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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: Election Results Spell Bad News for Higher-Ed Innovation When It’s Needed Most

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

The election results will make the rough road ahead even rougher.

The antagonist-in-chief to higher education was defeated at the polls last week. But for many college leaders looking to the voting returns for glints of optimism, Joe Biden’s win over President Trump may be the only comfort to be found.

The election results show that the cavalry isn’t coming. For one, the next Congress will be more conservative and less likely to offer up an adequate relief package, even if Democrats manage to win the two seats in Georgia that they’ll need to claim control of the U.S. Senate. That will hurt colleges directly and indirectly when state budgets continue to suffer. What’s more, the evident divisions in the overall electorate suggest that America is far from agreement on adopting the kinds of Covid-19-abatement practices — masks, distancing, etc. — that could avert another spike in the disease until vaccines are approved and widely available.

That’s why my broad takeaway for higher ed from this election is that it will be much harder for colleges to innovate now — just when doing so couldn’t be more important.

Yet when I posed this theory to more than a half-dozen keen observers of the sector over the past few days, I heard some different takes — some more pessimistic than mine; others’ even a little hopeful.

My main question was: How will the results affect the climate for innovation? I also asked, What changes would now become even more vital or likely? The people I consulted included innovation leaders on campuses, a consultant, an ed-tech entrepreneur, and folks who promote college improvement through philanthropy and advocacy.

For what it’s worth, most of them were less concerned than I am about the national divide over masks, etc., as a factor for colleges’ returning to “normal.” With or without those measures, they don’t expect a return to full-scale, face-to-face operations until most of us are vaccinated. Here’s what else I took away.

Climate for innovation. No one argued the situation will be getting easier, especially after the past nine stressful months of adaptation professors and staff members have been through. Still, some, including Karen Stout, president of the community-college group Achieving the Dream, said the adversity could be motivating. “Sometimes it’s easier to innovate and make hard decisions within the urgency of a crisis, even if people are burned out,” she said, “because the alternatives are worse.”

But the now-dimmer prospects for Covid-19-relief funding and the fall-off in enrollment that many colleges are facing means many will have fewer resources to work with. Typically, colleges respond to “opportunity and funding,” said David Yaskin, who in 2007 founded the student-analytics company Starfish Retention Solutions. Then the recession stirred a yearslong increase in college enrollments and also public pressure on colleges to justify their worth. That gave institutions some financial wherewithal and incentive to experiment with new approaches, and to pay companies like Yaskin’s to help them.

The current economy and reliance on online learning seems to be scaring off students, however, and that means colleges are operating with even less flexibility. All of this has created an interesting paradox: Ed-tech investors are now pouring millions of dollars into new and existing companies aligned with the shift to online learning. Most notable of these is a start-up that aims to be a rival to Zoom called Engageli, (co-founded by, among others, Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera) which is already gaining buzz and traction thanks to its impressive array of features for engaging students and providing data to instructors. Yet it’s far from clear that colleges will have the figurative bandwidth to consider new approaches or new tools, much less be able to afford them. As Gates Bryant, a partner at the consultancy Tyton Partners, noted, “the state-funding coffers are going to get crushed.”

The situation is pretty dire already. Indeed one university official I spoke with was so pessimistic about the financial prospects — especially after having to ask vendors to delay or split up invoices so the bills wouldn’t hit all at once — that he asked me not to use his name. Forget innovation, he said, “everyone is in survival mode.”

Most important areas for innovation. Stout probably framed it best: “Tough and leaner times make it possible to focus on what is most important,” she wrote in an email. For community colleges, that will mean a focus on racial-justice and economic-success agendas, she said. “We will see community colleges leverage their localness to meet their students’ needs as well as their community needs.”

Whether at community colleges or other institutions, Amy Kerwin, vice president for education philanthropy at Ascendium Education Group, predicted the changes that “faculty and staff will fight for” are the innovations most likely to continue to prevail. I think she’s right about this. Change is most likely when it’s not about getting “buy in” to someone else’s agenda but seeing for oneself that the approaches, whether new or established, actually make a difference.

And based on what I’ve been hearing from colleges around the country, I think Kerwin is right that during the pandemic, the shift in academic advising to an online mode “has been a big win.” Not only are advisers now connecting with students well beyond nine to five, the broader reach of advising is also helping to unblock some of the bureaucratic hiccups that often prevent students from enrolling or continuing their studies, so it has positive ramifications for enrollment and improving students’ access to higher education.

Likewise, while the shift to online education hasn’t been easy, in many cases professors are coming to appreciate the ways it can help their teaching. As I heard from Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University: “Faculty who’ve all been empowered with these skills are not going to unlearn them.” So innovations around online teaching, too, are likely to be among the innovations that continue to evolve, despite the hurricane-force headwinds.

Expect also to see some creative ideas aimed at bolstering revenues, including more research universities looking to sell their long-term rights to patent royalties in return for upfront payments that could help them with Covid-19 expenses right now.

I was also intrigued by Utica College’s moves with a company that typically helps acclimate international students to American college campuses. With international-student enrollments all but cut off right now because of the pandemic and visa restrictions, Utica is working with the company to provide English lessons designed for health-care workers at its remote locations in Florida where it currently already offers nursing programs. After a summer of staff layoffs and furloughs, and broader pay and benefit givebacks, the college recognizes it can’t afford to ignore the sentiment of its “never stand still” tagline.

“People are fearful,” said Polly Smith, Utica's senior vice president for market innovation and new ventures. She’s keeping moving herself. Once Utica sends its in-person students home at Thanksgiving to complete their semester, Smith plans to begin huddling with her faculty colleagues about ways to redesign some existing certificate programs so they can become more useful to prospective students and a better source of revenue for the college.

But not every revenue gambit may be worth the risk. As Kerwin noted, colleges need to be cautious about entering into partnerships or projects that seem like “a quick hit for revenue today” but that might prove costlier in the long run.

That’s a kind of downer of a note to end on. So instead, I’ll also highlight this, from Stout, who noted one other important way higher-education innovation might respond to the 2020 election. She was making a point about community colleges, which she said, exist “in every red and every blue district in the country.” But I think it also applies across the board. Community colleges will be “critical to the healing of our country,” she said “Leading with a goal of healing is transformational (and perhaps innovative) for the time we are in today.”

Hey, given the political news of the moment, we need all the help we can get.

Quote of the Week

“Did Jill Biden teach HyFlex this semester?” 

— Justin Reich

Reich, the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, commenting in a tweet the day after President-elect Biden told educators they would “have one of their own in the White House.” (The future first lady hasn’t yet encountered this pandemic-era teaching model mixing face-to-face and virtual instruction because she was campaigning and hasn’t taught since spring, but according to The Washington Post, she did attend the voluntary training in online teaching offered by her institution, Northern Virginia Community College.)

Join the discussion next Tuesday on preparing for post-pandemic teaching and learning.

How can provost, deans, and other academic leaders set the right course? Join my colleague Ian Wilhem on November 17 at 2 p.m. Eastern time for this discussion with Flower Darby, co-author of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes; Darnell Cole, co-director of the Center for Education, Identity, and Social Justice at the University of Southern California; Liv Gjestvang, associate vice president for learning technology at Ohio State University; and Evangeline Cummings, assistant provost and director of UF Online. Send your questions beforehand to ian.wilhelm@chronicle.com with the subject line "post-pandemic." And sign up here to attend live or watch later on demand.

And no, I didn't forget: #MaskUp. Covid-19 hospitalizations hit an all-time high on Tuesday.

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.