Through Pandemic, North Texas Colleges and Universities Innovated to Sustain Learning, Slow the Virus, and Meet Emerging Workforce Demands

Michael Wood, Director, Education & Workforce

As evidence of COVID-19 community spread began to appear in the United States in March 2020, colleges and universities swiftly implemented changes to protect students and faculty, while continuing to deliver a quality higher education experience.

Nearly a year later, Austin College, Dallas Baptist University, Texas A&M University-Commerce, Texas Woman’s University, and the University of North Texas System share how their institutions responded to the pandemic and explore the pandemic’s potential long-term consequences on higher education.

Course Delivery Amid COVID-19

At the outset of the pandemic, colleges and universities quickly pivoted to fully online courses, often leveraging an extended spring break to execute the transition. Those institutions with existing infrastructure for online learning were able to more efficiently switch modes of delivery.

Texas A&M University-Commerce (TAMUC) was one of the few institutions that didn’t miss a beat, beginning online instruction immediately following the university’s regularly scheduled spring break, largely thanks to the school’s robust catalog of online classes and widespread use of learning management systems in traditional courses.

The University of North Texas (UNT) System similarly benefitted from pre-pandemic investments in online infrastructure as the system’s newest campus, UNT at Frisco, offers a bevy of online classes. UNT was well-positioned to convert its more than 8,000 courses from in-person learning to remote delivery within a week.

Over the summer and fall semesters, institutions gradually returned to in-person classes. Texas Woman’s University (TWU) prioritized in-person instruction for fields of study with hands-on lab components that were not easily replicated through virtual instruction, such as physical therapy.

Dallas Baptist University (DBU) ultimately returned to fully in-person instruction for its entire campus with crucial safety measures in place. For students who could not attend in person, the university outfitted each classroom with technology to enable real-time, remote participation.

Austin College implemented a hybrid approach and welcomed nearly 90% of its student body back on campus in the fall for in-person learning, though many classes maintained virtual components, requiring the college to invest significantly in its bandwidth to avoid burdening its IT infrastructure.

Moving into the 2021 spring semester, colleges and universities are in a holding pattern with no plans to alter course delivery the remainder of the academic year. Institutions are, however, optimistically monitoring vaccine distribution in hopes of a broader return to normalcy in the fall.

Career Preparation

Prior to the pandemic, the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 anticipated entering the workforce during a time of unparalleled economic success. Instead, these students confronted – or will confront – staggering unemployment rates and uncertain opportunities as companies shift operations remote indefinitely.

As a result, university career services departments have struggled to connect students with internships and career opportunities.

DBU noted that while few companies are interested in coming to campus for traditional career fairs, the university has been able to host similar events virtually. Still, open positions are fewer and further between, complicating employment prospects for students seeking entry-level opportunities.

The current challenge has reinforced the need to engage students early in career preparation.

“Too many students stumble into the career services office for the first time just a few weeks before graduation,” said Jay Harley, Vice President of Student Affairs at DBU. “The pandemic has confirmed an urgency to start much, much earlier, and get students to think about internships and job shadowing as early as freshman year.”

Other institutions have focused on creating a safe haven for graduates. TAMUC has helped students enroll in graduate programs to bide time until the job market recovers, in addition to connecting students with virtual internships, where available, to garner experience until a full-time position is open.

COVID-19 Resources

Colleges and universities also serve as informational and testing hubs in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus and in neighboring communities.

In the early days of the pandemic, the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth assumed a leading role in COVID-19 mitigation in Tarrant County, setting up drive-thru testing centers for frontline workers, and providing work-based learning opportunities for university students who staffed the testing sites. The school also established an informational hotline and assisted the county with contact tracing.

In addition to testing for its campus and community, Austin College leveraged its mobile app to track daily health screens, COVID-19 test results, and symptoms among students and staff. The app was also required to gain entrance into buildings, a feature that both limited access to campus facilities and assisted with contact tracing.

Organizational Impacts

An early concern among colleges and universities was the pandemic’s potential disruption of summer and fall enrollment.

Among the colleges and universities interviewed, 2020 enrollment was not as bleak as feared with enrollment even trending upward in certain areas. The UNT System saw record enrollment this fall as its Denton campus surpassed 40,000 students for the first time. DBU also saw a substantial uptick in undergraduate student enrollment – up 8% compared to the fall 2019 semester.

TAMUC had a slight dip in its incoming first-year students, but recorded growth in its graduate student ranks. Likewise, TWU reported increased enrollment in its graduate programs. Austin College’s enrollment remained steady year-over-year, with undergraduate enrollment among its highest over the past five years.

Despite better-than-expected student enrollment, the pandemic still burdened university budgets. The UNT System reported $35 million in COVID-19-related losses and expenditures. The state required public colleges and universities to cut their budgets by 5%, and both public and private institutions lost revenue as on-campus residency declined. Addressing COVID-19 also introduced new costs, too, such as funds for emergency student needs, access to devices for remote learning, training for faculty in remote instruction, and an endless stream of sanitation supplies.

New Programs and Innovation

Despite its challenges, the pandemic has accelerated the pace of innovation in higher education, ushering in change to an industry that is rooted in tradition.

Most prominent is the ongoing role of technology in university life. While students and faculty are eager to return to in-person classes, online learning will surely be a fixture of higher education moving forward. Institutions expect their list of fully online courses to grow, particularly in their graduate programs. Yet even traditional undergraduate programs will likely be augmented by technology through virtual learning platforms that supplement in-class instruction.

Technology will also be present outside the classroom. Student services, such as class registration, advising, tutoring, and counseling, may remain primarily online with an in-person option for the students that prefer it.

Austin College, with the help of a coalition comprised of faculty, staff, and students, designed virtual orientation events for students who are new to campus. These programs take advantage of newfound remote technologies, and deliver a web of interconnected offerings focused on helping students transition to college life, engage with faculty, and learn more about the Austin College campus and COVID-19 protocols.

DBU is even bolstering its recruitment efforts with technology, utilizing virtual advising appointments and high-quality remote tours to promote the campus to interested students unable to visit in person.

The pandemic has also pushed institutions to develop new programs to support displaced workers, target in-demand industries and skills, and help facilitate the region’s economic recovery.

TWU is planning to expand its catalog of seven-week courses (as opposed to the traditional 15 weeks) to make the prospect of returning to school more manageable for working individuals looking to develop new skills. The university is also exploring telehealth pathways for its family therapy and mental health programs.

The UNT System plans to continue to invest in its fully online bachelor’s completion program, an initiative designed to help non-traditional students with some college credit bridge the gap to a four-year degree through affordable, eight-week courses. UNT has established partnerships with employers, including JPMorgan Chase and Liberty Mutual, to help equip high-potential employees with a degree and prepare them for future corporate success.

Similarly, TAMUC is nationally recognized for its non-traditional, competency-based education programs, which grant credit for an individual’s prior work experience. Students then complete seven-week courses to fill in the remainder of the degree’s requirements. Presently, TAMUC offers the program in criminal justice and organizational leadership, but is preparing tracks in health services administration, safety and health, and other fields to respond to emergent workforce needs stemming from COVID-19.

“Higher education is a critical asset to facilitating an economic recovery from this pandemic,” said Texas A&M University-Commerce President Mark Rudin. “We are uniquely qualified to help upskill and reskill displaced workers, and address emerging needs in our region’s workforce.”