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How Can a Pandemic Propel Necessary Change in Higher Education?

Peter Worstell, SageGlass Business Development – Higher Education

Dec. 9, 2020

Leaders in higher education are taking stock of their industry amid the pandemic, and thinking about how to envision a better, more sustainable future for their colleges and universities.


Much-Needed Change

A recent New York Times article noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has cost colleges at least $120 billion. Even endowment-rich institutions, like Harvard University, now reflect deficits in the millions. Given the pandemic’s impact, universities have been warned of state budget cuts, and are themselves wrestling with consolidations to survive—along with furloughs, layoffs, and additional belt-tightening measures. All this has resulted in a fragile, timid, and vulnerable landscape for higher education. Many, however, believe these turbulent times will ultimately lead to a more vibrant, more productive, and healthier university system that includes modern, sustainably designed buildings and campuses.


A New Normal

Covid-19 has shaken higher education to its core and created discussion around much-needed change. The “old normal” was arguably not working on numerous fronts. Enrollment was declining, campus facilities were being ignored, and deferred maintenance skyrocketed. To deal with operational deficits, tuitions were consistently raised; ultimately, the return on investment of the college experience was and is being questioned.

Change is good. Surfacing now is an undercurrent of courageous leadership expressing a clear direction and path ahead. These leaders are emphasizing a fresh vision of what the “new normal” can and should be like. It was described recently at the P3 Higher Education Summit as the “opportunist” mindset vs. the “survivalist” one. It is not enough to just survive this era. The goal is to create an industry with a more financially sound balance sheet; sustainable, energy-efficient facilities; and campuses with cleaner, healthier learning environments. Part of this vision also includes updated curriculums, supported by the private sector, that help provide “job-ready” degrees. Streamlining campus learning, using the hybrid model of both online and in-person learning, will be essential. High-performance sustainable technology, like SageGlass, coupled with facility flexibility/adaptability will drive the updated campus look and experience. Revenue diversification will be crucial, as will 365-day plans for facility usage. An example of this is the management and planned activities utilizing athletic stadiums for more than just one sport.


Challenges Ahead

What are some potential hurdles to this fresh vision, and how can we overcome them?  

  • Lack of courageous leadership. The industry expects a mass exodus of presidents and chancellors at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. This provides a window of opportunity for a fresh, “opportunistic” vision to flourish, and for universities to embrace the “new normal” concept.
  • Continued decrease in government and state funding. There is hope that allocated government funds will increase, given the results of the 2020 election. Deferred maintenance needs to be addressed. The decline of state funding needs to stop, and a renewed level of investment in higher education is a must.
  • Continued enrollment declines. There are a few things colleges and universities can do now to regain some enrollment momentum:
    • Colleges and universities can attract future students by reinventing their campuses. It’s critical to update old facilities and develop new ones that generate revenue and support healthy, sustainable, and productive learning environments.
    • Universities that are engaged with the private sector, have curriculums that produce “job-ready” students, and have facilities that attract new recruits will win the day and see enhanced enrollments.
    • Colleges and universities that stand for a specific purpose and have a very clear academic emphasis will be able to cut through the clutter of “sameness” and differentiate themselves to drive enrollment back up.


One Quick, Immediate Solution

It’s important to note that, in the short-term, a one-time total government bailout of the deferred maintenance burden would have a significant positive effect on institutions across the country, allowing them to start moving toward the new normal. The deferred maintenance burden has handcuffed higher education for too long.

Although this is an incredibly difficult time for higher education, leaders who embrace the “opportunistic” mindset will surge ahead of others, by preparing themselves for a new normal—a new normal that presents a more attractive, sustainably driven campus that is financially sound, vibrant, and productive.



Peter Worstell loves to meet with campus facility professionals and faculty members to discuss today’s challenges and opportunities. Peter has more than thirty years of travel and field experience across numerous industries. For the last few years, he has specialized in dynamic glass, including thermochromic and electrochromic technology. Today, Peter is the North American Business Development Manager for SageGlass, a Saint-Gobain company.