What COVID-19 Means for the Future of Christian Higher Education

We are clearly in a defining historical moment that represents a paradigm shift in the world of Christian higher education. From this point forward, institutional histories will be written in terms of pre-coronavirus and post-coronavirus. 

The best way to face this ongoing challenge is with great flexibility and as much preparation as possible.

Rethinking Space

At this point, the best-case scenario looks like a modified traditional model with social distancing in classrooms and across campus, virus testing, temperature scanning, places to quarantine students, masks for everyone, and ample Purell dispensers readily available. 

From this point forward, institutional histories will be written in terms of pre-coronavirus and post-coronavirus.

University leaders will need rethink their spaces—everything from a temporary infirmary for sick students to more spacing for chairs in classrooms, chapels, and dining halls. It’s possible that student spaces may need to extend into existing staff spaces, which could be freed up by asking any staff who don’t need to be on campus to stay home.

It will likely be wise to work toward a hybrid model, with some students returning to campus and others—perhaps those more vulnerable to illness or who live farther away—continuing with an online format. Gathering students together is important, given the activities, personal interactions, and sense of community that are so important on Christian campuses. But things will have a different look and feel. 

At this point, safety is more important than providing the ideal college experience. No one wants to be the campus where there is a major outbreak of the virus. 

Rethinking Schedules

Now is the time for many to rethink the academic calendar, moving away from semesters to one-week intensives, four-week modular courses, or eight-week formats (or, likely, some combination of these) that would allow students to take one or two courses at a time. 

Schools also need to be prepared for the possibility of starting the semester on campus and then moving off again at the midpoint of the semester, or perhaps the reverse. Either way, the more creative formats will need to allow for nimbleness and greater flexibility.

Rethinking Finances

Many schools have lived on the financial edge for years—stretching dollars, faithfully carrying out the mission, and accomplishing a lot with extremely limited resources. This moment’s uncertainties will underscore these realities and tensions on most campuses. Reports of serious budget and personnel reductions will echo across the country. Navigating mergers or new partnerships will become a reality.

Safety is more important than providing the ideal college experience.

College enrollments have fallen nearly 10 percent across the board in the past five years. It’s possible that some schools will see an increase in enrollment, since lack of jobs during recessions normally pushes both high-school graduates and out-of-work adults back to class.

But some schools will need to prepare for a decline this fall. Many freshmen will defer, waiting a year to enroll. Reports indicate that interest in gap-year programs has risen substantially as people look for alternatives. Others will choose to take a class or two closer to home at the local community college until there’s more clarity.

Those few schools with endowments will remain in a watchful mode due to the volatility of the markets. As the economy slows, giving will likely be down on every campus. This may be even more pronounced among those who depend on funding from churches and denominations, which are facing their own challenges.

Depending on God

Navigating these multi-layered and multi-dimensional issues will seem unending, which makes managing the existential crisis that much more intense. Leaders will need both to assess their situations carefully on a regular basis and also to communicate clearly and frequently.

Staff and faculty will need to anticipate change, but at the same time avoid mission drift. Administration will need to make careful decisions, communicate effectively, keep the institution focused, and embody a sense of resiliency. 

In the midst of all of these things, Christian commitment, conviction, and compassion must be displayed.

In the midst of all of these things, Christian commitment, conviction, and compassion must be displayed. And in the highly competitive world of higher education, this moment calls for collaboration, partnership, and a spirit of cooperation with other institutions.

Ultimately, this is a time to rediscover our complete and prayerful dependence on God. COVID-19 has revealed that our wrongheaded and naïve sense of control has been nothing more than an illusion. Such a recognition should be the first step toward genuine and Spirit-enabled renewal on our campuses and, more broadly, among God’s people. 

Written by: David Dockery

First published 11.05.20: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/future-christian-higher-education/

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