I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

For all the pain in colleges’ pivot to remote education, there could be some upsides, too.

There’s no way to paint this pandemic as anything but an absolute tragedy, and I’m not the Pollyanna type looking for silver linings. It cost colleges billions to shift to remote education in the spring, and together they’ll spend (or lose) billions more this fall as that shift continues. The adverse impact on students, especially those who are low-income and the first in their families to attend college, is incalculable.

Still, one thing has become obvious: As colleges have begun adapting to this new paradigm, some of their changes are clearly for the better. Based on my recent conversations with college leaders about “the remote campus,” here’s what I see that might be advantageous — or that could change campus culture in ways that are disruptive to some but beneficial to others.

More campus services are now available online. When colleges went remote, many accelerated the virtual presence for academic and financial-aid counseling, tutoring, and other offerings vital to student success. Administrators also realized that students might be in different time zones, calling for extended hours. Now, even local students with jobs and otherwise complicated schedules don’t have to feel like second-class citizens when trying to get help during a 9-to-5 window.

With some services — like mental-health counseling — online resources might even be improving access. As Florida State University’s vice president for student affairs, Amy Hecht, said, “Students who don’t want to walk through that door” on a campus may be more willing to connect from the privacy of their laptop. And for places like FSU, located a bit off the grid for major airlines, remote operations have created more new opportunities for student engagement. Drawing national employers to a virtual hiring fair, for example, is a lot easier than getting them to commit to the hassles of flying in and out of Tallahassee. And with some intention, digital versions of campus events like orientation could be more of an equalizer for students.

The cachet of certain campus locations could be fading. Remember “the office”? No, not the TV show, the place you used to commute to every day. Does it seem a bit less essential now? Campus offices aren’t going away — even before the pandemic, the future of the faculty office was in flux — but remote work is prompting some to reconsider the importance of that status-defining piece of campus real estate. After working from home for several months, in fact, Maeesha Merchant, senior vice president for finance and operations at the California Institute of the Arts, said she’s considering moving her office to a less-central spot on campus, freeing up space for a more student-centered service.

The college “workplace” has become more casual and flexible. Sure, this is probably true for a lot of organizations beyond higher education. But it takes on a special twist in academe. College leaders are noticing that the shift to remote work has lessened the cultural divide between faculty members, who’ve always enjoyed a good deal of autonomy in their schedules, and administrative employees, who are getting a bit more of it now. Once health concerns subside, “maybe we come back a little more casual, a little more comfortable,” said John Whelan, vice president for human resources at Indiana University.

The higher-ed work force of the future might not be as place-bound. The implications of this one could be huge — for college towns, for two-career couples, and for salary levels, just for starters. That’s because the more colleges recognize that some jobs don’t have to be done from an office on a campus, the more likely it will be that the people hired for those jobs won’t have to live nearby.

Colleges have had remote workers before: Think fund raisers based in cities around the country. And yes, jobs like advising are probably best done by professionals steeped in the campus community and the culture of the student body. But that’s not as essential for employees in finance or maybe even in IT. Having proved that remote work is doable, said Whelan, colleges “might have more flexibility to hire people” who don’t have to uproot themselves to take the job.

Maybe that will eventually save colleges money. Although taken to an extreme, it would be detrimental to the economy and spirit of college towns.

One final thought: As colleges become more like other remote workplaces, they also risk losing touch with what makes them special — their mission. As Merchant of Cal Arts noted, colleges are “communities and mini-cities.” During this unusual period of remote operations and potentially afterward, she said, college leaders can reinforce that by shifting their focus “from place to purpose.”

Quote of the week.

“The idea that smaller sports have to be killed wholesale is nonsense. Before athletic directors make that determination, how about they start by paring away all of the stupendous waste and bureaucratic welfare and see what’s left?”

—Sally Jenkins

Jenkins, a sports columnist, writing in The Washington Post on how the coronavirus crisis has exposed the “reckless greed” of the NCAA and colleges with big-time sports

It’s time to expand the prison-education conversation beyond Pell Grants.

A year ago, political momentum was building to give incarcerated people access to Pell Grants. But in Congress at least, the pandemic has pushed the “second-chance Pell” to a back burner. No shocker. With so many people in prison getting Covid-19, I suspect even the most ardent reformers see health and safety as a higher priority than education right now. Still, I hope some key ideas from a report on prison education released this month won’t get overlooked, especially one particularly striking finding: To reduce recidivism, a prison-education strategy that focuses only on Pell Grants isn’t enough.

“They’re great,” said Stephen Steuer, author of the report, “How to Unlock the Power of Prison Education.” But as he reminded me last week, a majority of incarcerated people couldn’t benefit from such federal aid, even if eligibility were expanded to cover short-term, non-degree programs (a Pell proposal that does still have some momentum). That’s because so many people in prison need basic education and even literacy education first.

Steuer is a seasoned expert on prison education whom I first interviewed 29 years ago. And as I described last summer, he still believes in the cause. In the new report, published by the ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education, he recommends additional policy approaches. Among them: better educational advising as part of the re-entry counseling inmates get when they’re released; reductions in sentences for inmates who enroll in educational programs (because education does ultimately reduce recidivism, but inmates might still need this incentive to enroll); and greater adoption of open educational resources to ensure inmates can get affordable class materials on prison-approved tablets and other devices.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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