We Don’t Know, So We Might As Well Guess


The auto-suggest feature on my phone’s keyboard learned “coronavirus” in record time, it seems, and now gives me “Corvallis” and “coronavirus” as the only two options when I type c-o-r.

No wonder.

It’s pretty much all we’ve heard on the news in the past few weeks, and with a long list of campuses curtailing in-person meetings in favor of distance education methods (I won’t even try to add links as the list in growing by the hour), the trend is unlikely to wane any time soon.

What are the big trends I see possible from my own, narrow lens of enrollment? Again, just spitballing here, as we have nothing definitive: No idea of whether a vaccine can be developed, whether the virus will go dormant over summer only to re-emerge next fall, or even the range of ways it can be spread (CDC does offer some educated guesses, but there still seems to be a lot of hedging in their messaging, and understandably so.)

Some wild speculation about possible ramifications:

  • If we see College Board and ACT canceling tests or even just closing lots of testing centers, it’s possible that every university in America could become–at least temporarily–quasi-test-optional. This will be an issue of justice, of course, but it could really be the nudge some fearful colleges and universities need to do the thing they know they should have been doing all along. Credit to David Quinn for this observation.
  • International enrollments will be highly volatile, and they will depend on how the rest of the world views the US response and leadership on this crisis. So far, the signs are not encouraging. Falling enrollments of international students could result in a scramble to fill classes with more domestic students, either via transfers or freshman recruitment.
  • Some effects on big-time athletics, which will in turn affect budgets: Cancelled games and /or empty seats, especially in places most affected, could change the visibility of some institutions.
  • Anticipate some budget cuts, at least as a part of contingency planning. Wise planners will know that this is not a time to save money on recruitment budgets; others will take an across-the-board approach out of perceptions of fairness.
  • May 1? Schmay 1. With NACAC’s CEPP no longer enforceable due to DOJ scrutiny, this was already set to be a wild year, at least on the fringes. Now, even the remaining bets that were still on are officially off.
  • Massive wipeouts of equity will change both the ability and perhaps the willingness to pay for college. This is probably bad news for small, high-sticker-price colleges that already have to discount heavily to make the class. Could we see a rash of tuition re-sets in the near future? It might depend on a rebound of the DJIA.

If I had to choose between a) colleges re-inventing the admissions process, or b) re-trenching and doubling down on the approaches and tactics they’ve used forever, I would have to choose option b. The reason for this is simple: In higher education, if you take a big risk and it succeeds, you get copied; the success gets distributed. If you take a big risk and it fails, you carry the full weight of failure on your shoulders for a long time.

But perhaps–just maybe–this is different: The threat of a big blow could be the things some colleges have to avoid: The Coronavirus could be the burning platform to drive change.

Only time will tell.

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