when it will be possible again. Every single other idea, perspective, assertion is pure speculation and, as you might guess, unproductive to dwell upon.

So you make cheese.

You are likely holding onto a portion of your deposited or enrolled students, not knowing what will occur in the coming months. Those students will interact with each other, in a container, with unknown pressures upon them.

Not unlike 8000 years ago when milk was stored in sheep bladders for a journey. On that trip, natural rennet (the enzyme that turns milks to cheese, you can try this at home, it’s easy) from the sheep bladder quickly transformed milk to cheese. Did they know it was happening? No. Did they know why? No. But it was delicious, sustainable and repeatable. And now you have cheese.

Milk. Enzymes. Cheese. Students. Culture. Stress.

I don’t know either, but if the answer is cheese it’s probably a question worth asking. ‡

See the Big Picture

—Rob Zinkan, Vice President

The last five Sunday nights transported me back to the 1990s and my high school and college days. A welcome respite from “these challenging times,” “The Last Dance” 10-part documentary series was a fascinating ride reliving Michael Jordan’s career and the Chicago Bulls’ six NBA championships—along with plenty of 90s-era culture and music (from OutKast to Pearl Jam). During the final episode, my oldest son (now he’s the one in college) noted that the Bulls’ “continuity” was an integral part of their dynasty and would be difficult to maintain today. It got me thinking about the decisions the team and franchise made over the years. In a constantly shifting environment, what should change, and what should endure? Those sound like familiar questions right now for higher education. Everyone is trying to adapt, but what should remain constant as college and university leaders consider paths forward in planning for the fall semester and balancing the budget with revenue shortfalls?

In the documentary, I was struck by two incredibly impressive women: Deloris Jordan (Michael’s mom) and Ann Kerr (mother of Steve Kerr, then a Bulls’ teammate and now head coach of the Golden State Warriors). While not in the limelight, they were sources of strength and wisdom. I thought of a conversation from several years ago when I was vice chancellor of a public university regional campus. During a leadership transition, many members of the campus community were quick to make various comparisons between the new chancellor and her predecessor. A friend of the campus who had played a role in its 1971 founding had a different perspective. He told me that the campus had always been fortunate to have the right leader at the right time in its history. His long view was invaluable on many occasions and was a leadership lesson for me.

Periods of change are opportunities to reflect on your institution’s enduring values and attributes. This week seek out a behind-the-scenes source of institutional continuity who has served your college or university for decades. Their perspective can help ground you in your mission, a foundation for any decision-making. ‡

Put Your Priorities and Perspective in Order

—Jaci McGrew, Account Service Manager

My kids (pre-K and 4th grade) have been out of school since March 9. That’s 71 days (and counting) we’ve been home together in this new reality. While it hasn’t been the easiest undertaking, I have focused on two key themes: priorities and perspective. It started as a method for survival but has become engrained in my way of life. 

Priorities: This pandemic has given me the opportunity to be more productive and efficient. My time, whether its work or personal is spent systematically. I don’t mean that my days are spent robotically but, instead, everything I do is done purposefully. I think I took for granted how easy it was to separate work-life from home-life when there was a natural divide in my day but these days that balance is a bit blurry. I’ve always been a fan of to-do lists, but now it’s been a saving grace. Every Monday over coffee I make a master priority list for the week and each morning I reevaluate (this includes all things for work and home). If something doesn’t connect to a greater goal or clearly serve a purpose it moves to the bottom of the list. At the end of each week, I can look back and feel confident that what I did made a difference for my clients, for RHB and for my family.

Perspective: I began my higher ed career 14 years ago. Since then my roles within the industry have evolved but my passion has always been about helping America’s youth prepare for their life ahead. If there is any light that has come out of this situation, it’s that we can rise out of the muck that bogged us down and get back to why we got into this business. We can spend our days focused on the importance of education and how to deliver it to the masses no matter what stands in our way. We are undoubtedly faced with new challenges, but this is an opportunity to shake things up so that all students have an opportunity to set themselves up for a successful future. ‡

Design the Future

—Alisa Chambers, Designer and Front-End Developer

While we all grieve, empathize and tend to our shared anxiety, right now we have to really lean in to our duty of helping our audiences design their futures.

Aren’t we already doing this? We should be, but have we lost sight of our mission? Things we thought we knew have proved us wrong; and we’ve been forced to change our habits. Let’s use this time to evaluate our messaging and priorities. Were we just copying what XYZ University was doing? What are we actually saying to our audiences? Are the touchpoints we have with current/prospective students and alumni assuring them or causing doubt? Are we giving them other reasons to doubt us?

How can we do better? We can craft experiences that encourage, empathize and harness the resilience we’ve gained into an asset that can be leveraged, such as in a future class, internship or career. We can thoroughly test our communications for perception and other points of friction that may instill doubt in our audiences (broken interface, typos, etc.). And most importantly, we can use our innate human connection to listen, cultivate communities and build trust. ‡

Use Data to Fight Attrition

—Megan Miller, Senior Integration Consultant

We’re all feeling the strain of meeting our evolving enrollment goals for the fall. Most of us are appropriately concerned about this year’s unique summer melt risks, and we’re developing new strategies accordingly. But we need to think beyond move-in day in order to mitigate another looming threat: attrition. Our incoming students face specific challenges:

  • The most significant economic uncertainty since the Great Depression: “Can I afford my education?”
  • The rapid curricular shift as many schools waive graduation requirements: “Am I academically prepared for college-level coursework?”
  • The massive psychological impacts of this pandemic: “Can I emotionally handle any more changes?”

This is a time for us to identify, anticipate, and respond to these risks by leveraging data differently:

  • Social listening is key. Students won’t tell us when they’re considering withdrawing, but they’ll say it on social. Invest in social listening (either technology or professional services) to identify trends. And remember to be looking at the correct platforms, which means spending more time on Reddit and Instagram than on Facebook.
  • Our university website has something to tell us. We spend so much time examining site data for external visitors, but internal traffic can provide critical insights on your residential students. Identify the sections of the site that have historically had a large number of internal page views to understand your on-campus students’ priorities. In addition, use Google Analytics demographic analysis to monitor current audience behavior for those whose profiles match your current students’, and note where this group’s behavior is changing. What sections are seeing a growth in visitors or time on a page, and where are views declining?
  • Foster dialogue to find qualitative themes. In student success, our focus is often individualized. While I’m always reticent to rely on what I call “anecdata,” there’s value in aggregating the stories we’re hearing so we can pinpoint the frequent topics that emerge. Admissions staff can tell us what concerns keep bubbling up in conversations with students. Faculty can share the what they’re seeing in their classes. And, of course, we can survey our incoming students to ask them directly.

What we do with these data, of course, will depend from institution to institution, based upon a wide range of factors. But by anticipating these risk indicators and warning flags, we can proactively develop strategies to diminish and address them, giving us an opportunity be prepared for the challenging dynamics we’ll face this fall. ‡

Rethink What It Means to Be “TechSavvy

—Aimee Hosemann, Writer

Young adults and teenagers are often called “digital natives” because we think much of their lives have been lived through screens and online interaction. That doesn’t capture the whole picture. You need to see the rest of the image to figure out how much online education is right for your students.

Students are often adept with social media, but not so great with course management software or library database or Google searches. There is both an art and a science to knowing how to organize information and use that knowledge to tease out what’s needed in a useful amount. Students are also not necessarily adept at analyzing content quality. They don’t have always great filters for assessing evidence and authoritative sourcing appropriate for academic work.

Unless we teach them. Calling students “tech-savvy” allows us to forget we need to teach them how to learn online. It also assumes we know everything we need to know about their relationships with technology (which includes pen and paper!) and the internet. Do we? Have we asked them about that? What do they actually do with those devices?

Moreover, being “savvy” should also include the ability to think critically about how technology can and should be integrated into daily life. Helping them be savvy about the social and cultural environments that shape access to and use of technology will only benefit them and push toward solutions to technological inequities. ‡

So there you have it: some ways to find a toehold to climb out of wherever you’re stuck. And if a proprietary cheese is one of the results, all the better.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.