As seen in Washington Post

Many companies have offered telecommuting – or partial telecommuting for decades. Higher education has offered distance instruction as an option as well – depending on the course, requirements, and location in which it is taught. Now that the pandemic of COVID-19 has reached every state in the U.S., many businesses – and colleges — have suddenly shifted to a forced kind of distance—to keep working and teaching while everyone remains at least six feet apart to avoid spreading the virus.

That is raising tough questions for colleges and those that wish to teach at them: What is the best way to rapidly spin up online courses or deliver exams online? How can colleges ensure that all students have access to the technology needed for remote studies? What happens if the health crisis extends into the fall or if it returns as is predicted?

In this unprecedented moment, human resources teams, senior management, business leaders, and college leaders and professors are stepping up to jointly create resources online, share best practices, rapidly train faculty in a mode of remote teaching they may never have done, and adapt to a constantly changing environment. All with the goal of continuing their business in a new way, while helping students find jobs in areas they desire.

While overall college and job preparedness is top of mind during the pandemic, the possibility of remote learning or employment adds complexity for higher education institutions. Only 25 percent of students responding to a survey agree that they feel prepared for a remote freshman year of college, compared with 54 percent who believe they are prepared for an in-person first year. In addition, only 23 percent of students are confident they can get a quality education through remote classes, and just 19 percent are confident they can build relationships in a remote environment.

Though a majority of institutions have online teaching and learning tools, it was left to individual instructors as to whether they would teach online. Many traditional colleges and universities were surprisingly unprepared to adapt to an online-only instruction environment,” says Benjamin Shank, CEO of American Higher Education Alliance (AHEA). “This health crisis has acted as a catalyst to this much needed change in the industry. Just as we see innovative businesses during this pandemic opting to have their employees work virtually and adopt processes that allow their employees to stay engaged, institutions must also develop innovative ways to engage their faculty, staff, and students virtually.”

But even more concerning is the fact that an employee or students’ ability to succeed in a remote- environment may differ greatly by income levels. Less than half (40 percent) of students (including those working in internships, first jobs, and so forth) from lower-income households report being able to get the necessary equipment for things as simple as new glasses for remote learning compared with 72 percent of students from high-income households. Furthermore, only 56 percent of students from low-income households report having reliable internet access and 45 percent report that their home environment could support remote distance work or learning, compared with 77 percent and 64 percent of high-income students, respectively.

Schools will need to consider providing support for students to succeed in a remote learning environment, especially those who may not have the necessary equipment or reliable internet access. Institutions can offer stipends for internet access and laptop rentals or purchases, or they can directly procure and lend equipment for under-resourced students. In addition, schools can research options for, provide information to, and advocate for students, including working with state and local providers and agencies to request government support.

According to the Institute for International Education, there were more than 1 million international students studying in the U.S. in 2019, an all-time high. International students make up about 6% of the total higher education student population. While the Department of Homeland Security initially provided guidance that allowed international students to maintain their visa statuses, the department issued new guidance that warned that international students would be forced to leave the US or transfer to another institution if the institution they attend moves to online-only instruction. Higher education institutions and advocacy groups promptly denounced these new rules and filed several lawsuits against them. On July 14, the proposed policy was rescinded by federal officials. 

The rules come as schools are preparing for substantial declines in international enrollment, a report from the NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimates that institutions will lose at least $3 billion due international student enrollment declines in fall 2020. Additionally, most universities have shut down their study abroad programs and cancelled school-sanctioned trips; amidst a host of other issues like lawsuit loans because of unpaid tuition.

In the face of such disruption, a public-health crisis, and a global economic downturn, fall enrollment remains uncertain. But the higher education leaders keeping a pulse on students’ and parents’ concerns, perspectives, and thinking—and responding accordingly—will be the ones best positioned to serve them in meaningful ways come fall.