By Alan J. Yeck

Since the beginning of the pandemic there have been over 300,000 cases and 80 deaths at U.S. colleges and universities, according to a survey done by The New York Times of 2000 campuses. Of note is that the majority of cases occurred since the start of the fall semester (almost 70,000 cases since the start of this month). Also, given there is no national tracking system The Times relied upon the institutions’ self-reporting but at least 70 ignored requests while another 80 said they had zero cases. What we know about data is its ease in manipulation, and what we know about higher education is its ease in lack of transparency. The reality is that those numbers are likely higher than being reported/discovered.

The other numbers that are directly related to COVID are the job losses in education. According to an analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts, since the start of the pandemic state colleges and universities are down 14% with some exceeding 20%. Declining enrollment, already a huge problem prior to the pandemic, continues to increase the financial strain. As state funding is reduced, declining enrollment revenue, and increased costs of COVID testing, their budgets are in complete chaos. 2021 doesn’t look to be any better. There is no surprise that most states are projecting greater revenue declines, which directly affects the already minimal aid given to education. Declining revenue and increased costs will surely mean more layoffs.

Now we have transparency of the problem. Now we can see the challenge – keeping revenue up enough to keep colleges open while not killing any more students or staff. Keep people safe but keep the money flowing. That’s a tough problem but I do have the answer – you can’t. Anyone who says the teaching and learning is just as good as it was a year ago is in denial or a liar (or maybe in denial that they’re a liar). The learning taking place on many of the colleges today is poorly done regardless of the quality of the instructor or the student. Fatigue coupled with curriculum never meant to be taught online to students who were never meant to take these classes online by faculty who were never meant to teach these classes online means learning outcomes blur down to, survival. Nothing more. Senior leadership and trustees must realize they are not only robbing the students tuition but wasting the students’ time and cheating them with a subpar product. It’s a pandemic and the issues need to be addressed as if it were a pandemic – because it is. We will recover but if your plan is to keep the lights on at the students’ expense, it’s a poor plan from poor leadership.

Colleges and universities must work together and present a unified front to the state capitals and Washington. Remember these are the same folks that bailed out Wall Street after the mortgage crisis (which Wall Street causes in the first place). Your voices must be loud and in unison. Do not let them ignore you or surely you will fall, one by one.

There will be more layoffs until this is under control but stop passing that burden down to the students. It’s a pandemic.

Institutions that bring students back on campus to fill dorm rooms to ensure their money flow should be held liable for any deaths they cause. It’s a pandemic.

While there is no argument that success in teaching and learning, historically (but not exclusively) has been through a classroom experience, historically we haven’t done this in a pandemic. Yes, again, it’s a pandemic.

Higher education leaders who would risk students, faculty and staff (and their families) to make up for years of financial mismanagement are playing a dangerous game. Take care of your people, first and foremost and brighter days will return for all. It’s a pandemic.

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