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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: What It Means to Be ‘Open Access’ Now

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.

Keeping access to education open and remote institutions connected: more notes from the (virtual) road.

To be an open-access institution used to be pretty straightforward, if not easy: Keep tuition low and set admissions requirements forgiving enough to let students prove themselves even if they don’t seem — or aren’t — academically ready. In recent years, consciousness of students’ basic needs, including food and housing, has also grown.

The pandemic has not only accelerated that, but also added new dimensions to the definition of “open access.” Now it means a lot more outreach, time on the telephone (yes, the telephone), and a willingness to bend some established academic and financial rules.

That’s some of what I heard during a Chronicle virtual forum a few weeks ago on what’s needed for higher ed to be truly open access in this moment. Here are highlights and other insights that stuck with me from that discussion, as well as my takeaways from another panel on complex universities working together while operating remotely.

On the new meaning of open access, what struck me most was how supporting students’ basic needs has become fundamental to how colleges see their responsibilities. I wasn’t exactly surprised: The economic fallout has hit community-college students and would-be students hard. When Borough of Manhattan Community College surveyed its students, for example, 70 percent said they had either lost their jobs or were looking for work because of the pandemic. Along with the rest of the City University of New York system, the college has responded by expanding food banks and alerting students to special grants available through a new Chancellor’s Emergency Relief Grant program.

Right now, students’ economic worries outweigh their academic concerns, said Anthony Munroe, BMCC’s president. And as he put it, “We have a moral obligation to meet the needs of our students.” I heard similar sentiments from Loretta Adrian, president of Coastline College, in California, and DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College, in Maryland.

To be sure, colleges’ — especially community colleges’ — attention to basic needs isn’t new. But the depth and breadth of the need have magnified in the pandemic, and meeting that need is now expected. And even though many institutions are building partnerships with philanthropies and social-service agencies to help, the three leaders’ answers to whether colleges’ role as social safety net was sustainable in the long run were: “No,” “No,” and “No.”

Colleges are also responding to students’ new calculations about enrolling or re-enrolling. “Tuition is far from their minds,” said Pollard, because uncertainties about the economy and public health loom a lot larger. Students at Montgomery seemed reluctant to commit to 15-week semesters right now, so the college decided to offer more courses in compressed seven-week formats. BMCC, mindful of a new pledge from the New York Jobs CEO Council to hire 25,000 CUNY students (for jobs and apprenticeships) over the next 10 years, is aligning courses with new micro-credentials to help students see an immediate payoff for going to college.

But institutions’ flexible moves aren’t enough if students don’t know about them. Enrollments are down at BMCC, for example, despite plans for new credentials and willingness to offer more fee waivers. Most community colleges are experiencing the same. That’s prompted leaders to up their communication game: They’re revamping websites, tapping community networks, relying on student ambassadors, and revising their messages to students so, as Adrian said, they’re “not generic.” To get even more personalized, she said, at Coastline, the pandemic has “taught us to pick up the telephone when it rings.” At BMCC, officials aren’t waiting for the phone to ring. They’re calling students and prospective students, Munroe said, to be sure they know what the college has to offer them.

You can watch the entire conversation, “Maintaining Open Access to Education in a Pandemic,” with Adrian, Munroe, and Pollard, by signing up here.

On bringing cohesion to remote and socially distant universities, creating a sense of community stood out to me as the most crucial strategy. At Texas A&M University, leaders are continuing beloved traditions, like the Midnight Yell before big sporting events, albeit adapted to pandemic conditions, with limited attendance and priority to students who follow Covid-19-testing protocols. “We found ways to make the Covid testing fun and rewarding,” said Melody (Dee) Childs, vice president for information technology there. Boston University is holding virtual movie nights for students — and for professors, it’s carrying on with a virtual version of its Research on Tap program, featuring short presentations on current research, minus the wine and cheese (unless people tune in with their own).

With study abroad mostly shut down and enrollments of foreign students greatly curtailed, institutions that value their international connections are finding creative alternatives. Florida International University, for one, is expanding its virtual global-education strategy (its approach is based on a model developed by an organization known as COIL), which involves team-taught, simultaneous classes with students and professors from FIU and international counterparts.

But those efforts go only so far. In-person experiences are a lot of what makes colleges such special places, and no amount of adaptation to the loss of face-to-face, impromptu interaction can fill that void. As BU’s provost, Jean Morrison, said about research, “You’re in the lab, or you’re not in the lab.”

Still, institutions are trying to maintain some semblance of campus life. One FIU effort that stood out to me was a scheduling app that lets students reserve a seat in the library or in one of many new spaces around the campus set up for Wi-Fi and a quiet place to study.

To make that possible, the university “labeled every chair and table,” said Elizabeth Bejar, senior vice president for academic and student affairs. “The spontaneity of campus life has had to be constrained,” she said. But for those willing to do a little planning, there’s still a glimmer of it, six feet apart.

You can sign up here to watch the conversation “Bringing Together the Remote University,” with Bejar, Childs, and Morrison.

Quote of the Week

“I worry that people have heard a drumbeat of stories going back to the beginning of this administration about how the institutions of government and, really, the institutions that produce knowledge for us in our society, are lying to them. … That's really worrisome because we do need everyone on both sides of the aisle to accept these common bases of knowledge that we use to organize our society, like who won an election.” 

— Brendan Nyhan

Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, commenting in an NPR “Weekend Edition Sunday” interview on how some voters’ refusal to accept the election results reflects a broader distrust of institutions that are vital to American democracy.

Check out our new Chronicle newsletter, Race on Campus.

This year laid bare our country’s stark racial inequalities. Almost everyone in higher education — and in your organization — feels the impact of race, but they feel it from different vantages. That’s why The Chronicle is starting a new newsletter: Race on Campus. Once a week, a team of reporters will try to make sense of how the national reckoning on race is unfolding at colleges across the country. The newsletter will share the different perspectives of people advocating for change, and explore what colleges can do to become more equitable, inclusive places. Sign up for the newsletter here.

And now, a question for you nine months later: What makes a college resilient in a pandemic?

I’ve learned a lot about how higher ed is adapting to the Covid-19 crisis by taking part in conversations like the ones I describe above. But I’m not actually doing that work. You are. In my second pandemic-focused newsletter, on March 18, I shared insights from readers and others about the traits that make a university resilient (including some of the themes above, like caring for students and intentional communication).

Now, with nearly a year under our belts, I’m wondering what else has become apparent. So I’m posing the question again: What are the key traits that make a college resilient in the face of a pandemic? What institutional qualities or capacities have proven especially valuable? And now that we have a somewhat better feel for how long this will last, what else is needed to get to the Other Side?

Please share your thoughts (my email address is below), and I will highlight some of the replies in a future newsletter. But not in next week’s: The Chronicle is giving The Edge the week off for Thanksgiving. I will return on December 2. Till then, do I even need to say it? #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.

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.