McKim has developed a depth of experience and expertise working with a number of Canadian post-secondary institutions. Our work has helped schools find their voice, redefine themselves (and redefine themselves again), increasing enrolment, donations, and stakeholder engagement along the way. And, with so many of our staff, our clients, and our kids enrolled in or graduates of a college or university, we reflected on how the current pandemic might be affecting the post-secondary sector.

In the past 60 days, campuses everywhere have moved to salvage what was left of the winter 2020 academic term. Moving fast, those post secondary institutions that could transitioned students to distance and online education options for the balance of the year. Several instituted either a mandatory or optional pass/fail grading system. Convocations, and other events that are part of the cultural fabric of higher education fabric have been cancelled. 

None of the solutions have been perfect, and none were unanimously embraced or celebrated. That was, of course, never the point. The point was (and still is) to get through the immediate shock quickly, respectfully, and with as little disruption as could be expected — and then look forward.

A look ahead to the post-secondary education landscape, post COVID-19

Let’s start by acknowledging: none of us knows the future. It’s only April. In North America, we’re weeks into the disruption and confusion that experts say will not only last months, but will have a profound impact on industries and economies for years to come.

Even though these are early days, we’ve compiled six predictions that post-secondary marketers should consider, starting now. (And yes, we’ll revisit them later):

Even when we emerge from our homes and start to reintroduce social gatherings into our everyday activities, it’s likely that campuses will see a marked difference in social interaction in common spaces this fall. Particularly because by then, the virus may only be contained or mitigated, and not yet conquered.

1. A different vibe on campus
Expect to see a renewed effort to encourage hygiene in common areas (we’re assuming hand sanitizer and dispensers are available), and a more pronounced aversion to milling about in large groups. People may err on the side of caution, and avoid big bashes during orientation weeks.

Of course, finding space may not be much of a challenge, if our second prediction proves true.

2. Lower physical attendance in fall 2020
Even though some institutions have yet to see a drop-off in enrolment numbers, every college and university is bracing for a dip in registered students, a larger proportion of online learners – or both. Fall enrolment is bound to be impacted by students who feel discouraged by the disruptions that affected the spring term. Others may be unable to afford tuition, as they were relying on income from part/full-time work over the spring and summer (which we’ll revisit in our third prediction).

Among those who choose to attend, expect more students to look for courses they can take by distance. This may help preserve enrolment levels, but lower in-person attendance will further impact the buzz on campus. Regardless, this provides a strong impetus for institutions to bolster their distance education offering.

3. An increased demand for financial aid
Many students rely on the summer months to earn money to pay for or contribute to their tuition. Even those students whose parents assist them are likely to feel the pinch, as their parents’ employment security and status may change significantly.

This points to more students than ever relying on whatever financial aid they can qualify for. Balance will have to be maintained to ensure that students who have traditionally relied on financial aid  – because of economic or systemic disadvantages – don’t get (further) left behind.

If you’ve been looking for a meaningful conversation with a key, transformational donor, here it is.

There could be a significant – and time-sensitive – opportunity to align their generosity with the coming increase in financial need, to ensure that money doesn’t become even more of a barrier for bright students.

4. A decline in international student registration
I admit, this is the prediction I’m least confident in. Maybe that’s because, with planes grounded, borders closing, and cruises cancelled — many of us have never wanted to travel more.

Even so, once the airways open up, we shouldn’t expect international study to immediately exceed — and likely not even meet — previous levels for some time. With 2020 recruitment events cancelled in countries around the world, recruitment officers have lost an important opportunity to promote their school face-to-face. And prospective students will miss this efficient method of meeting with and evaluating multiple schools at once. Even as online replacements crop up, the fallout could be substantial.

Add to this the significant financial investment required, and it’s expected that fewer students and parents will be able to afford the luxury of studying abroad. As a significant driver of both tuition funding and student body growth, this will hit home with enrolment managers and operational planners alike.

5. Double cohort applications in 2021
Just when we’d started focusing our attention on The Cliff, here comes what we’re calling ‘The Wave’. With some students opting to wait-and-see in fall 2020, signs point to larger than usual first-year enrolment in 2021.

We can look to Ontario (Canada) for what we can expect. The province’s decision to drop a fifth year of secondary school (Grade 13) in 2003 meant two graduating classes entered the post-secondary prospect pool at once.

What followed was a series of strained resource issues, many of which seem likely for North American post-secondary institutions in ’21:

  • More intense administrative demands as higher numbers of applications are processed.
  • Students widening their application ‘wish lists’ in hopes of being accepted to competitive programs (which often have enrolment limits).
  • Even more blurring of the lines between universities, colleges, and trade/technical schools, as students weigh the costs and benefits of a 2, 3, or 4-year education path.
  • More demand than supply for residences.
  • Larger class sizes for institutions that can accommodate them.
  • More rejected applicants for those that can’t. 

None of this reverses the demographic data that predicts an enrolment ‘cliff’ is coming sooner than later, spurred by smaller high school graduating classes and increased competition among universities and colleges. But a large influx of students is likely to come first, giving strategic enrolment management planners two major challenges to plan for – one short term, and the other, shorter.

6. Renewed esteem in post-secondary education
It’s overwhelming to plan ahead when we can’t even say for certain what’s going to happen in a week. But the time for contingency planning is now. Because demand is going to be there.

Virtually all these people share two things: the heightened appreciation of the entire world, and a post-secondary education.

The health workers on the front lines. The political leaders trying to save citizens’ lives while balancing long-term economic fallout. The teachers providing on-the-fly virtual learning alternatives in a now- or soon-to-be-cancelled school year (depending on where you live). The economists trying to model an uncertain future. The virologists and researchers, desperately searching for a cure.

And as institutions share these stories in the wake of COVID-19, we’re willing to bet that the increase in the former will lead to an increase in the latter. 

Related work