The COVID-19 Higher Education Shove

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Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok, Jr., and President Timothy Sands, both at Virginia Tech, discuss creative thinking and outline an aspirational vision for the future of higher education. 

person jumping off a cliff
Credit: MJgraphics / © 2020

Frank Shushok, Jr.: Tim, twenty years ago, I co-authored a study with Robert Birnbaum about an impending "crisis" in higher education. We learned that while colleges and universities had serious issues to address, there was no more a brewing crisis at that time than there ever had been before. In fact, our research revealed that the language of "crisis," in one form or another, has been part of the rhetoric of higher education since the nineteenth century. We concluded that "crises" were tools designed to gain attention and resources and ultimately reflect the changing American sociocultural landscape.1

After holding this belief for years, my mind is shifting. Today, higher education faces a true crisis. Interestingly, this crisis is not rooted in our response to the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, COVID-19 has served to magnify the state of things as college and university leaders scramble to examine our budgets, enrollments, and instructional strategies for the fall semester.

Here is the reality that already existed at the beginning of March when we were unaware of how much would shortly change: tuition rates have increased 213 percent in the last thirty years—faster than every other industry, including health care. At the end of 2018, student loan debt reached $1.47 trillion, more than the total nationally of credit cards or auto loan debt. Yet, students are paying a steep price for largely the same product higher education has delivered for decades. More importantly, with the nation's growing socioeconomic divide, the cost of higher education is becoming too much for those on the margins. As a result, the social fabric that higher education has championed is eroding.

While higher education leaders have been discouraged and dismayed by these issues, nothing has made us say, "Enough!" We haven't been willing to make different choices. But now, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the American economy and public health, not to mention the business-as-usual operations of colleges and universities. Candidly, I believe it may be the shove we need to accelerate change.

In my thirty years in higher education, I have been in dozens of strategic planning sessions where we were asked to "think outside the box." Unfortunately, the results are often incremental improvements to existing products and processes. In the rare cases where innovative ideas emerge, I've watched them be whittled from bold to boring. And nothing kills innovation like benchmarking: if other institutions aren't already doing it, we surely should not either. We often fall prey to Gareth Morgan's metaphor of organizations as "psychic prisons," whereby people become imprisoned by the images, ideas, and actions of the organizations they helped create.2 I call these often-unconscious thoughts "ruts" and believe they are the enemy of ingenuity.

Put simply, college and university leaders must think more creatively. It is for this reason that Steven Sample, former president of the University of Southern California, advocates for "thinking free," a practice that requires participants to think beyond the constraints of resources, time, and fears of failure. To do this, he challenges us to think like artists by contemplating outrageous ideas. Sample stumbled onto this concept early in his academic career in engineering, when he lay on the floor and forced himself to imagine ladybugs, microbes, and even planets controlling a dishwasher in order to discover a new device to run a dishwasher.3 That kind of device is now operating in millions of home appliances.

The business world is replete with examples of thinking free—Elon Musk's SpaceX and Tesla are excellent case studies. But I'm at a loss to offer many recent examples of a game-changing effort, program, or invention in higher education that boldly traverses new territory for the betterment of students and their learning. Some universities are taking an "industry" approach and leveraging technology to deliver high-quality, low-cost degrees to students at scale. An analysis of Georgia Tech's MOOC-inspired online master's degree in computer science suggests that institutions can successfully leverage technology to allow for the shifting of resources to key face-to-face interactions that support student learning, thus opening up the accessibility of education without a commensurate rise in cost. The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Northern Virginia is another step in the right direction and serves as a tangible example of higher education partnering with business and industry to accelerate workforce development and technology.

COVID-19 has forced us to think differently. Just a few months ago, it would have been unimaginable for brick-and-mortar institutions to deliver all of their services and programs without physical facilities, but they did it. This necessary exercise has revealed our ability to be innovative when the rules we know no longer apply. To be sure, the fall semester is offering more creative challenges as we consider ways to foster community and hands-on learning while social distancing and seek to support students' access and success in the midst of deep budget shortfalls. I am hopeful that this new landscape can help us climb out of our mental and organizational ruts and renew our commitment to students, public service, and the greater good. It is time to say, "Enough!"

Timothy Sands: Frank, I think you have captured the moment. Whatever that "next normal" might be, we can't afford to fall back to the 2019 model for residential higher education. Although the challenges of access and affordability have been heightened by the pandemic and the racial reckoning of 2020, these intertwined crises have resorted our priorities and expanded the possibilities.

As colleagues at Virginia Tech, you and I were engaged from 2015 through 2017 in shaping a generational vision for our institution. That vision—Beyond Boundaries—challenged many fundamental assumptions. The Virginia Tech community was able to step outside of our constraints because we gave ourselves explicit permission to do so and not worry about money or whether state law allows this or that.

The vision was aspirational, and if there was a fault in this exercise, it was the lack of urgency. Surely, we could achieve the vision with incremental progress over a few decades, so why make a painful transformative move now? Well, that thinking is out the window! The landscape has shifted, and that shift will become permanent if we recognize the opportunities therein. I am confident that these same conversations are happening now between college and university administrations and their governing boards all over the world, and increasingly among faculty, students, and staff.

There are two such aspirations that I believe have become urgent: First, a student, staff, or faculty member should be able to be anywhere in the world participating in a learning or discovery community and still be fully engaged with the university; and second, wealth, income, and zip code should not be predictive factors in student access and success. Both aspirations have been widely expressed over the past decade, but very few traditional residential colleges or universities can rightfully claim that either of these goals has been achieved. Now, not only are both of these goals possible, but they are also immediate imperatives. And we don't have to entirely throw out the residential model, which has proven its worth over the generations through the holistic development and socialization of young adults.

The residential college or university becomes the "nest" for the first year and the home base thereafter. A student begins their postsecondary academic journey by joining a pathway program in high school or before. That first year on campus builds community and fosters development while offering an opportunity to identify learning paths. Those paths take the student from one engaged learning community to another, with faculty and mentors guiding the student in person and from afar. Every course is HyFlex, allowing a student to engage in any mode that suits the situation, whether that student is on campus, performing research at a national lab, embedded in an internship, or participating in service learning away from campus. Faculty and staff have the same flexibility. The college or university becomes HyFlex in every dimension—delocalized but anchored by campus hubs. Because a fraction of the students, staff, and faculty are physically located on a campus at any one time, the institution can expand access and gain scale without having to grow its permanent infrastructure. Fixed costs per student and faculty members are reduced, and partners recruiting student talent from the college or university become willing investors in the teaching and learning mission, thereby opening the doors to those who do not now consider the residential campus experience affordable or accessible.

There is no "easy button" for this transformation, and while some institutions have been on this path for decades, there is little excuse for more traditional universities not to jump onto this pathway now. As was said about the 1970s science fiction character Steve Austin, "We have the technology."4 This year of crisis has given us a glimpse of what is possible. We just need the courage to leap.


  1. Robert Birnbaum and Frank Shushok, Jr., "The 'Crisis' Crisis in Higher Education: Is that a Wolf or a Pussycat at the Academy's Door?" in In Defense of American Higher Education, eds. Philip G. Altbach, Patricia J. Gumport, and D. Bruce Johnstone (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 59–84.
  2. Gareth Morgan, "Reflections on Images of Organization and Its Implications for Organization and Environment," Organization & Environment 24, no. 4 (January 6, 2012): 459-478.
  3. Steven Sample, "Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership" [], USC News (website), November 1. 2001.
  4. The Six Million Dollar Man is a science fiction and action television series about Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut who gains superhuman strength after receiving bionic implants.

Tim Sands is President at Virginia Tech.

Frank Shushok, Jr., is Vice President for Student Affairs at Virginia Tech.

© 2020 Tim Sands and Frank Shushok, Jr. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.