Disruption and the Future of Higher Education and Advancement

By Dr. Karen Baldwin, Senior Consultant at Lighthouse Counsel

With a pandemic, a national reckoning with social injustice and political turmoil, the past year has brought what might seem like an unholy trinity when it comes to disruption in the status quo. No segment of society, business or community has gone untouched, including higher education and advancement.

Jeff Jowdy, president and founder of Lighthouse Counsel, recently hosted a panel discussion for members of The Giving Institute that focused on the impact of the past year on higher education institutions and advancement.

The panel included Dr. Connie Book, president of Elon University; Dr. Bob Smith, senior advisor for executive leadership and talent development for the University of Tennessee System and of counsel with Lighthouse Counsel; and Kerry Witcher, vice president for development and alumni affairs at the University of Tennessee.

As expected, disruption was a key theme. Equally key was the uplifting notion that, from the chaos, higher education and the advancement organizations that support it will emerge stronger. Higher education learned it can change, and that nimble institutions are more resilient.

“We realized that it didn’t take a year to make a curriculum change or three years to move to an online institution,” Smith said. “In fact, some changes happened in a matter of hours, a matter of weekends.”

Budgets, of course, were impacted. The switch to online classes meant some institutions refunded tuition, at least partially. Enrollments dropped and, as resources waned, additional unexpected expenses grew — especially those related to health and safety protocols such as COVID testing, increased sanitization efforts and campus security.

There were more-enduring and long-term issues — and solutions — as well. All of the issues that affected education during the pandemic can affect advancement and fundraising. “They can either bolster or erode the student experience which ultimately is the greatest motivator of family and alumni giving.”

Technology

Witcher emphasized the importance of relationship-building in advancement and pointed to how universities were forced to pivot quickly when it came to outreach. Advancement is such a people business. “We’re about relationships and not just advancement,” he said. “For us, it’s the ability to connect with someone one-on-one by sitting down with them and getting to know them to build that relationship. I think you can say the same for higher education as a whole. All of that was out the window on March 13, 2020, when society started shutting down due to the pandemic,” he said.

“Zoom became our best friend, and we learned some things,” Witcher shared. “First of all, we can visit with some people by Zoom that we might not have been able to visit with otherwise. We also found out we can actually raise money from those folks with whom we built relationships through Zoom.

“Alumni affairs saw more people engage, especially last spring when people were at home and couldn’t do a lot of things. A tremendous influx of people attended webinars,” he said, citing an online alumni event that drew 500 attendees and a webinar about COVID with 400 attendees.

“I think it’s safe to say technology is here to stay for us,” Witcher said.

Book agreed, suggesting that once the pandemic is over and life returns to some iteration of normal, people across the higher education spectrum — from students to teachers, administrators to board members, and of course alumni and donors — will continue to expect the option of taking classes online and meeting virtually.

Trust

Chaos in the upper levels of government led to an eroding level of trust in institutions in general. Higher education was not immune.

Smith said trust is a twofold issue. For one, schools must show they can execute a consistent educational plan. The pandemic forced many changes, with inconsistent messaging due to evolving guidelines, such as in-person vs. online learning. Pandemic or not, students and their families must get a sense of consistency from their school leadership.

The death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests brought about tense, sometimes volatile, conversations about race in America, social justice and the relationship between police and people of color. Book emphasized that surveys show that, across the board, students, particularly those of color, have decreased levels of trust in institutions.

Smith also noted the trust equation regarding safety. Not only do schools need to provide a physically safe and healthy environment, they need to provide a socially healthy one as well. “We don’t want to forget that one of the other forces that was evident in 2020 was social injustice and the uprisings that resulted across the country,” Smith said. “Campuses are a real cauldron for those kinds of discussions and those kinds of issues. Safety is going to be multidimensional.”

“It’s a really disruptive time in terms of the purpose of higher education, the voice of higher education, the work we do with students of color and how we reflect practices of social equity on our campuses,” she said, adding that “while school leadership feels it is being transparent, students often don’t agree.”

“I think it is going to take years of intentional rebuilding,” she said. “And how do you rebuild trust? Well, there’s transparency, accountability. … We’ve read this list before, and I think rebuilding trust is going to be on the front burner for higher education during the next few years.”

Brand

Institutions of higher education had different experiences during the tumultuous months of 2020 and into this year. Predictably, their recoveries will vary as well. Large, entrenched institutions with well-known brands “are going to do just fine,” Smith said, with the caveat that they’ll have to deal with bloated expenses laid bare in the harsh light of the pandemic. Most likely, however, enrollments won’t suffer. Graduate enrollment will also do well as companies look to hire employees with credentials.

Less well-established schools, however, will have a tougher time. For some, it might be too late to ensure longevity.

“In the enrollment management sector, we have said for decades that you need to identify your niche, and you need to identify what you stand for. And that has to have appeal to prospective students and their families,” Smith said. “That is going to be even more important going forward.”

“You can’t base your appeal on just price or location,” he said. “You’ve got to have a purpose, and lesser-known institutions are really going to have to face that reality.”

Engagement

Engagement is critical when it comes to relationships with donors on any level, and especially so when it comes to alumni relations. Schools need to recognize the upside to the pandemic pivot, which is that virtual outreach opens doors to new engagement opportunities that aren’t hindered by time, distance or expense.

However, students who may have felt disenfranchised during the pandemic — some surveys have found that 75% of college students have been unhappy with online learning — are less likely to engage or feel engaged, which has repercussions for advancement. Smith noted that unhappy students turn into unengaged alumni, who turn into uninterested prospective donors.

“When it ultimately comes time for alumni to become donors, giving will be impacted by not only declining enrollment but also the lack of trust and engagement,” he said.

Fundraising

The panel agreed that the pandemic shined a light on transparency and on connecting with donors even more intimately than before. The education sector, Book said, is especially challenged to “show results” because those results aren’t immediate. So, the pandemic was a lesson in “connecting the dots” for donors that will serve universities well into the future.

“When we think about higher education, our action is educating people who go out to change the world. When you’re in a culture where everything is ‘Take action, take action,’ you’re like, ‘We’re doing it every day,” she said. “It feels slow to people who want more, so we really tried to connect the dots for people.”

At a time when the entire world suddenly seemed to be in need and the need was so great, it was important to reach out simply to inquire how donors and their families and businesses were faring — an important reminder that relationships are built around more than just the ask.

Witcher said he fears the pandemic will have repercussions down the line, even for universities that didn’t see a major drop in giving from active donors, because of its effect on bringing new donors on board during a major health and economic crisis.

“We’ve had a really good year with our existing donors. We’ve had some loyal folks who stayed with us and stepped up to help us. We haven’t been as successful in bringing new people on board and establishing new relationships,” he said.

“It’ll be interesting to see what this looks like for us over the next few years because we’re still in a bit of a holding pattern,” he said. “For us, it’s been an interesting year, a learning experience, and we’re curious to see how some of this will apply as we move into the future.

Book also suggested that the tragic reality of the pandemic — hundreds of thousands of lives lost — has opened the door to more conversations around planned giving and estate planning.

Two Caveats Arose in the Conversation

1. It is a dangerous assumption to view the pandemic and other elements of this trying time as an anomaly. The repercussions of this unprecedented time in the history of the United States, and the world, will be felt for years to come. “It’s not going to be a ‘one and done’ year; this is going to have a long tail,” Book said. “Even the downward slope of the pandemic is much more disruptive. You usually think of downward slopes as fast, like coming down the side of a hill. That’s not how this feels at all.”

Smith argued that this “once-in-a-lifetime” pandemic may prove not to be an aberration and that the issues that came to light as a result need to be addressed before the next crisis.

“There’s going to be another version of, if not COVID, something else,” he said. “And I’m not sure that we have an infrastructure that can address that, and I’m not sure we’ve had a mindset that can address that.”

2. No part of society, higher education included, should be too quick to embrace a return to pre-2020 normalcy. Many of the challenges in advancement and higher education existed before COVID, especially for those institutions who “were desperately attempting to romance the past,” Smith said. “The pandemic simply accelerated these challenges to the top of our agenda. There has to be an open discussion about moving forward, not moving backwards.”

We Will Survive

Ultimately, Book said, higher education will not only survive the three-ring circus of disruption — COVID-19, a volatile reawakening of the discussion around equality and civil rights, and a severely divisive political atmosphere — it will thrive.

“I think [higher education] is going to be stronger on the other side of this,” she said. “We have learned that we can change, and that our muscles for changing have all been worked. So, we’re all a lot nimbler than we were prior to COVID.”