In our article recent article for Administrative Theory & Praxis “COVID and the Impact on Higher Education: The Essential Role of Integrity and Accountability”, we discuss challenges facing postsecondary institutions due to the COVID crisis and the critical roles that institutional integrity and accountability will play for postsecondary institutions in the COVID era, as well as the importance of embracing the role higher education plays in advancing social equity.
To frame our discussion, we employed John Gaus’s ecological approach to the study of public administration. In his classic Reflections on Public Administration, Gaus (1947) advocated that public administrators think about government’s activities as if a part of an ecological system. Entities exist within a complex environment of interconnected subsystems whose activities impact one another. Actors within subsystems acquire the resources they need to survive and produce outputs connected to other subsystems. He noted the power of catastrophe to create a ripple effect through these interlocking systems. When catastrophe is introduced into an ecological system, the system will react to achieve a new equilibrium with individuals in the system alter their behaviors accordingly. Thus, catastrophe such as COVID acts as a catalyst for change of traditional policies and institutions.
As COVID struck, actors within the higher education system had to react to continue to acquire necessary resources and produce the system’s outputs of student learning and knowledge creation. To do so within the new COVID era restrictions means altering how higher education operates, i.e., achieving a new equilibrium. Higher education has had to shift the delivery of its primary function, educating students, to exclusively online remote delivery, for which many were not prepared, while at the same time facing significant loss of revenue from tuition, housing and investments, and reduced state budgets.
These changes are taking place within a higher education system that is built on the necessity of institutional integrity and accountability. Postsecondary institutions function in conditions of market failure.
- First, higher education produces significant externalities that benefit those not directly in the market exchange between institutions and students, such as the value to the public of having an educated workforce, consumers, and citizens (Brinkman, 2001; Leslie & Slaughter, 1992). This is one of the reasons that government invests so heavily in higher education.
- Second, higher education is a trust market, a condition of market failure wherein the buyer is at a significant information deficit compared to the seller (Blankenberger, 2020; Winston, 1992). Students transact for a credential and the knowledge obtained with the degree program, but they rely completely on the institution that the degree content and evaluation of successful learning are appropriate. In such situations of information asymmetry, the consumer is extremely vulnerable to fraud and must rely on the honesty of the seller. This is why in many countries higher education is restricted to non-profit organizations, and why accreditation, demonstration of learning outcomes, and oversight is so critical in higher education. However, due to the complexity of measuring higher order learning, the oversight structure in higher education relies heavily on the integrity and accountability of institutions. As COVID places greater stresses on institutions and strains their abilities to maintain their accountability systems under trying conditions, this integrity will be more important than ever.
As they adjust to the new COVID environment, higher education institutions are facing greater budget competition for scarce state and federal budget resources (DePietro, 2020; Friga, 2020, April 20). This comes on the heels of two decades of declining state spending on higher education (Blankenberger, 2020; Deming & Walters, 2017; State Higher Education Executive Officers, 2018). This has the potential for serious ramifications for degree completion as reduced state budgets are related to declines in higher education attainment and elevated drop-out rates (Bound & Turner, 2007; Deming & Walters, 2017). Additionally, the uncertainties accompanying COVID have led to reduced tuition revenue due to declining enrollments, and to reduced philanthropic giving and investment income from financial markets. As institutions are forced to make cuts and adapt to the new environment, this further underscores the importance of accountability and integrity.
Some institutions and their faculty are better positioned to transition to remote/online learning, but improvements need to be made. Meta-analyses and reviews of the literature on online courses show that online delivery is not clearly associated with either a strong positive or negative effect on student exams or course grades (Bernard & Abrami, 2004; Bowen & Lack, 2012; Jaggars, 2011). However, in a number of studies, online courses have been found to be associated with 10–40% greater dropout rates compared to face to face courses (e.g., Atchley et al., 2013; Boston et al., 2011; Diaz & Cartnal, 2006; Hachey et al., 2013; Levy, 2007; McLaren, 2004; Moore, Bartkovich, Fetzner, & Ison, 2003; Morris & Finnegan, 2008-2009). Fortunately, there are a number of strategies for improving online outcomes, but institutions will need to commit to training their faculty and adjusting their systems to embrace these strategies – all at a time when there are competing demands for resources.
These income declines could have serious ramifications for social equity as well. Universities are significant contributors to social equity, among other things by providing a conduit for social mobility (Hazelkorn & Gibson, 2019). But this avenue for mobility is contingent on access to higher education and success therein. If budget shortfalls weaken that access because of increasing costs, diminished scholarships, and reduced academic supports, this could have grave consequences for social equity. Furthermore, financial challenges students face have been exacerbated. Institutions will need to provide added supports to aid vulnerable students. Additionally, the transition to online delivery may also have a disproportionate impact on some students. Although the findings are mixed, studies have found that students of color and students with weaker academic backgrounds face greater drop out rates in online courses (Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2013; Xu & Jaggars, 2013). Public administrators and postsecondary institutions seeking to support students have a responsibility to consider the additional supports these students will need in order to be successful in this challenging time.
Bob Blankenberger is an associate professor in the Public Administration Department at the University of Illinois Springfield and has been chair of the Department since August 2015. He received his PhD in Public Policy Analysis and Administration from St. Louis University in 2005. He served as Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education at UIS during the 2016-17, and 2017-18 academic years.
Adam M. Williams is an Assistant Professor in the Public Administration Department at the University of Illinois Springfield. Dr. Williams is the chair-elect for the Department starting in Acacemic Year 20-21. He earned a PhD in Public Administration from Florida Atlantic University and spent two years as an Assistant Professor at Kennesaw State University prior to joining UIS. He also holds an MA in Political Science from the University of Alabama and BA in Political Science from Franklin College (Franklin, IN).
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