Imagining higher education after three COVID years

What happens if we don’t have a COVID-19 vaccine by early 2021?  Or 2022?  In other words, what might the world look like if the pandemic continues at around the present level for several years?

Last week I used this question to generate a scenario for 2023.  That post covered a lot of ground, touching on economics, psychology, politics, society, architecture, and more.  I followed that up with a second post, expanding on the first, and based largely on thoughts from other people via comments, Twitter, and conversation elsewhere.

Today I’d like to focus on how that scenario could play out in one part of the world, one to which this blog is devoted.  What happens to colleges and universities in a COVID 2023?

Caveat: this post is very speculative.  Each paragraph is based on a mix of current news, educational history, some extrapolation, and estimations of human behavior.  I’m prepared for some if not most of it to not be correct, especially if the virus isn’t in charge in 2023.  The idea here isn’t prediction, but to encourage thinking about possible futures.

Joshua Kim began this topic a month ago.  Actually, he wondered what would happen if a vaccine doesn’t become widely available until 2025. Let me begin by transposing two of his initial thoughts to 2023. 

First, a good number of first-year students who began higher education in 2020 do not have an on-campus, much less residential, experience by 2023 (“today’s freshmen never experience a “normal” residential college experience”). Others have that experience, but radically shaped by COVID-19 (“a newly bundled residential experience around the constraints of de-densification, masking and social distancing”). How do they differ from juniors and seniors in previous years?

Second, universal design for learning (UDL) now adds a pandemic dimension.  Design learning experiences so that they account for pandemic stresses.  Which is a deep charge. (“Public health may become one more element of universal design for learning.”)

Now let’s add some more details for this academia 2023 scenario.

We may well see my three models of academia in 2020 persisting for the next three years: wholly online, in person, and toggled.  Wholly online makes the most public health sense.  In person is clearly something that some in academic want badly to accomplish, even when it leads to damage and death; it might be a mistake to underestimate that desire.  If it persists, and the pandemic does as well, then Toggle Terms will be as live in 2023 as in 2020.

Bryan_3 COVID scenarios_WSJ

There are also various hybrids.  Some undergraduate institutions host one year’s student body while teaching the rest online, for example.

The physical campus.  In part 1 of this series I mentioned some ways buildings and other spaces could change.  By 2023 academic buildings could have more and larger openings to the outside world, such as windows, doors, and galleries.  Indoor spaces might be larger, to allow for social distancing, or smaller, for isolation.  Rooftop usage should grow, depending on safety.

More outdoor events sound likely, depending on local conditions – i.e., if winter is a real thing, or rain, or major fires.  For example, this open-air art exhibit launched by the New York Historical Society seeks to link objects to people while respecting public health measures.

By Josh Kim’s 2025 we should be able to distinguish between pre- and post-COVID campus design, from buildings to open spaces.

Observers might compare notes on that design, walking across a campus in 2023.  They might also remark on human changes.  If 2020’s pandemic conditions persist for three years, and campus responses also maintain – big if’s, I know – most campuses will look underpopulated or simply empty.  Some buildings will be closed.  Of the people we see most will wear masks if not also gloves and head-mounted shields.  Perhaps Greek houses will show signs of life, given their historical intransigence independence.

Teaching and learning Faculty will have had up to three years to practice mixing synchronous and asynchronous teaching online, or how to teach in a socially distanced, PPE-equipped physical classroom, or both.  Students will have practiced, too, as will support staff.

Perhaps some have devoted videoconference spaces at home or elsewhere.  Some will have cultivated a set of stylish masks, gloves, and visors festooned with logos, ironic statements, images of beloved animals, and so on.

For some number of faculty, students, and support staff this is a burdensome practice.  Some will exit academia because these modes of teaching and learning do not work for them.

Research COVID-related fields grow in support and output.  More resources flow to epidemiology, geriatrics (given injury and death demographics), public health, psychotherapy, nursing, et al, and more papers and data result.  Other disciplines which can help address the pandemic disaster may grow as well, such as economics (given the recession) and political science/government (given political chaos). Some social science, humanities, and arts research progresses when it is in relation to the crisis (history of pandemics, medical care ethics) and when it needs little in the way of research support.

At the same time sciences unrelated to COVID-19 may fall behind, since they will have a harder time making the case for scarce dollars in an emergency: for example, astronomy or physics.  The lion’s share of social science, humanities, and arts may also fall behind for the same reason.  Meanwhile, faculty in these fields will also have the extra demand on their time of transforming teaching,

On the open research front, we could see more open data published, again given the crisis atmosphere.  Similarly,  open access research could grow, especially as budgets are hit.  Publishing behind paywalls may be more likely to elicit ire.

Enrollment I suspect students might follow research.  That is, some number higher than in 2019 will aim towards pandemic-related classes and majors, health care etc.  The promise of paying (if at times dangerous) jobs will be even more appealing in a deep recession, as will the prospect of helping out society during a terrible crisis.  Other STEM fields beyond health care should appeal.

Total enrollment… my instinct is to project the post-2012 decline forward, so that 2023 sees the number of students taking classes in the US to be 12% down from the previous peak.  Yes, adults do tend to enroll during periods of high unemployment, but they will also dread getting infected and/or having a bad learning experience – the latter especially if negative media stories circulate.

I wonder if new religious movements (see part 1) will draw some people away from study.

Financing higher ed If general economic inequality keeps on rising, exacerbated by the pandemic, American higher education’s plan of differential pricing will stretch further.  That means published tuition should continue rising, eliciting bad press and general anxiety, while discount rates will also rise.  We can imagine the median student in 2023 paying 40% of tuition.

Unless the United States elects Biden and unless a Biden administration manages to get some kind of massive post-secondary education bill through (say, federally-backed public tuition a la Bernie Sanders), I would expect total student debt to keep building, aimed at $2 trillion.

Will campuses close?  If the bad economy continues to stagger across much of the next three years, my instinct is to say yes, a larger than normal number of colleges and universities will close.  Mergers should also occur.

Campus social life How will people within academia interact by 2023?

A large proportion of interactions will simply be digital.  The learning management system, campus Facebook groups, Telegram connections, etc., plus whichever dozen platforms emerge over the next three years will host relationships of all kinds.

The shift away from in-person interaction could lead to reduced quality of social relations.  As one sociologist observed from several months of quarantine,

If people are deprived of embodied interactions, it is a likely hypothesis that they will be more depressed, less energetic, feel less solidarity with other people, become more anxious, distrustful, and perhaps hostile.

It’s possible this could fuel tensions between the youngest and oldest in campus life.  As Robert McGuire noted, some teens will likely resent sacrificing the great campus experience they expected to preserve the lives of elders.

Will this play out between traditional-age students and older faculty and staff?  Could we see interpersonal coldness or political unrest a la the 1960s?  Will teens, as opposed to the younger humans we mentioned in part 2, ruefully call themselves Generation COVID?

Those elders may be far less available than in 2019.  Some will avoid campus completely.  Some will retire.  Some number will be infected and suffer injuries.  Others will die.

Some younger people will also be injured or die.  If 2020’s COVID demographics persist, that number will be far smaller than that of seniors.

Many in 2023 will have long-term psychological stress or trauma.  How many people will know someone infected?  Let’s assume for the sake of imagination that COVID infects people at about the same rate it has done for the past 9 months.  That’s around 30 million worldwide, as per Johns Hopkins.  Make that roughly 120 million cases that have occurred by 2023.  A good number of people will have friends, relatives, community members who experienced this.

In America we’ve infected a bit more than 1 million people each month, based on the CDC’s latest figures: 6,706,374 cases as of this writing.  Say that’s around 40 million by 2023, or around 12% of our 2020 population.  The death toll is very hard to estimate.  For the sake of discussion let’s extend the present amount (around 200,000) forward, to just over one million dead in the United States. By 2023 some number of students, faculty, and staff will definitely know the touch of COVID-19.

Athletics Right now we’re experiencing two opposed movements.  On the one hand some colleges and universities are suspending or closing up certain athletic teams.  On the other, some universities are opting for continued play, if not necessarily with in-person audiences at scale. Each has motivations we can discern: the desire to support student-athletes; dread of infections; business models; wanting to help underrepresented minorities through higher education; marketing.

We could see this dual movement play out for three years.  As a result the total number of college sports teams will drop, as will the number of student athletes.  Some teams will keep going, especially the elites with big tv contracts, perhaps cocooned in mini-surveillance states of data gathering and health care.

NB: student athletic is a notorious blind spot of mine, so take this with a healthy helping of salt.

International higher education Globally 2020 sees a good amount of national, anti-international administrations, from Brazil and the US to India and Hungary.  2023 could well see this politics persist, which can depress higher education’s transnational nature.  At the same time old and newer forces may increase pro-global politics worldwide, from the demands of capital and labor to cross national boundaries to the effects of mostly planetary media.  The international nature of COVID might knit some sectors together, as could initial stirrings about climate change.  As I’ve forecast before, national and transnational academic futures alike are in play.

US-China relations in particular look likely to deteriorate further.  The Trump administration has made China-bashing into, well, not so much policy as a nervous tic, but that’s probably the greatest consistency we should expect.  The Biden campaign seems eager to pick up on the Obama administration’s anti-China stance.  Either way academic ties between the two giants should be strained, turning into competition and decreased population exchanges.  Expect fewer Chinese students to enroll in American classes, fewer Chinese researchers to collaborate with Americans, and fewer Confucius Institutes.

Campus technology College and university IT should expand in resources and functions from 2020-2023, given its centrality to the changed missions of each campus.  Even campuses that host students in person will need more computational work, once we consider how to handle public health measures, from data gathering to contact tracing and analysis. Instructional design should be in ever-increasing demand.  Digital security will be more important than in 2020.

Campuses with hospitals or clinics will require serious computational support.  Research universities as well as any intensively public campuses may also need more IT support for public research communication and outreach.

It is possible that some schools will not IT funding, either because their finances are hit that badly or because they deem other priorities more important.

Automation could rise, depending on local campus politics and capacity.  Chatbots, for instance, might take pressure off of staff and faculty. Robots for cleaning could make sense.

I mentioned campus politics.  To what extent faculty, staff, and students critique academic technologies really depends on local conditions.

Academic libraries Off-campus learners, faculty, and staff may well require more digital resources, some of which their libraries can support through licensed content. At the same time the need for information and digital literacies should keep rising, not least because of cultural controversies over the pandemic and politics.

That said, some campuses could shrink or shut down their libraries if finances continue tightening and administrators feel they can’t make the case for maintaining that service.  This may be more likely when an institution is mostly online, and can’t take advantage of libraries’ in-person functions.

Higher education in society American campuses might suffer a decline in popular support.  First, if we keep raising prices that can lead to howls of outrage.  Second, continually bringing populations to campuses and therefore increasing infection risks will not endear us to everyone.  Third, the picture of colleges and universities choosing to open in the face of injury and death may make academia look cruel and ruthless.


That’s one picture of one possible 2023 for higher education.  Does any of it seem likely to you?

What else would you foresee, if COVID-19 keeps going at this level for the next three years?

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3 Responses to Imagining higher education after three COVID years

  1. Dan Herrick says:

    “…a good number of first-year students who began higher education in 2020 do not have an on-campus, much less residential, experience by 2023 (“today’s freshmen never experience a “normal” residential college experience”).”

    Speaking as someone who was a non-traditional college student, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Graduating high school students can be well served by taking a gap year or gap “period” in which they may more intentionally approach higher education, rather than just the next rung in the ladder that they have been told to climb.

    Is your analysis primarily for traditional 4-year universities, or does this consider community colleges? Might not community colleges experience growth, as they absorb the disenchanted/disenfranchised freshman class?

    It’s interesting to think how high schools also may need to adjust their “college-feeding” strategy, although that will likely take a lot longer than 3 years.

  2. Marguerite Mayhall says:

    Within this big landscape you’re covering, from a 4th tier comprehensive serving immigrant, working class, and 1st gen students, lots of transfer and commuter students, this is what I see:
    IF enrollment holds steady (depends on the economy and whether admins continue to try for mission creep – R2 status, for example – and recruit more native freshmen, or return to original mission), it appears that student ‘dashboards and the use of algorithms and bots to ‘manage’ student functions will continue. And intensify. The data collection just really appeals to administrators and there is little trust that faculty can or will take care of their students. The lack of respect for faculty at this level can get pretty intense.
    I see even more adjuncts in the future, perhaps one year lecturer contracts, depending on unionization and signed agreements. Akron retrenched almost 100 tenured faculty and this will work its way up the food chain. They’re looking for flexibility, don’t you know?
    Not sure about the relationships with elders. From my standpoint it’s also a class issue, and I don’t see that with the students I teach. At all.

    Broader landscape – definitely more open access. There’s a lot of chatter on Twitter by people in specific disciplinary areas about providing free pdfs to grad students and others, and given the precariousness of the job market and ire at large database consortia, I would expect the OA movement to intensify. I see a lot of millennial and younger academics very disillusioned with the idea of ‘vocation’ and they don’t accept the same premises we were presented with in the 90s.
    I appreciate you gaming all of this out. I don’t see many at my institution thinking long-term and it scares me.

  3. Interesting as always, Bryan.

    I wonder if, much like in K-12, much of the practice we employ in higher ed will also be seen as increasingly irrelevant. The pandemic has surfaced all sorts of “unpleasant truths” about education, which is leading to many new models of “school” and credentialing. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what come of the innovation that’s happening right now in terms of completely different narratives around what an education is and how we get it.

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