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Campus Challenges & Priorities during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged stubborn assumptions about higher education

August 1, 2021

For nearly eighteen months, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged stubborn assumptions about higher education: that change is slow, that faculty can’t adapt, that student learning is separate from their everyday lives, or that all students have the same opportunities to succeed. During the 2020–21 academic year, AAC&U surveyed more than seven hundred faculty, staff, and administrators at colleges and universities about their biggest challenges and most important priorities over the previous year. The report on the findings, Campus Challenges and Strategic Priorities in a Time of Change, paints a picture of campuses that are persisting with “business as usual”—but are also seeing their bubbles of normalcy burst under the force of external pressure.

The Five Biggest Challenges for Colleges and Universities

  • The five most significant challenges cited by respondents were financial constraints (74 percent), recognizing and overcoming persistent inequities (46 percent), capacity-building for institutional change and transformation (37 percent), articulating the value of the liberal arts for career preparation (30 percent), and communicating the overall value of liberal education (24 percent).
  • These challenges remained mostly consistent regardless of respondents’ campus profile (i.e., two-year or four-year; public or private; enrollment size) or their role on campus.
  • When asked about their institution’s overall financial stability following COVID-19, 60 percent of respondents indicated they are “very” concerned.
  • Nearly all respondents said that they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about increased financial need among students (98 percent), the ability for their institution to withstand another major tragedy (91 percent), and declines in student enrollment (88 percent) and retention (91 percent).

The Most Important Strategic Priorities

  • In addition to examining their top challenges, respondents also identified the most important strategic priorities for their institutions regarding undergraduate teaching and learning.
  • The top strategic priority cited by campus stakeholders was improving student retention and completion (59 percent).
  • More than half (57 percent) also listed improving campus diversity, equity, and inclusion as a top priority. When responses were grouped together in a factor analysis, nearly 70 percent of respondents identified the need to improve and increase diversity at their institution.
  • This finding is made more salient by the fact that more than half (56 percent) of respondents reported an incident of hate, including hateful speech, against minoritized populations on their campus over the previous year.
  • Many also cited fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion on campus (36 percent), increasing faculty diversity (34 percent), and expanding civic engagement/community-based learning (30 percent) as top priorities.
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Putting Priorities into Action with Data and Equity Goals

  • Though the need to “improve and increase diversity” and “foster and ensure equity” were top strategic priorities for respondents, campuses can do more to make these priorities a reality.
  • Nearly all respondents (93 percent) reported that their institutions disaggregate data about student retention and graduation rates by race or ethnicity, and most disaggregate data about the completion of credits and courses (78 percent).
  • However, only about half of respondents indicated that their campus disaggregates data on student participation in high-impact practices (55 percent) or achievement of learning outcomes (45 percent).
  • Responses displayed similar gaps for goals to close equity gaps among students. Though nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of respondents reported that their institution sets goals for closing equity gaps in retention rates, and more than half (58 percent) set goals for closing gaps in graduation rates, less than a quarter do the same for gaps in student learning outcomes (23 percent) or completing high-impact practices (22 percent).