Higher Education Marketing and Advertising

Can Today’s Higher Ed Learn From Previous Disruptions?

By Peter Toran \ April 24, 2020

Unprecedented. The new normal. Unchartered territory.

It’s difficult to avoid cliches or hyperbole when describing the COVID-19 era. The vast majority of us have never experienced anything like spring 2020’s extensive social distancing. And the fact that no one can say with any degree of certainty when it will end only adds to the feeling of “never before.”

That uncertainty is hitting colleges and universities — and those responsible for marketing them — hard. What the majority of institutions couldn’t do in two decades — move high quality instruction online — they’ve tried to do in two weeks. At a time when many schools already are facing existential threats due to declining enrollments, state support, and public perception, add an unanticipated multi-million dollar revenue shortfall to the list. All those marketing campaigns that sounded so great just a few months ago — Check out our intramural sports! Go global and study abroad! — are so 2019.

It’s a tough time to be a traditional higher ed optimist. How many students look forward to hunkering down in a dorm room with one, two, or three strangers, packing the football stadium, and chowing down in the dining hall now that the threat of infection looms? More importantly, how many parents will be eager to pay thousands for those “privileges”?

That question may be moot, as it’s not yet clear if, when, and how schools will conduct classes in the fall. That puts presidents, provosts, chief financial officers, and governing boards in the unenviable position of having to make decisions that will impact the lives of thousands of students — and their institution’s current and future financial viability — based only on best-guess projections about an uncertain future.

Although the coronavirus is unprecedented for us, the history of our species is, unfortunately, filled with epidemics, pandemics, widespread financial collapses and world wars. But while we may want to learn from our past, it’s human nature to forget the worst of times: It’s cold comfort to know that the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague, killed an estimated 60% of Europe’s population in the 14th century and up to 125 million people globally. And the takeaway is…?

Narrowing our focus to the last 100 years, is there anything we can learn from how colleges and universities responded to major disruptions — medical, social, natural, or economic? What lessons— if any — does history hold in four major areas of concern for today’s higher education leaders? What might we predict about a post-COVID future based on past experiences?

Enrollment ups and downs

College attendance increased only slightly during the Great Depression, caused more by existing trends than by students turning to college to escape unemployment. The 1930s did see enrollment shifts from more expensive private colleges to public institutions.

During World War II, male enrollments dropped significantly as a result of the war effort. This opened the door for increased opportunities for women: In 1943–44, about half of the students in colleges were women.

Both the Depression-era and post-World War II America saw a move to local, affordable education. With the implementation of recommendations from President Truman’s 1947 Commission on Higher Education, federal funds were allocated to establish community colleges, which had previously been mostly private. And, for what’s-in-a-name fans, over time, “community” replaced “junior” to describe two-year colleges.

Trends in learning and teaching

The Flu of 1918 took the lives of as many as 50 million people, including approximately 675,000 in the U.S. — more Americans than both world wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. As the pandemic spread through Baltimore, a group of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine doctors and researchers took the lead in advancing the understanding of immunology and genetics, with the dean founding what is now the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

During the Great Depression, more students chose a general liberal arts education over more professionally oriented programs such as business administration, architecture or engineering. Facing an uncertain economic future, the thinking was that a broad-based education would be more valuable than one focused on a single profession — a message that presidents of liberal arts colleges would love to revive today.

Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans community colleges, colleges and universities rebounded with academic programs related to the disaster, including:

  • construction and environmental cleanup
  • urban and regional planning
  • community service clinics and experiential learning

Survival of the fittest

While New Orlean’s more established — and wealthier — institutions like Tulane and Loyola University have rebounded from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the city’s HBCUs, especially Southern University of New Orleans, continue to struggle a decade after the storm. A Darwinian thinning-of-the-ranks is a logical expectation following a major disruption.

Systemic change

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — known as the GI Bill — changed the landscape not only of higher education but of post-World War II America. By making financial assistance available to the country’s 16 million returning veterans, the legislation proactively sought to avoid the widespread unemployment and social disruption that transitioning the troops was predicted to cause.

As a result of the bill, the number of degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled between 1940 and 1950; 49% of college admissions in 1947 were veterans utilizing GI Bill benefits. Although the bill failed to ensure equal opportunity for black veterans, it changed the public perception of the college campus from elitist to egalitarian, with programming expanded to include more vocational training.



A repeat of what happened in the Great Depression — continuation of existing enrollment trends, with a shift to more affordable education — is a likely scenario, certainly in the short-term. Unfortunately, unlike the 1930s, that means declining enrollments, and counter to what we’ve come to expect — that when the economy is bad, people turn to higher education.
In addition, higher education will become increasingly local, as it was during the Depression and following World War II. In fact, the number of students who attend college under an hour’s drive from home has been growing since the 1990s. As recently reported in the New York Times, elite institutions won’t be immune to the impact of hyper-local enrollment, as shown by the austerity measures announced by wealthy universities such as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago.

And related:

  • Institutions that are already established in the online education market will hold a significant advantage in fall 2020 and beyond. As Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, observed, universities that were thrust into online learning in spring 2020 are in Minimum Viable Product mode: doing just enough to get by “for now.” That may get them through the spring semester, but it won’t be enough to sustain fall enrollment.
  • Recruitment and retention marketing messages will pivot to reflect the hyper-local movement. Cost and convenience will supplant prestige and amenities as primary value propositions. Also big — student health, wellness, and safety.
  • More students will take “gap years” in fall 2020 than in any year in recent memory. Of course, students with limited financial resources don’t call this a “gap year,” they simply can’t afford to attend.
  • The trend of students taking online classes from institutions within a 50-mile radius of where they live will continue — another reinforcement of the hyper-local phenomenon.
    With more institutions forced to deliver courses online, colleges and universities that were looking at distance learning as a “Hail Mary” attempt to reverse declining enrollments prior to COVID-19 will face a harsh reality: Online education will be just as competitive as face-to-face.

The public policy debate about free college will be replaced by discussions centered on student debt relief and federal aid to colleges and universities.

Learning and Teaching. Obviously, online learning and teaching has been thrust into the spotlight, where it will remain, at least in the short-term (a period that no one can define). And some additional likelihoods:

  • Expect more prospect inquiries for programs related to health care, technology and online gaming. (And family therapy?)
  • Instructional technology and design team members will be in high demand and will finally get the attention and respect — if not the salaries — they deserve.

Survival of the Fittest. The recent trend of higher education mergers and closings will continue, if not accelerate, and will extend beyond small, private liberal arts colleges. Cash-strapped state governments will be forced to look at their systems much more critically. Underperforming and under-enrolled campuses — public or private — will be difficult to justify in the post-COVID economy. And some college presidents may consider declaring financial exigency — never a popular move in the academy but one that could provide the only chance at survival for some institutions.

Systemic Change. Some educators and public policy leaders have long been calling for a 21st-century GI Bill, a recognition that, similar to the demographic shift of post-WWII America, the idea of the “traditional” college student no longer holds. Could the forced spring 2020 online semester be the catalyst for that fundamental change?

But while it’s tempting to view the online vs. traditional choice as an either/or, there’s increasing evidence that it’s more likely — and more effectively — a yes, and…

Cornell sociologists who studied enrollment patterns concluded that a hybrid model in which large, lower-division courses delivered in online formats combined with smaller, face-to-face instruction “would not appreciably reduce the interconnectedness of students.”

David Deming, director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, suggests something similar: online providers offering high-quality lectures in an affordable, flexible format, supplemented by smaller, face-to-face learning on traditional brick-and-mortar campuses — an element he considers essential to effective learning.
While the past doesn’t hold a clear answer for higher education in 2020, it does remind us that change can either be forced or intentional. We’ve experienced the first. The question is, will we move on to the second?


Peter Toran
Lead Strategist
Peter Toran
Lead Strategist

Peter is unequivocally the coolest person in the office. Having served in university leadership and on executive boards, Peter has a lot of experience in a lot of areas. And he helps gain our clients’ trust and support from Day One. Peter is also an expert on enrollment and content strategy and institutional branding and communications. There’s nothing this guy can’t do, but he’s exceptionally good at bringing us artisanal bread on Friday’s paired with well-baked puns.