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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Admissions Concerns in the Covid-19 Era Center on Colleges’ Survival

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.

Admissions concerns in the Covid-19 era center on colleges’ survival.

Usually I leave it to others to analyze the worries of anxious parents hoping to send their teenagers to selective colleges. But in the pandemic era, some of the questions these parents are raising are a little different than usual. And at least one set of their questions — all related to the financial health of colleges — could have spillover effects on all of higher education.

I come to this point following conversations with Jeff Selingo, my former Chronicle editor (and still-friend) whose well-reviewed book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, has just been published by Scribner. Selingo spent the past two years writing and promoting his book and along the way has met with thousands of parents in person and in virtual forums. Since the pandemic, he said, questions about the financial sustainability of colleges have come up more than ever.

Not all of their concerns are exactly on target. As Selingo said to me last week, “They still think more colleges are going to go out of business than any of us do.” (For what it’s worth, I do think the effects of the pandemic will result in a shocking number of mergers and closures, but those won’t unfold overnight.) In other instances, the questions parents are asking reflect a sophisticated — and realistic — take. They’re asking how they can find out if colleges are about to cut particular programs, rely more heavily on adjunct instructors, or curtail investments in career services — all retrenchments some institutions have already taken. Their questions, he said, center on things like, “What should I worry about,” and, “How can I find out?”

Two things strike me about all of this. First, there really isn’t a great source for this kind of information, as I described a few years ago. So for answers, some of these parents are probably going to be turning to new resources like the College Financial Health Center, run by an admissions-data company called Edmit, or The Hechinger Report’s Financial Fitness Tracker. Whatever colleges think of the accuracy of these measures, “people are using them,” Selingo said.

Second, and of greater consequence: When the message that colleges are at risk makes its way into the ether, higher ed as a whole ends up on the defensive. It happened a decade ago when the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen was sounding the death knell. Today it’s the punditry of a New York University professor of marketing — “the Scott Galloway effect,” as Selingo put it — that’s helping to shape the narrative. “Defensive” is not a great posture from which to make a case, especially during a worldwide crisis.

Both Selingo and I have written recently on whether colleges’ approach to the fall semester might backfire on them (his is here; mine here). Selingo said the parents he’s hearing from didn’t seem all that dialed in on this academic year. They’re thinking about fall 2021, when, they hope, the upheavals of the pandemic will be higher-ed history. (We can only hope with them on that.) But any concern they might have about colleges shouldn’t be read as sympathy for the sector. At a time when all sorts of big-name companies are declaring bankruptcy or closing down altogether, the consumers in the college market are just as accustomed to the idea that the economic fallout could result in a rash of institutions closing too. Their concern is about the colleges their children might attend, not higher ed as a whole.

Where does that leave higher education writ large? As best as I can tell, still waiting for its champion.

Quote of the week.

“We’ve seen the deliberate undermining of public health over the course of this outbreak for political purposes … Unfortunately it’s become harder to trust what CDC tells us.”  

— Ali S. Khan

Khan, a former top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and current dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in an interview on National Public Radio discussing the Trump administration’s interference in the federal health agency’s public statements.

Laureate Education will sell Walden U. and a whole lot more.

Walden University is being sold — one of several recent divestitures announced in the past couple of weeks by its parent company, Laureate Education. Walden, a pioneer in online education that now enrolls 52,000 students, is being acquired by another for-profit college company, Adtalem Global Education, for $1.5 billion — a sum that Trace Urdan, an industry observer at Tyton Partners, called a "generous" but "not a crazy price," considering the current value of other publicly traded college companies.

I had been wondering if a nonprofit college would try to buy Walden, in the vein of Purdue University’s deal for Kaplan University or the University of Arizona’s pending deal with Bridgepoint for Ashford University. But it’s hard to imagine a nonprofit institution that could come up with that amount of cash, especially for an institution whose enrollments in education master’s programs could be, as Urdan speculated, "falling off a cliff right now." (A Walden spokeswoman said the institution has "seen growth" in its education-degree programs.) Walden’s nursing programs, meanwhile, are probably a solid fit for Adtalem’s health-care orientation.

Years ago, I wrote about Laureate’s plans to operate a network of colleges and universities around the world, giving students the opportunity to attend courses at different colleges and countries as part of their education. In 2017 Laureate boasted more than one million students on more than 200 campuses in 28 countries. But it also went heavily into debt to achieve that scale — (and became embroiled in a few controversial practices, too). Over time, it shifted direction, changed leadership, and began to downsize its global footprint.

Now, with the recent sale of other, international holdings — its Brazilian operations to a company in that country and its colleges in Australia and New Zealand to Strategic Education, the parent of Capella and Strayer Universities — Laureate is focused primarily on its colleges in Central and South America, albeit with a lot less debt on its books. I had always found Laureate’s vision of a “networked university” aimed at an emerging global middle class a fascinating idea, but evidently the vision was easier proclaimed than achieved. As for the smaller, less-indebted Laureate of today? As Urdan suggested, all those divestitures seem designed to position it to be acquired again by private investors.

Catching up.

A few recent reports worth a read:

A report conducted in conjunction with Interfaith Youth Core tracked engagement in interfaith education and activities among a nationally representative sample of students on 122 campuses. Among its findings: A majority of college students say they spent significant time studying race, nationality, and sexuality, but fewer than 50 percent say they spent any time studying religious diversity.

A report from the Graduate! Network and New America highlights strategies to help adult students return to college to complete their degrees. Among the many wise suggestions for engaging these “comebackers”: Ensure they have computer technology (particularly important now as so many colleges have moved courses online); encourage mentoring by faculty members; and (one of my personal favorites) forgiving or postponing repayment of prior institutional debt to allow former students to more-easily re-enroll.

And this all-too-timely report just out from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, suggesting the role higher education can play in protecting democratic republics from the threat of authoritarianism. The report, based largely on survey findings and data on educational attainment, says that college graduates are “less inclined to express authoritarian preferences and attitudes than their peers with less education,” and that liberal-arts majors in particular are less inclined to express such preferences than those who majored in business-related and STEM fields. Read it, and try not to weep that this feels so relevant right now.

Also, let me wish you all a happy (belated) National Voter Registration Day. It was September 22, but it’s not too late to make sure you and your friends and colleagues — and your students — are all squared away to vote on or before Election Day on November 3. And don’t forget, pandemic or not, the federal Higher Education Act requires colleges to make a good-faith effort to encourage students to register. See here for details on registering and voting.

Please join me for a virtual event today — and another next week.

Today’s event, beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern time, explores "The New Shape of Learning." It will feature a presentation from futurist and author Bryan Alexander followed by a discussion with La Jerne Cornish and Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, provosts of Ithaca College and California State University at Fresno, respectively, as well as as panel with Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education at Duke University, and MJ Bishop, director of the University System of Maryland's Center for Academic Innovation. Register here to watch it live or later on demand.

And I hope you can also join me next week, on Wednesday, September 30 for our virtual forum on "What Employers Want." It will feature the release of a new Chronicle survey, followed by a conversation between Jeff Selingo and two college leaders: Joe May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, and Lynn Wooten, president of Simmons University, on strengthening the transition from college to career. Later I’ll be talking with Mary Marcy, president of Dominican University of California, and Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at the American Council on Education, on smart ways for colleges to realign their curricula to better meet the demands of a changing job market. Sign up here to watch it live at 2 p.m. Eastern time or later on demand.

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.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.