Ross Robb: Let’s Take a Deep Breath — This Could be Higher Education’s Big Moment

by Katie Sloan

As the world reacts and responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are observing the best and the worst of human nature and everything in between. By and large, I choose to focus on the good — the examples of organizations and individuals acting courageously, following the rules and respecting others, all while looking optimistically towards a future return to ‘normal.’ But what will ‘normal’ look like following the pandemic?

With increasing frequency, I have noticed a torrent of speculation about how we are going to come out of this pandemic and what normal is going to look like in every facet of life. Certainly, some of those expressing opinions are more qualified than others. We should be cautious in listening too closely to supposed experts without knowing who they are, what their background is to be expressing views and opinions, what interest they represent and whether they are invested in particular outcomes. In a 24/7 partisan news cycle, we must be diligent in using all of our intellect to weigh information with an open mind and to come to our own conclusions based on the best information. 

It’s difficult to be patient in these challenging times, especially when so many of our fellow citizens are living day-to-day or paycheck-to-paycheck. We want to skip to the last chapter of a story that is still very much being written. This virus has been reluctant to yield its secrets to us about its timing and lasting effects. 

Higher Education’s Response

My goal in writing this is to stimulate thoughtful discussion and provide a patient, practical and executable approach to help higher education plot its course out of the pandemic. My approach is based on restoring the best of prior norms to emerge stronger by addressing issues raised by the pandemic, as well as challenges in higher education that existed prior to the arrival of the virus. 

Perhaps my ideas are best addressed by imagining a ‘Dream Team’ — a consortium of public and private organizations, each bringing specialized skills to the mission ahead. Higher education administrators and collegiate organizations will be at the center of this effort, but I strongly believe that those administrators and organizations should look to the best of the private sector for assistance — specifically to recognized experts in public health, technology, student housing, food service, architecture, engineering, construction, legal and finance. 

React — Don’t Overreact

I am surprised by how quickly some are wanting to propose drastic changes to almost every facet of higher education based on the pandemic. Indeed, those change-related discussions will be important, but they are premature. With the assistance of appropriate advisors, higher education decision makers should be encouraged to focus their energy on how to safely bring students back to campus for the fall 2020 semester and how to safely deliver instruction while housing and feeding those students. The fall semester challenges are paramount and there is precious little time to address them. 

We currently have little clarity on when or how we will emerge from the pandemic. We hear every day about the need for testing, contact tracing, selective quarantines, therapeutics and vaccines. And for now, these are concepts more than detailed plans or timelines. As information about the virus becomes known and as data becomes more reliable and consistent, the higher education industry will be in a far better position to make longer-term decisions. I encourage prudence and the exploration of reality- based options before we overhaul those parts of the system that we prefer to retain. 

Reach Realistically

Higher education was facing economic challenges long before we ever heard of COVID-19. Some of the discussions I am now hearing about how we come out of the pandemic more prepared involve an aggregate capital expenditure of billions or trillions of dollars to create ‘pandemic-proof’ campuses. While I can certainly envision robust new design guidelines and amended campus master plans that incorporate health, wellness and safety, we must be realistic about the state of campus facilities prior to the pandemic and the amount of debt already being carried related to those facilities. 

Campuses must establish short-, medium- and long-term plans and budgets to incrementally implement realistic change over time. The financial deficits that we were operating under, which are now being dramatically exacerbated, are not going to disappear. We must aggressively advocate for as much public and private funding as we can to keep students safe while not failing to act decisively. 

Look to Technology 

We will undoubtedly be overwhelmed by writings on how to further integrate technology into the delivery of higher education and into the management and control of future health crises on campus. Technology offers many solutions to some of the pandemic-related challenges that lie ahead. 

Online education was already commonplace on some campuses prior to COVID-19 and it quickly became a necessary normal when stay-at-home orders were initiated. Under the banner of maintaining a holistic college experience where student engagement and robust interaction is a foundational tenet, I urge caution in permanently adopting large-scale online instruction and reverting to more closed campuses as the new post-pandemic standard. 

Where I believe technology holds great promise — both short- and long-term — is in epidemic- and pandemic-based applications. Beyond the obvious power of technology to quickly inform through mass communication, we are learning about how technology will be used in the early identification and monitoring of symptoms, in aiding contact tracing and in hastening the quarantining of affected individuals. We must look to an array of highly innovative technology-based solutions alongside well-prioritized renovation and construction projects to help with both long-term facility solutions and emergency contingency plans. 

Back to Basics: The Customer and the Product

To bring some simplicity to the complex problem of emerging better and stronger post-pandemic, we must be guided by a basic and important business principle — targeting a satisfied customer who perceives value in the product. 

As we work our way through the myriad of challenges that lay before those of us who work in higher education, we cannot lose sight of our product and the importance of satisfying our student consumer. It is not going to be possible for the cost of the new normal to be borne by the student in the form of increased tuition or student fees. Government is not likely going to immediately (or perhaps ever) be able to financially support the business of higher education to the level we wish. We have already reached — or exceeded — the ability and willingness of our students to pay more. We must search deep into our own creativity and innovation to provide the education and campus experience that our customers demand. 

Higher Education — At a Tipping Point

Higher education was fast approaching a tipping point even before COVID-19. The ever-increasing cost of attendance for students, inequalities in access across socio-economic classes, student loan debt, aging facilities, shrinking public funding and increasing systemic debt are challenges that are only going to grow more acute post-pandemic. It’s time to dramatically rethink how we deliver quality higher education that it is efficient and accessible, knowing that the answers do not lie in lessening the college experience by discarding the principles that define that experience. 

We often hear the phrase we are all in this together, and while it’s fast becoming cliché, it is true. We can’t deny that we are all in it. What remains unanswered is whether we all come out of it together and united. The key words and concepts that must guide us as we emerge from our challenges are innovation, creativity, technology, partnership and preparedness. We must fit our planning and our product to these concepts and to a changing and demanding customer. 

There is hope – the pandemic will eventually pass. A cure or effective treatments will emerge for COVID- 19. Campus life – while altered — will return. Ultimately, history will judge us all by how we responded to what occurred. 

Regarding higher education, my questions are:

  • Did we return to the old ways because it was easy or to preserve a status-quo?
  • Did the quality of higher education deteriorate because we were too slow to react to change?
  • Or, did higher education set the bar for resiliency by accepting its duty to innovate, to lead and to  teach?

This is our once-in-a-generation moment to demonstrate that we accepted a challenge borne out of an unprecedented pandemic and to chart a new course in higher education that results in an era of innovation and prosperity. Hopefully, a future course that is equally as welcomed as its genesis was unexpected. 

— Ross Robb is a principal of Calfee-Robb Advisors ( and has over 30 years of real estate development experience with a focus on public-private partnerships with cities and with public universities, including Arizona State University and San Francisco State University.  From 2008 until 2016, Ross was vice president of development for public-private partnerships at University House Communities.

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