The New Look of Boston’s Higher Education Institutions

In a time of major upheaval, what does the future hold for higher learning in Boston? Five hometown college and university leaders peer into their crystal ball—and what they see might surprise you.

Photo by Italstorm/Getty Images / Antoniokhr/Getty Images

Regular COVID-19 tests, online classes, socially distanced dorms—this fall, students, parents, faculty, and administrators will experience college literally like never before. But what will going to school in Boston look like five, 10, or even 15 years from now? What are the higher-education industry’s toughest challenges and reasons for hope? Five local college and university leaders—Emerson’s Lee Pelton, Lesley’s Janet Steinmayer; Roxbury Community College’s Valerie Roberson; edX’s Anant Agarwal, and UMass’s Marty Meehan—sat down to talk about where we are, how we got here, and, most important, what comes next.

When you look at the changes that Boston-area colleges and universities are making this fall in terms of campus safety and online learning, which ones are temporary and which ones are likely permanent?

Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College: Well, as a French philosopher once said, “The future is not what it used to be.” I think in some respects the future is unknown. And I believe that our thinking about the future must be done with deep humility. Having said that, it would appear that not only colleges and universities, but practically all aspects of human life will become more dependent on technology. It’s difficult to know what that will look like five years from now because I think this is evolutionary and it will all be in a state of change. But I do expect that learning and teaching will move somewhat to an online platform.

Janet Steinmayer, president of Lesley University: I agree with you, Lee. I think there’s going to be an enormous amount of learning that’s hybrid, that’s low-residency, and that’s really meeting students where they are, wherever they are in their lives. The skills they’re learning right now will serve them well throughout their lives. So, I think the challenge for us is to give students those tools for lifelong learning.

Valerie Roberson, president of Roxbury Community College: Using my own campus as an example, we’d always had some remote offerings, but to go to 90 percent remote offerings has really opened our eyes to what’s possible. And for community college students, they always struggle with the traditional route, and anything that we can do to enable them to have more flexibility has the potential to change completion and persistence rates. If education is more flexible, in the long run, many more students will be able to persist in higher education.

Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of EdX: Valerie, you mention flexibility at community college, but frankly, the same is true at all colleges. We did a study at MIT in the fall of 2016 and in the spring of 2017 where the same course was offered on edX, fully online, for tuition-paying students, and also offered in-person. And performances were similar. The stress level of the students who took it online, though, was one whole standard deviation lower than the students who were taking the course in-person. The students love the flexibility. And frankly, studies like that show us that the online modality can be a terrific adjunct to the in-person modality on campus. My belief is that the future is going to be blended. We all went from 3 percent of the world learning online to 100 percent of the world learning online starting in March. Come next spring, we’ll see some schools rubber-band back, but things will never go back to zero because all of the faculty and students have tasted online and, by and large, like it or are neutral to it. Within a few years, I see that most campuses will be roughly 50 percent online and 50 percent in person.

Marty Meehan, president of University of Massachusetts: Right now, UMass online is about a $130 million operation, and we announced recently that we’re going to expand. We’re forming a collaboration with Brandman University in California because we like the platform, we like the student-success rates, and we like the services that are provided to students. I would say there are a million people in Massachusetts who have some college credit but haven’t gotten a degree. We’re going to target those adult learners through this new online initiative so we can help more people who have some college get certificates and degrees. I think the coronavirus crisis just highlights the fact that we need to do more online learning. I believe there’ll always be students who come to four-year institutions and get a degree, but I think having more online capability is going to be critically important looking into the future.

Anant Agarwal / Photo by Edex

How prepared were colleges to go online when the coronavirus first struck?

Agarwal: edX was founded almost nine years ago by Harvard and MIT to remove the barriers of cost and bring online education to the world. We have 150 institutional partners, about half a dozen from the Boston area, and thousands of courses running online. We also offer training programs for online learning. But the sad part is that I don’t think any university was totally prepared for what happened. Studies have shown that online learning and blended learning are good for learning outcomes and good for business continuity at universities, and we’ve all known this, but I think it took the COVID moment to really teach us that. It was a real “come to God” moment, whoever God may be, in terms of asking, What do we do here? And frankly, I think every university was caught unaware and had a hard time. A lot of universities came to us saying, “Hey, we need to rapidly gear up on how to teach faculty to teach online.” We also launched courses on how to learn online, because learning online is a new skill. It’s not the same as learning in-person. Within one month of starting, we had close to 100,000 people learning how to learn online.

Pelton: I think we need to be very careful and be very specific about the kind of online learning to which we refer. Remote learning at edX, and there are other examples, is not the same thing as blended learning at a Harvard class on, you know, American literature or in the social sciences. Those are two different activities and two very different modes of teaching and learning. I’m not making any judgments about which is better. I don’t think those judgments are useful. But it seems to me that one might make a judgment that blended learning in a certain discipline might be more impactful than having that course completely online. I’ll mention the Berklee College of Music. These are kids with trumpets, and so much of what they do there in terms of learning and teaching is in-person. But they’ve also created, outside of that learning environment, a really robust and profitable online learning platform that attracts students remotely. I don’t know how many colleges and universities will make the big investments in remote learning, and I’m not saying that I’m opposed to it, but I just think we need to be very specific about what kind of online learning we’re referring to.

Agarwal: I actually agree with Lee that there is online learning, and then there is blended learning. Blended learning is where you’re combining in-person learning and online learning. And virtually every study that I’ve seen shows that blended learning is actually better than either purely online learning or purely in-person learning.

Lee Pelton / PhotosbyKim

When you look at the recent national reckoning to end police brutality and the protests for civil justice, what are the impacts on your schools right now and as you look to the future?

Pelton: People ask me all the time, “Is this a moment?” I say, “No, it’s not a moment, it’s a movement.” But it’s a different kind of movement than what John Lewis and others were engaged in. This movement is fueled by young people. People still in high school. And they can use social media to create a protest or a rally or a march of 10,000 people overnight. So for those of us who sit in these presidents’ seats and think, Wow, I got through that issue—no, that’s not it. There’s no getting through this issue. There’s no fixing this issue anymore. This is going to be with us for a while. And it’s something to be both celebrated and endured and will involve continuous, ongoing commitment and conversation and dialogue.

Steinmayer: We have a tremendous opportunity to change things systemically. And it starts with the leadership of the university, and having them engaged as you say, Lee, in constant dialogue, understanding, and learning, but also action. Lesley was founded on principles of social justice. But how do you activate that social justice? I think it can start by creating rules on training and recruiting and hiring and supporting, so that you are making that difference and you’re doing that really effectively and quickly.

Meehan: I think universities are going to change the way they approach policing and change the way they hire faculty. There is a propensity that faculty have to hire people just like themselves, and I think that has been an impediment to university faculty becoming more diverse. Students are outraged, and they’re not going to stop until systemic racism is dealt with, and universities are going to play a powerful role. But I’ll tell you, looking into the future, universities have to change.

Roberson: Coming from Roxbury Community College, we’re already 90 percent students of color, so these are the same issues that we always have to deal with as far as our students are concerned. What this movement does is bring a lot of the issues that we’ve been dealing with to the forefront. There’s always been this kind of negative cloud over the college, as though we were the worst in the country, but the reality is that the institution has been subject to the same kind of racism that individuals are subject to. And I think that, for us, it’s a great opportunity to really highlight the wonderful work that we’ve done, the progress that our students have made, and really to understand it. I’m hopeful that other people will realize the resource that we have in Boston and how, especially in this crisis, RCC can be instrumental in getting more people back to work.

Meehan: When students come back, this issue is not going away. This is an issue that is just growing and growing. And I hope that universities can lead over the next decade or two. People have lost their patience and they want change now.

Pelton: We know from experience that students and college administrators occupy two different time zones. And for students, they’re compelled by the “fierce urgency of now.” What that means for most generations of students is that they’re less beholden to history. It has less relevance for them than it might have for those of us who have lived through that history. It also means that the sort of authority that we may assume based on our life experiences, or our experiences as leaders of these institutions, has less meaning for students who live in these different time zones. We’re dealing with structural issues that are not new. Mr. Floyd’s death was not new. As awful as it was, it was just a symptom of larger structural racism in this country. And those issues require some time and patience and endurance. Students today, as they were probably in every generation, are less patient and they want action now. And that’s a major source of tension between our best efforts and student expectations.

Marty Meehan / Photo by Josephine Pettigrew/Office of the Governor of Massachusetts

The decline in births after the 2008 financial crisis has created a looming demographic downturn of graduating high school seniors in 2026. How big a deal is that to Boston-area universities, and are you already preparing for it?

Meehan: I think this is a big deal. We’re looking at dramatic demographic shifts, particularly in New England. These are going to be challenging times for universities, both private and public, and nobody wants their university or college to close. Nobody wants it to merge with somebody else. But I think the reality is, demographically, we’re getting to a point where everyone isn’t going to survive. And I think the pandemic has accelerated that. So where these issues were going to become major issues in five to seven to 10 years from now, I think that’s going to be accelerated to two or three or four years. Higher education is going to have to find a way to figure out which collaborations or mergers make institutions in some cases more efficient.

Steinmayer: It’s part of a big deal. It’s the pandemic, the challenged economy, and all sorts of things that are swirling. And I always find it interesting, because I didn’t come from academia but from the business and legal world, that there’s this prediction that some part of this industry will simply go away. I don’t think that’s true. I think that there will be successes in large, medium, and small institutions. But what it will do is press us to really understand what our distinctive offering is, what our distinctive niche is, and to make sure that we’re serving our students in that niche as well as we can in multi-modal ways, because I think that’s going to reduce our costs. I think it’s going to make it more affordable and accessible. And I think it’s going to be very important that people stick to their knitting and understand exactly what it is that they’re delivering. Because if you do that, as a private institution, there’s a value to what you’re bringing to the experience that’s different than other players, and I think we all have roles to play. We’re very complementary. But you have to know exactly what it is that you’re delivering in order to do it effectively.

Roberson: The pandemic has caused us to be more creative and to work with other entities in collaborations. That’s the thing that can sustain you through the loss of the traditional students. But I also think that the unrest has also revealed a whole segment of the population that has not been educated adequately, and that there are many students that we need to attract to higher education so that they can have an opportunity to change their economic trajectory. So that means who we serve might be different and how we serve them might be different. The pandemic is going to change the way businesses operate, so for community colleges, in particular, because we are concerned about the workforce, we will be reeducating and retraining our students.

Agarwal: I think there’s a potential silver lining, even as enrollments decline because of demographics in six or seven years. One is the population Valerie talked about. The second population is being created by the future of work, where it’s very clear that for people to stay employed we need to move to a culture where we are learning all the time. Gone is the day when you get a degree and then work for the rest of your life. Today, you have to be learning continuously and understand how to use data. Managing by gut feel is over. I think that there’s a real opportunity here for universities, rather than catering to just the 18-year-old on a campus, to think big and cater to people who are either underemployed, or who have been laid off or furloughed due to COVID, and help them upskill to get the newer jobs. And frankly, I think online is going to be key. Because if I’m 35, have two children, and live with my family, what are the odds I’m going to be able to go back to campus for two years? Heck, there’s no way I can even find my transcript to reapply to college. Where am I going to get recommendation letters? The whole application process is so antediluvian. We need to move to a model of learning where people can become continuous lifelong learners very easily with micro-credentials rather than two- and four-year degrees. And at the same time, given the demographic crisis universities face, if the two were to come together, we could also address the enrollment problems.

Pelton: I would agree, though I would caution us that, as someone once said, “Change at a college or university is like trying to move a cemetery.” You know, it’s a very, very hard thing to do. Our industry is already in the midst of a market correction. I think we all understand that. And that correction will be accelerated both by COVID and also by the ongoing demographic changes, especially for the small colleges, where regional applications or local applications are so very important. I don’t fear for places like Lesley or Roxbury because those are institutions that have a niche, and you’re able to distinguish yourselves. You stand out in the marketplace. I worry about the small liberal arts colleges with enrollments of less than 1,000 students, or 1,200 students, that are still tenaciously clinging to what I call Liberal Arts 1.0 when they really should be engaged in Liberal Arts 2.0, which is bringing to bear into your liberal learning studies the kind of learning that’s applicable to modern life. Lesley does this so well. But it’s those other places—small liberal arts places, no endowments, heavily tuition dependent, leveraged, many of them in remote locations. It’s those places that I’m worried are really very fragile and vulnerable right now. I think we’re going see some acceleration of closures or mergers and acquisitions with that subsection of higher ed.

Janet Steinmayer / Photo courtesy of Lesley University/Mark Teiwes

Putting aside the doom and gloom for just a moment: What makes you hopeful about what’s happening in Boston’s education world?

Agarwal: I see silver linings in everything. I’m thinking about massive expansion of our great city of Boston, the education city. I think Boston should become worldwide. We have some of the best education institutions in the world, many of you representing them here. I see the future of work, and also online learning, as a platform and a way for Boston to use online learning and digital technology to be worldwide. Look at what Amazon did. From a little warehouse selling books, they built a platform. And today, they’ve become a juggernaut out of Seattle. Boston can do the same thing with online learning. Why can’t we make sure that our courses are broadcast everywhere? Of course, we have blended learning on campuses to bring people together. But why don’t we embrace digital technology and make it available to the world so that everybody can also access the amazing teaching and learning out of Boston, and not just those who can afford to come into Boston? I think this is our moment. I think we can do it. And frankly, I think our ambition should be big. I think we should reach for the stars.

Steinmayer: This entire situation has also highlighted our interdependency with other higher-ed institutions in Boston, and there’s going to be an acceleration of collaboration with institutions that do different things. So if you think about us sticking to our knitting, if you will, there are other groups that can help us to deliver our services and I think that weaving of the community will happen over the next few years.

Roberson: Our niche is really providing more job training to individuals, and as Boston looks to recover from this crisis and future crises, it really needs strong community colleges. And we need to be linked arm in arm with the business community so that we’re developing programs that are going to put individuals to work. I’m excited about the possibilities of working more closely with the city and recognizing how we can add value.

Valerie Roberson / Photo by Mr. Phuong Tang

What’s a tip that you can share with your fellow presidents based on what you’ve learned over the past six months?

Meehan: I think the younger generation shouldn’t be underestimated. This is a generation on top of technology that’s demanding change, and they are literally going to change the world for the positive. One of the great things about being a college president is the opportunity to interact with young people, and I am bullish on the future of the country and the world because of young people.

Agarwal: When we were hit by COVID in March, in one month we registered more students than in the entire previous year. We had 5 million new students come to edX, and we’ve grown to 33 million students worldwide. To me, the lesson is that we need to continue innovating. We need to continue using the latest in technologies to learn. We need to be moving forward. I also believe in sharing, and we need to work a lot more together. We work with Bunker Hill Community College and I would love to find a way to work with Roxbury Community College and all of you here. There’s really no reason for every university to do the same thing—it just doesn’t make sense. Let’s find a way to share and thereby give a lot more value to our students.

Steinmayer: I had that same instinct. We’re all going to get together on another call and talk about how we can collaborate. But I agree that really being open to change and imagining the future is something that is going to serve us well.

Roberson: I would say, don’t underestimate your capacity to change and to really take advantage of the situation, because I will tell you that if you had asked me if I could have moved all of our classes online in the course of what ended up being two weeks and train faculty, I would not have believed it. It’s really opened my eyes to how great our faculty is and how people will work together if you give them the opportunity.

Pelton: I think the challenge for us is that as leaders, we’ve been so engaged since March on the viral pandemic. And we’ve been focused on reopening plans in the fall, understanding and measuring the financial impact on our colleges and universities, and putting into place mitigation efforts that do as little harm as possible to people who work and study and learn here. I think the challenge for us is to be able to find a moment when we can really turn our attention to the future and how we would like to reimagine the future. If we don’t collectively and individually as institutions change, then we’ve really let an opportunity slip away from us.

The New Freshman Experience

Just dropped your kid off at the dorms for the first time? Here’s some advice you can pass along for how to adjust to campus life this fall.

Get involved (virtually). “We’ve always thought the social connection needs to be the bedrock of the freshman experience,” says Don McMillan, CEO of the educational consultancy McMillan Education. This semester, that means encouraging your newly minted college student to actively seek out online extracurriculars and clubs where they can make new friends.

Check in with professors regularly. They’re a college student’s best resource, yet “freshmen always seem to forget how important it is to connect with teachers,” explains McMillan, who notes that some professors may actually be more accessible than ever during COVID-19. “Freshmen can now take advantage of chances to communicate with professors via Zoom…rather than be limited to in-person office hours,” he says.

Manage time wisely. Keeping to a schedule can be tough when you’re not getting up, dressed, and out the door for class regularly. But daily routines, McMillan says, are more important than ever when courses are virtual. “It’s so easy to burn big pockets of time,” he explains. A time-management app such as Toggl can help.

Focus on safety. College is “a natural time to become independent and break away. But this is not a normal time,” McMillan says. Be sure to stress the importance of adhering to public health guidelines—and not just for your child’s protection. “Social distancing is going to be critical to maintain not just student safety, but Boston citizens’ safety,” McMillan says.

Prioritize emotional well-being. “Colleges have certainly seen, even before COVID-19, a huge increase in anxiety and depression, and that’s now been magnified,” McMillan says. In other words: If you sense your kid is struggling, make sure they take advantage of any enhanced mental health
services at school.

College Students Speak!

Local scholars on their hopes and fears at the start of the strangest school year on record.

I’m scared about…
…catching the virus (even with taking all of the precautions) since I’ll be around many more people than I was at home.

Jaya Gupta
Boston University Class of 2021

I’m excited about…
…the opportunity to get a better grasp on my career. The limited academic environment has given me a chance to reflect on my options and how I want to shape my future.

Sean Park
Harvard University Class of 2021

I’m bummed about…
…not being able to learn in a classroom setting. I’ll miss interacting with my classmates and professors because being in-person allows for making the necessary connections for future job placement or recommendation letters.

Devynn Ledgard
Simmons University Class of 2021

I’m confused about…
…why tuition is increasing even though my classes will be completely remote.

Ally Wang
Wellesley College Class of 2023