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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: Can You Pull Off a ‘Turnaround’ in a Pandemic?

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.

Can you pull off a 'turnaround' in a pandemic?

I’m still following the way a consultancy’s free advice for a “turnaround” is playing out at Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colo. — and I’m still learning from it. But not how I expected. In the Covid-19 world, little goes as planned. With so many colleges now facing upheavals in enrollment and finances, though, there are some advantages to that.

Informed by the changing conditions wrought by the pandemic, the lessons I’ve learned seem especially applicable to the challenges ahead. The three big takeaways could be useful not only to rural, tuition-dependent institutions like Fort Lewis, but also to a broad swath of colleges (or other organizations) in all sorts of circumstances.

Here they are:

• Whatever your strategic edge once was, re-evaluate it in light of how the pandemic has changed people’s behavior.

• Moves that proved effective in past recessions or national emergencies like September 11 may not work now.

• In weighing new programs, focus on those with the biggest bang for the buck, requiring the least extra effort by already overburdened employees.

These ideas came to me following a series of conversations with Fort Lewis’s president, Tom Stritikus, and some of the consultants from Guild Education. (That’s the Denver-based company that acquired the original consultancy, Entangled Solutions, in May.) But first let’s rewind the tape a bit.

The team now at Guild began working with Fort Lewis just over a year ago. Under the initial timeline, the college was to have announced in June plans to develop new academic programs to bolster enrollment. The virus, of course, had other ideas. The planning, which I observed in person in February (it was my last reporting trip for The Chronicle ), went on hold a few weeks later, as Fort Lewis joined the rest of higher education in an abrupt shift online.

The big reveal on new programs still hasn’t happened. But a few other things did. Over the summer the state gave Fort Lewis nearly $30 million for a new health-sciences building. In August, the campus reopened for in-person instruction, complete with extensive and regular Covid-19 testing, de-densified dorms, and more than 10 big tents scattered across the campus to serve as classrooms. Fort Lewis also revved up its online capacity: A year ago it had 15 fully online courses; this fall it has 142. It had budgeted for a decline in enrollment, but to its surprise the freshman class was larger than expected, and the retention rate also improved, especially for Native American and Hispanic students.

Over all, Fort Lewis’s enrollment came in at 3,349, nearly 4 percent higher than last year, reversing a trend of declines. Its Covid-19 testing is showing few positives, thanks in part to intensive efforts to reinforce public-health messages. (I especially like this video, featuring a Navajo student discussing Covid-19 safety precautions in the context of the Diné people’s principle of K'é, which means making decisions that benefit the community as a whole.)

So, crisis averted. For the moment.

But as I can attest from my visit to Durango in the bitter cold, outdoor venues aren’t gonna cut it once winter settles in. And as hard as Fort Lewis worked last spring to provide Native American students and others with technology to help them stay enrolled online, hot spots go only so far in rural areas and on tribal lands, where cell service is spotty at best. And, as Stritikus told me, the college still faces “considerable uncertainty” about its future state funding. Right now, I’m sure every other public-college official can relate to that.

So how do those lessons apply?

The pandemic may have changed your strategic advantages. Figure out how. Before Covid-19, Fort Lewis officials were excited to use its scenic location as the basis for new programs: degrees in eco-tourism, for example, or executive-education offerings that would bring adults to the campus for summer residencies. “Those don’t make as much sense” right now, said Guild’s Paul Freedman.

Conversely, while Durango’s remoteness might have been a deterrent to some 18- to 22-year-olds pre-pandemic, Stritikus thinks it played a big part in the enrollment boom this fall. “People would rather be here,” he told me, “than in metro Denver.”

The college’s retention successes, meanwhile, have elevated another strategy: to understand what elements are making the biggest difference and home in on those.  

Don’t assume that this economic upheaval is like any previous one. For higher education, recessions usually mean higher enrollments; national crises can prompt more students to stay local. But it’s far from clear that either precedent will apply. “Colleges can’t just count on the recession playbook,” Freedman said. Recent findings from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, for example, show an enrollment decline of 7.5 percent at community colleges.

Before Covid-19, the Guild consultants were studying the regional labor market to help guide Fort Lewis's decisions on new programs. They’re now re-evaluating a lot of that work, along with their assumptions about students’ willingness to take in-person courses and what they’d pay for tuition.

Look for the biggest return on the lowest investment of money and human capital. College personnel have been working on overdrive for months, and shifting to cruise control really isn’t an option. Fort Lewis realizes this. As pleased as its officials are with the higher retention rate, that alone isn’t going to achieve the goal of adding $500,000 to overall annual net revenue.

With advice from Guild, the college is still looking at new programs — certificates in health education and maybe a nursing degree are good bets, considering that the college broke ground on the new health-science building last week. But now there's a new lens to the decision-making. Officials are trying to identify high-demand programs that click with faculty members’ interests, and will be, as Freedman said, “easy to spin up without putting a lot of extra work on people.” Stritikus isn’t rushing: He wants to track financial trends for three to five months before making any final calls.

Two more thoughts: When I visited Fort Lewis, I saw that these consultants seemed to have really earned the trust of faculty and staff members, who had felt burned by other consultants in the past. Much of that trust was developed through face-to-face workshops, one-on-ones, and even a long day trip to Diné College in a packed minibus I was lucky enough to be on. Without all that in-person interaction, I wonder where this consultant/college relationship would be right now.

That relationship began, as all parties involved have acknowledged, as a bit of a marketing play for Entangled. (I agreed to follow along even so, because I thought there would be plenty to learn and share.) Since Entangled was acquired by Guild, this kind of consulting with colleges is no longer part of the portfolio. Guild’s main business is helping colleges recruit students by tapping into employers’ tuition-assistance programs. So I wonder whether, in the end, the consultants will steer Fort Lewis in that direction, especially since college leaders had shown interest in programs for working adults, and there’s now more online capacity to serve them. Both the consultants and Stritikus said that’s certainly a possibility. But Lauren Dibble, the consultant leading the project, said Fort Lewis won’t become a Guild partner “if that doesn’t feel right.”

The changing roles of CIOs — and community colleges.

For all the obvious ways that college tech leaders are front-and-center right now, they also play less visible but crucial roles in student success. A few weeks ago, I heard from chief information officers at five very different kinds of colleges about how they’ve shifted gears in response to the pandemic, helping to provide instructional-technology support and meet students’ basic needs. I spoke with Robert Bramucci, of the South Orange County Community College District, in California; Donna Heath, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Vince Kellen, at the University of California at San Diego; Kimberley Marshall, at Morehouse College; and Keith McIntosh, at the University of Richmond. Click here to download a free report on our discussion.

Also, please join me next Tuesday, October 20, at 2 p.m. Eastern time for a virtual forum with community-college leaders on what it really means to be “open access” during a pandemic. We’ll dig into issues like open-source course materials, technology needs, academic support, and access to such basics as food. Register here to watch live or later on demand.

Finally, this: Some people in high places claim that Covid-19 is “disappearing.” It’s not. And actual health experts still say that face coverings and distancing are the best ways to keep it from spreading. Heck, even hamsters (or chinchillas?) can do it. So come on humans, let’s all continue to #MaskUp.

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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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.