COVID-19 effects on higher ed will linger, Tech board told

In recent years, higher education leaders have known that achievement gaps between races persist, student debt keeps rising, more jobs will be automated and many students have adapted to online learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating these trends, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors learned during Sunday’s retreat.

The board heard a data-packed presentation and brainstormed goals as masked members and administrators gathered underneath the pavilion at Smithfield Plantation on the eve of the board’s two-day regular meeting.

Virginia Tech students were still arriving on campus Sunday, with classes starting Monday. Tech spread out move-ins over 10 days in order to avoid having too many people arrive at the same time during the pandemic. Tech will offer a mix of online and in-person classes.

Tech hopes that COVID-19 testing, hybrid learning and students forgoing large gatherings or parties will help it avoid problems experienced by the likes of Notre Dame or the University of North Carolina, both of which opened to students only to have coronavirus outbreaks sweep the schools. On Thursday, Tech suspended seven students who ignored coronavirus guidelines.

“We will keep our fingers crossed about the students because we have seen what happened at other universities,” board rector Horacio Valeiras told members. “But we thought it was appropriate to bring them back.”

The potential future effects of the pandemic dominated an hourlong presentation by consultants from McKinsey & Company, who told the board that economic, technological and educational impacts from coronavirus could last for years.

McKinsey partner Bryan Hancock told the board that an economic survey conducted in partnership with Oxford Economics revealed that most global executives predict that the United States economy won’t return to pre-crisis levels until the middle of 2023.

“But we don’t have a crystal ball,” Hancock said.

McKinsey’s Ted Rounsaville showed the board how the coronavirus could amplify other recent economic patterns, such as increase demand for online classes, force more students to default on loans and widen the gap of educational disparities even as undergraduate classes become more diverse.

The coronavirus “has accelerated trends that were in existence before,” Rounsaville said.

Rounsaville also noted that a “demographic cliff” awaits the U.S. after 2026, when a peak in high school graduates will be followed by a major decline at the same time enrollment of international students is expected to drop.

The board laid out several goals during the retreat, and then broke into smaller groups to come up with ways to achieve those goals.

The board’s priorities included curtailing costs both for students and the university, managing growth and fostering diversity and inclusiveness.

Later, members chose other priorities from among 12 options provided by the consultants, then agreed to find ways for implementation. Some of those priorities included keeping college affordable and increasing access; emphasizing research and engineering; achieving excellence in teaching, learning and student success; and providing a high return on the public’s investment in the university.

On Monday, the board of visitors will tour the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech School of Medicine in Roanoke, before visiting a new milking facility at Kentland Farm in Montgomery County.

Tuesday concludes with committee meetings and a full board meeting at the Moss Arts Center.

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