A New Normal—Part Two of a Two Part Series

Erika S. Veth, EdD
Millennium Computer Systems, Ltd.
May 5, 2021

In my previous blog post, I wrote a lot about how our daily lives—both personally and professionally—are settling into a “new normal.” To some degree, I think many of us are finding our way within the new boundaries of Covid-19. Colleges, universities, and the companies supporting them are finding that in many ways, the new normal is not that different than during pre-covid times in that we must always be ready for change. In my former line of work as the leader of the SEM division for a public university, I was always reminding my team to stay agile and to look forward, but to also find stability in the ever-changing environment of enrollment management.

Recently, I revisited a text that I used frequently when writing my doctoral dissertation. Breakpoint (2015), written by Jon McGee, was written pre-pandemic and post-2008 recession. It does a great job of summarizing the impact of cultural and economic events on higher ed throughout modern history. One quote really stood out to me as it supports the idea that schools that expect disruption (and plan for it) are the most likely to stay afloat in these trying times:

“Nearly all colleges and universities today must address three important disruptive forces that had fully emerged by 2010 and have intensified since then: demographic disruption, economic disruption, and values disruption. . . . Few colleges and universities will receive a free pass as the key forces of disruption in play today unfold and reshape the marketplace for higher education”  (McGee, 2015, p. 21).

I suspect that we can now add a fourth disruptive force: pandemic disruption.

Pre-pandemic, many schools were jumping on the data bandwagon—a movement that a company like ours is designed to support. Both before the pandemic and during, grasping the demographic and economic intricacies of a college or university are key to its success. For example, access to data is the key to understanding enrollment trends. This allows the marketing department, admissions team, and retention/professional advising office to create strategic plans and timelines. Data demonstrating trends over time allows the financial arm of the institution to plan for enrollment growth or decline and the impact of such on the overall budget. Software tools like those Millennium offers even allow schools to create detailed enrollment forecasting and budget impact scenarios. The outcome from those forecasts can then assist in planning annual course schedules and new faculty/staff hires.

The good news is that before Covid struck, many colleges and universities were already shifting toward incorporating business intelligence into strategic planning. Of course, the data produced between March 2020 and today will certainly show some anomalies. Some universities saw massive increases in applications as SAT and ACT examinations were sidelined for the year, allowing many schools to dip a very tentative toe into test optional admissions. Many expected community colleges to increase in enrollment during Fall 2020 based on the notion that new college freshmen and returning students would rather pay lower tuition at their local community college for online classes. This prediction turned out to be largely false as community college enrollment declined overall during the 2020-21 academic year.

Many colleges and universities are finding themselves with unstable financial portfolios. However, this type of instability requires the ability to pivot quickly, which was already becoming the new normal prior to the pandemic. Many schools are holding tight to their reserves, hopeful for a positive outcome related to mass-vaccination efforts underway in many countries, yet not confident that enrollment trends will stabilize by next fall.

Another phenomenon that might become more of a regular occurrence is the movement of annual conferences and networking events to an online format. I recently attended the 106th Annual AACRAO Meeting. It was held entirely online. I attended as a corporate sponsor and registered attendee. The AACRAO conference team made every effort to offer opportunities for networking and learning. They were so responsive in the weeks leading up to the event in providing answer to my questions about the operational side of hosting a virtual booth. The AACRAO team thought of everything—instead of dropping off a business card for a chance to win a prize, AACRAO’s conference platform allowed corporate sponsors the opportunity to offer a virtual scavenger hunt, grab bag, and booth. I attended a super fun virtual game night and was able to connect with other conference attendees.

I can see a future that continues with virtual events for some of the larger conferences while smaller, regional events are reborn in socially distant spaces with less small group discussion.

One constant throughout the pandemic is the strict Covid guidelines to which we all must conform. There is the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control in the U.S., state and provincial guidelines, college/university guidelines, and those imposed by each individual business. For every decision we make for future operations, we must do so within the confines of regulation. Whether mask mandates, vaccine requirements, or social distancing, we all continue to march forward doing our best to find stability in the tumult.

There is a scene in one of my favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time, in which the main characters ask if they can see into the future to find out how they will fare in the fight against a dark shadow that has been cast upon the universe. It resonates with me now when I think of how we are all operating within the confines of a pandemic and an unforeseeable future:

Mrs. Whatsit sounded surprised at his question. “If we knew ahead of time what was going to happen, we’d be—we’d be like the people on Camazotz, with no lives of our own, with everything all planned and done for us. How can I explain it to you? Oh, I know. In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet. . . . You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you” (L’Engle, 1967, p. 219).

As in A Wrinkle in Time, all we know now is that we can make decisions for next steps based on our existing knowledge and within the rules and structure placed before us. Perhaps those of us in the ever-changing world of higher education are rebounding better than expected given how radically the landscape in our profession has changed over the past 25 years. Our professional lives have been akin to an adventure on a winding road.

Whatever the new normal is for you, I applaud each of you for embracing it with grace and agility—and I hope to talk data with you at a conference (virtual or in-person) very soon!