Three ways to reinvent higher education right now

COVID-19 is prompting technology change across industries. Campuses can’t be left behind.

By Margaret Lindquist | June 2020

Three ways to reinvent higher education right now

The disruption that happened on college campuses in the spring of 2020 was global and unprecedented. Schools closed months before the end of the academic year, faculty and students went home, classes moved online.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, over an 11-day period in March 2020, 100 institutions made the decision to go from holding classes on campus to being completely online. “In my lifetime, there will never be a change like that in higher education again,” says Nicole Engelbert, vice president of Oracle Higher Education Development.

And no one is sure what will happen at the beginning of the next school year.

As a result, some world-famous schools are suffering unexpected revenue shortfalls and are struggling to survive. Others are taking on the challenges of a new era and are determined to come out of the almost universal shutdown with a new sense of purpose and a new way of operating. Engelbert is having daily conversations with higher education leaders and relates that one of the wealthiest institutions in the United States is at risk—not necessarily of closure but of a significant reorganization and reimagining of what that institution may look like. At the same time, another small university in the Midwest says they’re not going down without a fight. “They are going to put everything on the table to strengthen their institution, so when the tsunami recedes and the water pulls off the beaches, they’ll be left in the stronger position,” says Engelbert.

The role technology has played in keeping many industries running has been highly visible over the past few months, and higher education is no exception. From Zoom classrooms to at-home admissions management, the beehive of an active campus has given way to a web of interconnected students, faculty, and administrators who are keeping their schools alive at a distance. But with the new school year on the horizon, forward-thinking college leaders are considering how that same technology could be used to reinvent their schools. Here are three key roles technology can play:

1. Intelligence will drive great change.

Now more than ever, colleges need to remove costs from college operations, without damaging the overall student experience. But to do this, colleges must be able to figure out what it costs to deliver specific services. For example, how much does it cost to confer a bachelor’s degree versus a degree in veterinary science? To perform this calculation, administrators need data and highly configurable systems so they can initiate change according to what the numbers say. That’s only possible with truly connected systems that provide a single view of operations, finances, students, and faculty. “You need to have all these data points to make good decisions—not just for the safety of the student, which is paramount, but also for the long-term health of the institution,” says Union College president David Harris.


“The migration will finally happen in higher education because it will be too risky not to be in the cloud. Without it, you can’t have continuity of operations or the agility to shift directions quickly.”

Nicole Engelbert, Vice President, Oracle Higher Education Development

For example, Harris has stated that he wants the college to make the right decisions today, so the college not only survives the next 12 months, but also is in a better position 12 months from now. Higher education leaders everywhere are asking questions such as the following: Could lecture classes go online? What would be the cost of that versus spreading out students and holding more classes? How much space would be required to do that? Should only laboratory classes remain on campus and if so, would it be necessary to schedule multiple lab classes so they could be run with one student per lab bench as opposed to the four they normally have?

2. Imagine the unimaginable.

Many higher education institutions have rigid processes that determine every part of their operational model, such as how they define a term, how they handle refunds and credits, how they calculate financial aid, and how they assign students to classes. These processes are hardcoded into their systems and if they need to make a midcourse correction, their technology can’t necessarily support that.

“Universities need highly configurable technology that places very little burden on their IT staff. This in effect provides them with an ‘insurance policy,’ so they’ll be prepared to navigate the unknown in the coming weeks, months, and semesters ahead,” says Engelbert. But even after the pandemic becomes a less disruptive force, the ability to make midcourse corrections will serve institutions well, as the population of nontraditional students grows and schools must be able to accommodate the trend toward lifelong learning.

3. Move to the cloud.

One university leader whose school went live on Oracle’s HR and ERP software June 1 told Engelbert that she desperately wished it had been live before the pandemic, because it would’ve been so much easier for her to transition all the employees to a remote working scenario. The vice president of finance and administration at another university told Engelbert that they were able to keep the continuity of operations at a higher level of effectiveness with the cloud. She anticipates they will never go back to the same level of operations on campus because they were more effective at home in the cloud.

Part of this move, says Engelbert, may be attributed to the benefits of better work/life balance. She adds, “It was also a bit of a forcing function for them to drop the vestiges of manual processes. With everyone out of the office, they had to fully adopt the product in a way that they hadn’t had to before. The migration will finally happen in higher education because it will be too risky not to be in the cloud. Without it, you can't have continuity of operations or the agility to shift directions quickly.”

Over an 11-day period in March 2020, 100 higher education institutions made the decision to go from holding classes on campus to being completely online.

Engelbert hopes that this experience, as hard as it is, ushers in the next golden age for education. The leaders at educational institutions are beginning to realize they can make incredible change in a short amount of time. They can update financial aid policies to become more humane. They can make higher education less expensive to deliver to ensure that more students can access it. And they can accelerate the move to the cloud to ensure continuity of operations and the agility to deliver services from virtually anywhere.

“I hope that a year from now, the higher education industry still has that confidence in their ability to manage difficult change well, because much work remains undone in terms of affordability, access, and effectiveness—and that confidence will help fuel the development of far more bold solutions to those challenges than they ever thought possible,” Engelbert says.

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Illustration: Oracle

Margaret Lindquist

Margaret Lindquist

Margaret Lindquist is a senior director and writer at Oracle.