As soon as semester’s end was in sight, higher education leaders were consumed with a new question: “How will we get back to school in the fall?” So far, that discussion has been rightly focused on the concrete details, processes and protocols that will allow students to continue their education safely – eventually back on campus. Institutions are assuming that if they are clear about how students CAN come back to campus, students WILL.

But is it so clear cut?

A recent Accenture analysis of more than 50 million publicly available higher-ed-related social media posts depicts a slightly different story. Our study found that many students are uncertain, anxious and concerned about their ability to return to campus – so much so that about 42 percent of posts about returning to campus in fall mention deferring, taking a gap year or switching institutions. Institutions’ attempts to comfort students about fall by drawing a line in the sand seem to be having the opposite effect. Those efforts seem to make students feel pressured to make decisions before they are ready. In fact, two-thirds of incoming freshmen feel that the traditional May 1st deadline for deposits was too soon.

At the same time, institutions know that the student experience is paramount to the decision to come back, defer or switch. In fact, generally students prioritize experience over education. Accenture’s social listening analysis suggests that the loss of experiences – from athletics and clubs to commencement – was the number-one contributor to students’ sadness during this semester.

So while students want an experience, at least some portion of them might be too apprehensive to return to campus. What are higher education institutions to do?

Many parents and students think the answer could be easy: reduce tuition. For traditional, residential students, a significant portion of the tuition check is perceived to go to the “experience.” Sixty-seven percent want a tuition reduction if they don’t go back to campus. The answer isn’t as simple for institutions. Many four-year institutions have relied on physical facilities and amenities – from lazy rivers and climbing walls to modern dorms and cafeteria sushi – to foster student community. To build these facilities, they have amassed significant long-term debt – obligations they will have even if facilities sit idle. In other words, schools don’t save much even when students aren’t getting their “experience.” Consequently, it is hard to refund it.

Institutions are left with little choice. They will need to provide a student experience that is just as good in crisis today as it was pre-COVID. Here’s what they can do.

Provide an experience that is equitable across modalities

Most colleges will go back with a mix of modalities. In-person learning, remote (synchronous) learning and online (mostly asynchronous) learning will likely all exist simultaneously as options on every campus to cater to students with different needs. International students stuck in a different time zone might leverage online learning. An immunocompromised student may leverage remote learning to feel safe. Some students may feel comfortable being in person with the safety protocols the institution puts in place. These students are all part of the university community, and all need equitable access to their student experiences and supports.

Build an integrated hub for digital communities, support and events

Just as institutions created physical spaces to host events and foster student community building and engagement in the past, they will need to create digital spaces for the same purpose today. Everything that can go digital needs to go digital – from student rallies to streaming of spectator sports, from book clubs to virtual workouts. Student life needs to be accessible digitally. And the digital communities that students already have (whether in Reddit or Yammer or Facebook) need to be looped into the bigger university infrastructure. At the same time, support services – such as mental health, advising and career services – need to be proactive in their digital outreach to students.

These investments in a digital student experience will help institutions navigate the crisis of today. They will also prove to be the “climbing wall” differentiators of tomorrow. When choosing a school, digital native students will look for an experience that follows them fluidly between their physical and digital world. What better time than now to invest in the digital student experience infrastructure?

This is the fifth in a multi-part series that Jonathan Fry and I are writing on seven higher education trends intensifying as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. We are helping higher education quickly unpack the challenges and seize the opportunities to outmaneuver uncertainty and thrive in the post-COVID “never normal.”

In the next post, we will explore how IT is increasingly a critical mission partner for universities. In the meantime, let’s stay connected via LinkedIn.


Disclaimer: This document is intended for general informational purposes only and does not take into account the reader’s specific circumstances, and may not reflect the most current developments. Accenture disclaims, to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, any and all liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information in this presentation and for any acts or omissions made based on such information. Accenture does not provide legal, regulatory, audit, or tax advice. Readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel or other licensed professionals.

Samantha Fisher

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Service, Education

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