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4 higher education experts on how COVID-19 is upending the college experience

Leaders from 2U, Global Citizen Year, Minerva, and Pearson reveal which elements of the higher-ed ecosystem are getting stronger and which are poised to collapse.

4 higher education experts on how COVID-19 is upending the college experience
[Source Image: nirat/iStock]
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For Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.

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Abby Falik is the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, a nonprofit that operates a gap-year program for new high school graduates who aspire to become global leaders. Over the last decade, Global Citizen Year has sent over a thousand fellows to countries including Brazil, India, and Senegal.  

We did an emergency evacuation [of our fellows] in April, just before airports were closing. The writing was on the wall. It was most likely that we wouldn’t be able to run our fellowship the next school year, and that there were going to be a record number of kids that couldn’t go to college as planned. So we launched the Global Citizen Academy for high school graduates worldwide. [Students] take a course on leadership; they have access to mentors and coaches, access to a speaker series. In a way, this is what we’ve been planning for. How can we normalize new pathways and take advantage of this moment, when everyone is questioning the time and cost of a bundled higher education?

Demand [for the academy] has been off the charts from what we expected. We’re already committed to running a spring semester and then another fall semester. What we thought was just a pandemic pivot is now part of the path. We’ve got this platform now that’s totally scalable—it costs us one-tenth of the cost of the fellowship to operate. We’ll continue to do the fellowship, but it’s a complement.

We can’t let the market solve the educational crisis. If we do, education will become job training, period.”

Global Citizen Year founder and CEO Abby Falik
We’re living in this liminal space between one era and the next. So many of the disruptions that people have been writing about and speaking about for so long, the curve on that acceleration has just so dramatically shifted. I have pretty radical views on this. My sense on it is that outside of the top 20 very well-endowed selective colleges, everyone will struggle to survive. [Meanwhile,] I’m watching all these edtech players flood the market. We can’t let the market solve the educational crisis. If we do, education will become job training, period. There is so much that doesn’t have an immediate ROI, and this is where we need mission-driven efforts. You can develop hard skills, but where are the opportunities that help students develop self-awareness? Empathy?


Chip Paucek is the cofounder and CEO of 2U, an edtech company that partners with colleges and universities to develop and operate online degree programs, boot camps, and short courses. (He is also a graduate of MBA@UNC, the online MBA program that 2U manages in partnership with the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.)

We found, even well before COVID, that the negative connotations around online education were rapidly dwindling. Students are now proud to talk about it, and it’s pretty clear [from our surveys] that employers see it as a positive when people continue to add online [credentials] to their résumé. I’m sure COVID will only accelerate that. The demand for what we offer in our full-service capacity, where you’re taking [a] full degree online, is up meaningfully. The programs that we’ve been running for the longest time have had the biggest boost [such as a data science program for Berkeley’s School of Information, a nursing program for Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies, and a Physician Assistant degree from the Yale School of Medicine].

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The reality is, most of the people getting an undergraduate education are in their 30s with kids. The huge market is actually adult learners, who have typically been served by the for-profit [universities]. As more non-profit universities shift online, it will expand access to quality education for these learners.


Ben Nelson is the founder and CEO of Minerva Project, an online learning company founded in 2012 with the goal of providing Ivy League-caliber higher education at a lower price point and with a global perspective. Minerva operates accredited undergraduate and graduate degree programs and licenses its technology to other institutions. 

From an academic perspective, we’re completely pandemic-proof. For six years, our students have been going to class by opening their laptop and turning on their camera. None of our courses were impacted; everyone finished their semester. More than 90% of our students study at any given time in a country that is not their country of origin. In India, [for example,] we had 12 students who didn’t leave by the time the [spring] semester ended, and then the country was locked down for most of the summer. We helped subsidize some of their summer housing costs.

COVID is an earthquake, but it’s an earthquake happening on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, building a wave that’s going to arrive onshore as a tsunami. ”

Minerva Project founder and CEO Ben Nelson
Far, far too many universities are looking at this as a short-term crisis. Their goal is to duck and cover and get through it, then return to normal. What they don’t realize [is that] the students we have who chose to be remote, or needed to be remote, aren’t sitting at home and cursing Minerva. They’re saying, I’m still getting a great education. Whereas the students at [other] universities are damning those universities in either direction. If they’re on campus, they’re saying, What is going on? Why did they bring me here, to charge me full room and board, even though I do all my classes online anyway? The students at home are saying, Why am I paying for these classes on Zoom? But most university leaders think of this as COVID’s fault rather than their own, and that is the danger for the sector. For far too long, they’ve believed their own marketing. We all know that if we were to get the final exam in our sophomore year for the class we took our freshman year, we wouldn’t know how to answer the first question. Decades of research has proven this. So when you’ve spent 30 years spinning a yarn, despite evidence proving it’s incorrect, it’s very hard for an individual to accept that. The problem is not a failure of imagination. It’s just that you’ve spent decades ignoring reality.

COVID is an earthquake, but it’s an earthquake happening on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, building a wave that’s going to arrive onshore as a tsunami. There are going to be winners, there are going to be losers, and then there are going to be lightly impacted universities. Harvard is going to be lightly impacted. What’s going to happen to Harvard is that some proportion of the students that would go in the past will say, wow, this is a lie. But Harvard can accept 10 times as many students as they do and still have the same quality of student body. They’re going to be fine, but they’re not winning [coming] out of this, because they’re not going to change. Then there’s this vast plain of others—well regarded but not ultra-elite. When 25% of your students all of the sudden decide to go to better universities and another 25% say, “Why am I paying this when I could pay nothing for an alternative degree,” you’re going to have an enrollment crisis. And then you’re bankrupt, because you have such high fixed costs.

In a typical year, we bring in more commencement speakers than we have graduating students, and they engage in three days of conversation. This year we couldn’t do a conference, so we did it on our platform—and it was better than it was offline. The participants said they far preferred the commencement that we did virtually. We also realized that the diversity of commencement speakers that we could attract was much, much better. There are also things we missed this year. For example, we used to have these very small dinners. That doesn’t work online. So we’re going to a hybrid in post-COVID days, where we continue to do the programming virtually but we do the breaking bread physically.

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Tim Bozik is the president of global product and North America courseware for Pearson. His team oversees product strategy and development for higher education. 

We’ve seen an acceleration of digital learning and believe that it will continue. Our higher education subscriptions are up in the third quarter amid enrollments that have declined. Digital is the means to deliver what consumers most care about—outcomes, experience, affordability. Now that there’s been more consumption of digital learning experiences, consumer expectations for what’s good will go up. In particular, professional education and lifelong learning will be increasingly consumer-led.

Last year we announced a move from fixed print products that might be updated or revised every three years to a digital-first product model. In that context, print is a feature or service. If a consumer wants print, we’ll make it available. This is the first year we swung our product development into that model, and we’ve been doing things that we would not have been able to do earlier. Our leading economics textbook author, Glenn Hubbard, has been able to update his titles to reflect COVID’s impact on the world. Digital-first also allows us to fix things. This is in my mind an important equity issue. This summer, a student at Boston University raised a concern with some longstanding terminology in one of our engineering textbooks regarding master-slave circuits. We were able to change that, and further engage with the professional associations about adopting new language.

There are ongoing benefits to higher ed participation, and we’ve seen fairly consistent participation rates coming out of high school. But we shouldn’t take that for granted. My view is that we’ll see growth of viable alternatives at some expense of traditional higher-ed participation. The needs are changing, and consumers will drive that. Innovative short-course programs, alternative suppliers—we should expect to see more of that. I think competition from that standpoint is a good thing.


More from Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series:

About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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