It’s hard to imagine that a little more than six months ago more than 1 billion students worldwide were disrupted by COVID-19. Experts predict we will not have a ready vaccine for COVID-19 until mid-2021. Most higher education institutions have had to deal with many challenges since the spring, but these challenges also bring opportunities to change areas on their campuses.

Many questions come to mind. What will happen? Will schools shut down or merge? Will they be able to connect their campus digitally? Will students feel connected? How will they move forward financially? What is the role of technology—to help or hinder?

Let’s take a look at some current challenges and opportunities for campuses to explore digital solutions for the future.

1. CHALLENGE: Campus life will be anything but normal. 

Colleges and universities adjusted the best they could in the spring and tried to plan for the unknown of what back-to-school would look like. Students have had the option to return to campus with a hybrid option of learning. Lecture classes with hundreds of students will meet online, and housing will shift from 2-4 in a room to the single, and many other campus experiences will change. Leaders are looking for ways to avoid a financial crisis by improving student experiences to deter withdrawals and eschew reducing staff members.

OPPORTUNITY: Leverage technology for campus connections.

Today’s students—and faculty, administrators, staff, and alumni—are digital natives. Tools like video conferencing, messaging, and social media have helped campus communities stay connected. There are a lot out there, but many campuses have found success in implementing unified communications platforms to keep their communities connected during these times. These platforms enable a deeper sense of belonging and facilitate academic connections, too.

2. CHALLENGE: Costs are expected to go up and revenues down.

Simple math here. If students are not paying to go to college, and campuses have to spend money to create new modes of learning, there is going to be a gap. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center announced in September 2020 new data that show undergraduate student enrollment declining 2.5%, so the quality of digital campus services will be playing an even greater role in enrollment competitiveness. Expect some schools to use COVID-19 to evaluate and modify academic programming. These changes may impact humanities, arts, and traditional in-residence education.

OPPORTUNITY: Start connecting with students to drive loyalty.

Across the U.S., high school seniors are still aspiring to achieve higher degrees. Build your campus’s brand loyalty from the moment they look to apply, and retain student engagement long after graduation. Higher education can borrow from industries like retail, financial services, or healthcare by modernizing student experiences. When students reach out through email, text, or social media—you need to be ready. Use an omni-digital tool to engage with students across the channels they love. By providing these elegant solutions, campuses can measure retention and minimize costs over years.

3. CHALLENGE: Colleges will maintain a major online presence.

Online learning has been driving a quiet change in higher education for the last two decades. Many universities have been leading a shift to online learning through their colleges of extended learning and even dedicated online organizations like Southern New Hampshire University have been gaining popularity. Presidents and Administrators have supported the shift to online learning and will continue to monitor these efforts long term to stay online. When institutions are changing many of their programs, this might have a residual impact on faculty leaving or new discussions around tenure-tracks.

OPPORTUNITY: Create new revenue streams through online learning. 

According to a case study about the University of Massachusetts and its shift to online learning, this new revenue stream has generated more than $100 million. UMass Online’s course enrollments have grown steadily in the last five years, up from 54,000 in 2012 to more than 75,000 this past school year. Besides increasing enrollment, the system offered approximately 160 degree programs during the past academic year, up from 145 in 2012. Officials said that three to five programs are being added each year. Not only are the numbers of students and programs way up, so are revenues—$104 million in total for the five campuses during the 2016-17 academic year.

4. CHALLENGE: Expect competition among universities around online learning.

In the U.S. alone, education technology investment has already exceeded $13 billion (Technology for Education Consortium, 2017). As online learning occurs over the internet, it naturally utilizes technology—and as education technology itself keeps on evolving, e-learning is also bound to be revolutionized. If leading higher education organizations want to stay in the lead, they will need to stay online and to create new online programs to attract digital natives.

OPPORTUNITY: Gen Z is loyal to brands.

Brand equity will also be an advantage for those seeking digital campus experiences—they want to attend an online program with a nationally ranked football team with Fortune 500 partnerships. Universities will need to find a specialized niche to remain competitive.

So, what’s next? Leaders can take this opportunity to set their organization up for the next 100 years by reviewing their communications and student engagement experiences. Students and faculty deserve a digital campus. Learn more in this recently released Aragon whitepaper to help your organization make the transition.