When I sat down to write this, I typed and deleted so many clichés about the kind of year we’ve had. Since you’ve also lived through 2020, you already know how “unprecedented” it is, so I’ll assume you won’t mind if we skip that part.

Now, for the real reason I’m here: I just don’t think it’s especially healthy to head into a new year without pausing to appreciate some of the good things that have happened in 2020—and there HAVE been some good things. (Even a few that should benefit the higher ed field for years to come.) So, in an effort to get us all in a positive frame of mind and motivated to tackle the new year with enthusiasm, I thought I would highlight a few silver linings that have resulted from the major events of 2020.

Silver Lining 1

Colleges and Universities Learned How To Be Nimble

Dare I say that higher education is infamously glacial? Well, it’s true. Our institutions each have a wide breadth of processes, procedures, programs, and regulations that tend to make us about as agile as a large oil tanker at sea.

However, when push came to shove this year, your institution’s faculty and staff made herculean efforts and demonstrated the ability to be nimble in an environment that required such speed and institutional agility. You have so much to be proud of.

First, you and your colleagues salvaged the Spring 2020 semester by rapidly and safely closing campuses across the country and disseminating critical information to students, families, and the community. During that period, I spoke with presidents at a few schools who were proud of the fact that they could make swift decisions that directly benefited their students’ health.

Second, your team still enrolled a new student class for the fall. You shifted very important on-campus events, like admitted student days, to virtual environments. You also worked to ensure applicants and their families had their questions answered and could find a place they would call home for the next four years.

Third, your colleagues figured out ways to work together and safely kick off the fall semester by introducing concepts such as hybrid environments, quarantine spaces, mask policies, and more.

These are lessons that you will carry with you for your professional life. Plus, now we’ve learned that higher ed can be just as nimble of an environment as as a tech startup…OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but you definitely moved from an oil tanker to a schooner. Congratulations!

Silver Lining 2

Higher Education Advanced in Online Delivery of Academic Coursework

For this silver lining, I reflect on a discussion I had earlier this year with a vice president at a major public institution/system in the northeast. She relayed to me the story that just a few years ago, as they were upgrading the connectivity throughout campus, the administration wanted to install webcams in classrooms for future use. At that time, the faculty union filed a grievance stating that doing so would undermine their ability to protect the privacy of their intellectual property, the academic coursework. They won that grievance.

Yet, just a few years later, your institutions were literally placed in a do-or-die academic situation and everyone involved rose nicely to the challenge. Before this year, some faculty had never actually used a Zoom, Teams, or Meets environment, but they dug in and found a way. And in an incredibly short time, they gave new credibility to the online delivery of academic coursework.

I like to keep things real and recognize that, in some cases, it was less than ideal—maybe even impossible. Some classes require labs or other in-person experiences, like clinicals and student-teaching, that are invaluable to achieving a successful program. Yet, still, for the vast majority of undergraduate programs, 2020 is a true milestone year for the online delivery of academic content.

(As a side note, for those of you who are in geographic areas where snowfall can happen, I think we just witnessed the end of snow days as we know them for all students from middle school through college. Academic evolution is happening right in front of our eyes.)

Silver Lining 3

Colleges and Universities Learned That Their Campuses are Important

If there is one message that came out of 2020 and the COVID pandemic, it is that the public truly values the student experience your campus provides and that many students want to be on your campuses–even if that means attending classes virtually. And the majority of your campuses delivered on that experience with safety and support in force.

In the late spring, we surveyed the parents of freshman students and asked them how they felt about their students returning to school in the fall. Here’s what they had to say:

You may think this applies exclusively to undergraduate students and programs, but an even more recent survey of domestic graduate intenders also demonstrated a continued preference for in-person learning:

Silver Lining 4

We No Longer Take Our In-Person, Professional Conferences For Granted

As professionals in college admissions, we have had the great opportunity to develop our own skills, connect with friends, and network with new colleagues through a wealth of professional conferences. They range from regional groups to national conferences and cover every aspect of our professional lives. Honestly, as a person who attended my first conference in 1991, it became easy to take these conferences for granted, and I sometimes considered attending them a borderline chore as opposed to a phenomenal opportunity.

Yet 2020 (and possibly 2021) took those precious opportunities away from us. Sure, we have all made an effort to make the best of the situation by participating or presenting in virtual conferences. However, much like students who prefer being on campus, we realize that the in-person experience of being with an incredibly talented group of people for a few days to learn from each other is truly irreplaceable.

My hope for 2021 is that we get to a place where we feel it’s safe to meet, interact, and enjoy each other’s company in person.

Looking Ahead

On behalf of all of us at Spark451, I’d like to wish you all the safest and happiest of holidays as we wrap up 2020. Stay tuned as we continue providing fresh perspectives, original research, and direct guidance through our blog series in 2021.