Summer 2021 Bulletin

The Post-Pandemic Future of Higher Education: A Virtual Convening of American Academy Affiliates

post pandemic education

On April 23, 2021, the Academy convened leaders from its Affiliates network for a candid, forward-looking discussion about how lessons learned from the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic might inform the future of higher education. The event provided an opportunity for the participants – university presidents and chancellors, provosts, deans, faculty, and other administrators from over forty American colleges and universities – to gather, share ideas, and make sense of a challenging year.

Richard Arum (Dean and Professor of Sociology and Education at the University of California, Irvine) began the meeting with a presentation about the results from the Next Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project, a study that began collecting data on undergraduate behavior in the fall of 2019 and continued its work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He described the project’s primary goals: to develop and disseminate new measures of undergraduate experiences and outcomes; to inform efforts to improve institutional performance and advance educational equity; and to promote a deeper understanding of educational processes and the identification of educational value. As a result of its timing, the project offered rare, data-driven insights into the impact of remote learning on student success.

Arum’s presentation highlighted his project’s methodology and offered some initial conclusions on the impact the abrupt, pandemic-driven shift to virtual instruction had on undergraduate student success at UC Irvine. Although students expressed initial concern about their academic progress at the onset of the pandemic, by winter 2021 students’ stress levels had returned to their pre-COVID levels, completed credits remained steady, and average GPAs had increased. When surveyed about their preference for the post-pandemic future, nearly 40 percent of students reported an interest in an even mix of online and in-person instruction. The pandemic accelerated changes that were already underway on many campuses, and this data suggest that students are more resilient in the face of changes and challenges than previously anticipated.

post pandemic education
From left to right: Richard Arum, Ana Mari Cauce, Robert Jones, and Christina Paxson

Following Arum’s presentation, Academy President David Oxtoby moderated a panel discussion that featured university leaders Ana Mari Cauce (President of the University of Washington), Robert Jones (Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and Christina Paxson (President of Brown University). The conversation was candid and far reaching, covering trends in admissions and financial aid, community relations, pedagogical methods, student retention, outcomes, equity, and the value of a residential experience. The event concluded with small breakout room conversations in which participants connected with colleagues from across the Affiliate network, expanded on the earlier discussions, and shared their own visions for the post-pandemic higher education landscape.

During each part of the event, there was ample opportunity for discussion and the exchange of ideas. The Academy anticipates holding additional Affiliates network convenings and will use the ideas generated from this event to inform future programs.

Discussion Themes

A broad range of issues facing the higher education community were raised during the Q&A session with Richard Arum, at the panel discussion with university leaders, and during the breakout room conversations. The main themes discussed included:

  • Access, affordability, and university finances in the post-pandemic landscape
  • College admissions as a source of social mobility
  • Measuring student mental health
  • The role of the campus community in student outcomes
  • Pedagogical approaches to remote instruction
  • The future of work for faculty and staff
  • The hidden costs of the residential undergraduate experience
  • Creating equity in online learning environments
  • Test optional admissions policies
  • Communicating financial aid opportunities to low-income and first-generation students.

To learn more about the Affiliates Program, visit the Academy’s website at