2 min read February 2021 — Johnson & Wales University Charlotte President Dr. Cheryl Richards discussed with Invest: her experience as the new president of the university and how Johnson & Wales adapted both to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-changing demands of work industries.
What were the key takeaways from 2020 and what might be the primary changes to higher education for the near and long-term future?
Colleges and universities will need a mix of delivery modalities: online, in-person, hybrid, or flex-delivery. Not only has the pandemic pushed institutions to think differently about learning modalities but our incoming students are of a generation that expects technology as a way of learning. Even before COVID hit, colleges and universities were trending in this direction and the pandemic accelerated that. Institutions that don’t have the ability to create hybrid and flexible options for learning, integrating online and experience into their curriculum, I think will struggle going forward.
The other thing I’ve seen as a result of the pandemic is a renewed focus on partnerships. We’ve seen institutions consolidating or merging as a result of limited fiscal resources and others trying to fine-tune their value proposition to attract students in a crowded market space. There are more than 4,000 higher education institutions in the United States today so some will likely dissolve or merge where others may seek new partnerships with industry. As the pandemic has pushed us to reevaluate the value proposition of higher education, it has also brought us closer to what industry is looking for and forcing higher education to become relevant in ways beyond technology that will meet their workforce needs.
The last thing that I think will come out of this pandemic is something that had already started, and that was the move to alternative credentialing. The bachelor’s degree has now replaced what was the high school diploma. And the master’s degree in many fields is now the baseline for certain positions. Beyond these traditional degrees, the pandemic has forced us to look at those short-term credentials and which knowledge, skills and competencies can be attained without having to attain a full degree. That’s another trend that will continue in higher education as well.
How did the events of 2020 affect your enrollment?
We’ve had a very interesting enrollment pattern during COVID. Our enrollment had been trending downward for the past eight years. A lot of that was due to leadership changes and strategic decisions that had been made years ago. When COVID hit in March, the previous leadership team revised enrollment projections to account for a reduction in the number of students. Interestingly, the Charlotte Campus actually saw an increase over those revised projections, which came as a result of a couple things. One came in July, just weeks after I came on board, when the university announced that it would consolidate its four campuses to two. The Charlotte Campus and the Providence Campus are the two campuses for Johnson & Wales going into the future and the Charlotte Campus was a fortunate beneficiary of a number of transfer students from Denver and North Miami. That helped stabilize our enrollment going into the pandemic, and we were above our budget projections for the fall.
What’s promising as we look to fall 2021 is that our early applications are ahead of what they were last fall. We were also up for our spring transfers coming in in January 2021. Our students and our faculty prefer in-person classes, particularly for our culinary labs, so we’re hopeful that’s a trend that will continue for us; that we will start to see students coming back into the more traditional on-campus environment. Of course, we’ll continue to leverage remote and online learning where feasible, to my earlier point about students wanting choices in delivery format.
How has demand for your programs trended over the last year?
Two of our programs that are trending extremely well right now, particularly for the current year and fall 2021, are new programs that were instituted within the last couple years. These programs are psychology and our health science programs. That’s natural given the pandemic; if you look nationally, fields like mental health and counseling and psychology are up across the board. Our bachelor’s degree program is a great on-ramp and entry point at a baccalaureate level in psychology. And then, of course, the health sciences; there are a lot of people now looking into health science as a major. Anything that has to do with healthy lifestyles and eating, public health and medical research are starting to up-trend nationally and we’re starting to see that as well.
What is your outlook for the university and higher education?
Nationally, you’ll continue to see institutions make individual choices on how to operate in the current academic year. Many will make choices about who is invited to return for on-campus classes and who is not. For Johnson & Wales, we decided that we will continue on a similar path that we had in the fall, which is to bring back a select group of students – new freshman, students with lab courses, those on internships in the area, and graduating seniors who will benefit most from an in-person experience. We will continue to provide the ongoing physical distance on campus and our hybrid learning modality to ensure we are providing a safe environment for all.
A lot of questions still exist around events and gatherings and commencement ceremonies, and we, like other institutions, continue to evaluate those. I think we’ll see another year of virtual graduation, unfortunately. I think until the vaccine distribution is widespread, it’ll be hard for institutions or any organizations to bring back large groups in large numbers. My hope is that by the time we open our doors for fall 2021, we’ll have a wide vaccine distribution and we’ll be able to welcome back the graduating class of 2025 as more traditional students.
For more information, visit: