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Education in Uncertain Times

Dean Bridget Long on leadership during a pandemic — and the challenges facing higher education, college-goers, and students of all ages.
Bridget Terry Long
Photo: Jill Anderson

All facets of education are encountering immense challenges in the face of COVID-19. Dean Bridget Long equates COVID-19 to a shock to the system, one that has forced common practices to be questioned, especially in higher education. With drops in enrollments and financial aid applications this fall, Long discusses how this moment in time may impact low-income college-goers in the long run, and shares her concern for all students.


Long drew parallels between higher education and K–12 systems in crisis, specifically the importance — in all levels of education — of getting back to the following fundamentals:

  1. State your learning goals.
  2. Know your students and families.
  3. Build networks to learn from each other.
  4. Don’t forget your nonprofit organizations.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast.

Bridget Terry Long worries about what the long-term repercussions of COVID-19 will be, on not just low-income college goers, but all students. She's an expert on college access and the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. So she knows the challenges facing higher education firsthand, and also the students around the country. With some drops in enrollments for low-income students, and a decline in the number of students applying for federal financial aid, it raises some real questions about the future for these students, and also higher education.

Bridget Long: It's been many years where people have predicted, due to disruption and other changes, that the state of higher education in America is really in trouble. And I think what's happened with COVID, particularly how quickly things have changed, has really exposed some weaknesses in the system. Higher education in general is not used to being very nimble, making changes quickly and for many years as well, we haven't quite settled what college actually is. And that is partly because it means many things to many different people. But even the question of how do we define college quality is something that's certainly not settled and really hard to measure. So now when you have this shock to the system, that calls into question all of your usual practices.

Yeah, a lot of institutions are in trouble because they haven't again been used to, and I don't know the many industries that have been used to, changing so quickly and trying to please so many different stakeholders. What you really saw being exposed is some people feeling like college is the in-person experience. Although you have other bodies that are much more concerned about the research function, which was also hit hard. But traditionally we've talked about higher education as being the return that you get in terms of the labor market. So I found it somewhat interesting that that's kind of dropped off the table. The question of, well will there still be returns to these degrees, whether they're remote or in person really hasn't been the focus. It's been the question of, am I on campus and do I get to have this wonderful experience? So what it's pushed us to do is just rethink what a university actually is.

And it's not simply a seat in a lecture hall or a collection of buildings. Each institution has had to define, so if it's not those things, what is it?

Jill Anderson: Every day, you can look at the news and see about enrollments being down pretty much across the board and all different types of higher ed institutions. I hoped you could talk a little bit about how COVID has really disrupted the playing field for our low income and first-generation college goers.

Bridget Long: Yes, absolutely. This has been a group where we have seen firsthand the disparity, the inequities, and how our low-income students have been navigating, what was already a very complicated system for them. So first I think we have to acknowledge the fact that we're... Higher education in the United States, it's a very diverse system. If we first talk about the more selective institutions or just the four year institutions, the model for so long has been to get these students onto campus or close to campus where we can level the playing field once they're there.

So you've seen a huge expansion over time where colleges and universities realize it's not just tuition they need in order to support these students, it's other supports. So that students can fully enjoy the enriching experience of the co-curricular activities and internships and other kinds of trips and so forth. So now we've lost that. So we've lost this ability to level the playing field and students have been sent home, particularly when it happened so quickly during the spring disruption. What it exposed is just how many challenges these students face. That there's a very long list of challenges and there's a huge range. For some students it was the ability to have access to technology. For others it was managing complicated home situations or even home homelessness. For others it was basic needs. And I don't think many colleges were quite prepared to try to address that very long list and really deep needs of the population.

On the other hand, there are other kinds of institutions who I think actually have started to see more enrollment. Now, I don't know if it's from our low income students, but community colleges, local institutions, institutions that already had strong robust online programs. Some are starting to move more towards those institutions. But for our low income students, we still have to worry about, do they have the technology to be able to access online courses? What kinds of competing demands do they have? Do they have the space to work and concentrate? Rooms where they can go by themselves to study. And then a big concern is, what's going to be the impact of policy? So federal and state policy to be able to supply financial aid and other kinds of supports that are going to be absolutely necessary to support these students.

Jill Anderson: So I'm curious how this could have a long standing impact on the future of this population of students.

Bridget Long: Yes, and I think this is actually my greatest concern. I don't think we have even begun to see what the longer-term impacts are going to be. When we are missing some of our students, or students who would have otherwise been at institutions making academic progress. Students who are under tremendous amounts of stress. Threats to their mental health, emotional health, how is this impacting their performance and ability to learn? And as we start to see more cuts to resources that the colleges themselves have, cuts to other supports that the students need in order to go about their lives. I'm very concerned that this is going to have very long term repercussions on low income students. And I think students just overall, and these are the kinds of impacts that could be really intergenerational. So really this question of how do we help them make up this year.

And I'm very interested to see what are the creative solutions, whether that be colleges figuring out creative ways to still support students wherever they are. Some institutions like Harvard College, inviting students with certain profiles to come back to campus so that they can live in the dorms and have everything they need in order to continue to make progress. Are they using the time to access other kinds of opportunities perhaps at other institutions? Or how are they using their time off? I think these are really big questions, but this is the worry that we should have. And I think we've, again, only started to see the losses or to have some kind of notion of what we're losing with what happened last spring, as well as how tumultuous this year has been, this academic year.

Jill Anderson: Right. So as someone who's on the other side of the fence, at the same time you have to make very difficult decisions as a leader in higher ed. I'm wondering what that's been like for you to have to make these hard decisions?

Bridget Long: It has been a very difficult time. And as I've spoken with many other leaders of organizations, higher ed, K through 12, other industries. It has been a very uncertain time, a rapidly changing time. And even for those who have a great, decades of experience, they've never seen anything like this. So the first thing just to realize, and it became clear even in March, is this was just really an evolving and unclear situation. We knew right away we were going to have to make a number of decisions when we weren't going to have perfect information. We were going to be trying to forecast and guess and just like everyone has become the semi epidemiologists trying to read data. It's been difficult to read the tree leaves. So again, you're just in this really tumultuous, uncertain period of time. So as a leader, one of the things that I felt was important very early on, and was wonderful to have a team doing is, the world is uncertain, but we know who we are.

So it was important to be clear about our values and what we would prioritize. So from the beginning at HGSE, we started to repeat and make very visible, our first priority is your health and wellbeing. That had to be the thing that was prioritized above all else in any of our decision-making. And then second was academic progress. Our students making sure that they could continue to progress. This is back in March when our primary concern was just trying to help our students get to graduation. But then third, and this is an important part of who we are as an institution. The third priority was community and connections. Because we knew, even during this time of crisis, or especially during this time of crisis and uncertainty, it was going to be important for us to stay connected to each other. And I oftentimes felt, I don't know how to make this better for you, but I at least can tell you you're not alone.

And that I can say with certainty, because unlike so many other crises, you see someone who might be struggling with a health diagnosis, the death of a family member, their home burns down, that's one individual and the community can come together. But this is something we were all experiencing. And we might've been experiencing in slightly different ways or the challenges we were facing. But there was a sense of, I don't know, in this evolving, uncertain situation, what's going to happen next, but I'm going to be there for you. And I hope you'll be there for me. And we will be a community.

A final thing I think that was really important was, being in a community that I've been a part of for over two decades now, and having been Dean, having been leader of the school for two years, people somewhat knew me and knew each other. And I thought it was important, even if I don't have the answer to all the questions. Let me reveal to you how we're going to go about determining those answers, what our process would be. And again, making clear what our priorities would be was important. So even if I couldn't tell you, and couldn't foresee every crisis and question that was going to come up, you knew what I was going to do or what the senior leadership team, how we were going to approach these issues.

Jill Anderson: Right. So if you were going to talk to another leader or imagine a leader is listening to this, whether they're in education or not. What is a decision that you've made that you feel really good about?

Bridget Long: So we're seven months in. So time will only tell how all of this plays out, but one observation I'll make. At HGSE we decided fairly early that we were going to commit to being remote during this academic year. I really started thinking deeply about it early April, maybe even late March as I was just kind of looking around and realizing how much things were changing. Now that may not have been the right decision for every institution. But the lesson there I think, was the need to just be proactive. As it turned out, and I think this is true in many crisis, time was of the essence. And I saw, and this is in comparison to lots of other leaders I've talked to and other organizations in schools that I've watched.

There was a really big difference between those of us who just proactively said, "We've got to find a solution. I cannot control this pandemic. I don't know what's going to go on, I don't know what's happening in terms of government, in terms of our other institutions, but I need to be proactive to figure out how to protect my community, my organization, and continue our mission." And the ones who did that I've noticed, seem to be in much better shape. Whether they actively started working with their teachers or their faculty or their parents. Or they just started planning ahead for the worst case scenario, which unfortunately is what happened. Versus those that waited, couldn't quite face the reality of what was going on or was waiting for someone else to bring them a solution or make a decision for them.

And when we pivoted to remote so quickly, and even this academic year, having even an extra couple of weeks for people to wrap their minds around what was necessary, for you to move resources or create supports and structures. Or just have a little bit more thought, even five days of extra thought about all the different possibilities and scenarios and things that you would need to create, it really did make a world of difference. So, I think as a leader, when everyone else is still hoping for the best and being optimistic, and I think I'm an optimistic person, you still have to think about what's that safety net going to be? If all else fails, what are we going to do to maintain this institution in this community?

Jill Anderson: I feel like a lot of that echoes with just as a parent, trying to make a decision about what to do with your school when you have a choice. Your child's school, I should say.

Bridget Long: I was in the exact same boat with my own children, and I wasn't able to sleep until I knew that I had a safe, proactive plan in place that regardless of what happened with the school I could handle and still take care of my kids. I think it's the uncertainty that was taking such a tremendous toll, that even the decision to be remote, even though that was a hard one and even though that had lots of implications for how much work we had to do. It still was comforting for people not to live in constant limbo.

Jill Anderson: Right. So the flip side is, is there a decision that maybe hasn't panned out or just continues to be a challenge?

Bridget Long: A challenge that I am facing that I know many people are facing. So it's one that's both personal and also for the institution. And that is, we made the decision to be remote this year and we made it early. Which was great in terms of it gave us more time to prepare, but it also means people worked really hard over late spring, all during the summer. Even now they're giving a great deal of time and energy towards making sure that this is a successful year and that was necessary. I don't know how else we could have accomplished that, but that decision also has implications. At some point we're all running out of steam. We're not quite as patient. We are holding it together. And even though I find myself to be a pretty high functioning person to keep going and doing what's necessary, you know there's a cost, there's absolutely a cost.

I don't know that everyone has voiced it or fully experienced it, but I worry a great deal how to help people recharge, give them the space to recharge while we still keep the trains running. And it's made even more difficult because of so many of the things that we would normally do to recharge or to rest, we can't. That's really the continuing challenge that I have. And I worry about how far can we get into this year? When can we take some serious breaks? And some of it has nothing to do with people's work at the school. It has to do with all the other things that they're balancing with this pandemic and the racial injustice and handling dependence, whether that's children or elderly parents, there's just a lot that's going on.

Jill Anderson: Yeah. And of course, along with that is education. It's just changing and it's changing abruptly. It's unpredictable, it's unfolding in real time and we're an education school here. I'm wondering if you've thought about the K through 12 education system and how it's changing and maybe what educators need to know or how they should be trained?

Bridget Long: Yes. Everything in education is changing dramatically. And it's funny because we usually do think about higher ed and K through 12 being so different. But in many respects, this is a time when there were so many parallels. But higher ed is where I live. And K through 12, I'm actually watching those systems and the decisions that have been made have helped me reflect a bit more on the larger system. So what has become clear, and you really see in the K through 12 system, but it's also true for higher ed is, as we've moved remote and everyone focused on technology, technology, technology. And it is wonderful that this pandemic is happening in the year 2020, and not 2008 or 2001, because there's a lots of things that just would not have been possible back then. And technology has been an important solution.

But the thing that I've been struck by is the fact that the fundamentals matter so much. The fundamentals that have nothing to do with technology matters so much. And you definitely see this in the K through 12 system, but you'll see in a moment just how it also applies to higher ed. So by the fundamentals, I mean at the course level, or talking with teachers or faculty, you need to state what your learning goals are. What's the point of the class? So before you start putting anything on Zoom or some other technology, you need to be really deliberate and thoughtful about what are the goals? What are the goals for your students? And then you take the next step. Well, okay so how am I going to teach this material and engage and know that they're learning? Those are really fundamental things that we should have always been doing even in face-to-face learning. But when you switch to being online, it's absolutely required. You have to be so deliberate.

Another fundamental is, you need to know your and their families. In higher ed we think a lot about our students, but K through 12, it was really underscored. You really need to know your student's family situations and parents. So much of this was a negotiation with parents because they needed to help support whatever solution was supposed to be going on at home. And for schools that didn't have good parental engagement or those kinds of relationships or trust, are the ones who really faltered. Because it was such an important line of communication. And related to those relationships is the trust. It's the trust with the families, with the students, but also with the teachers. This is a time when the leadership of the school, if they were making some bold dramatic, and again, in the beginning of all of this, decisions to send everybody home or close the schools were quite dramatic.

We hadn't ever seen anything like this. If there wasn't already established trust, that when the leader of your institution says, we all need to go home. I can't explain everything right now, we just need to go home. If that trust wasn't there, if you didn't have that fundamental, then systems really faltered. And you've seen examples of this across K through 12, whether at the school level or the district level. And questioning of decisions, questioning of whether or not you're doing what's right by my child. Are you giving my child that support that they need? Do you fully understand the challenges that families are facing? Are you fully supporting the teachers in the challenges that they're facing and whether or not they're comfortable with the technology? So all those things mattered.

Two other quick things I would say is the importance of networks became really clear. I suspect in higher ed, this was a little bit easier with faculty and administrations working across a course catalog. Whereas at K through 12, we've been talking for years about the importance of teaching teams and teachers sharing instructional resources and viewing each other's courses and coordination and so forth. We've been talking for years how important that was. And this really underscored, for teachers who were isolated in their classrooms by themselves, and didn't have a great deal of support, who were all of a sudden supposed to, all by themselves, figure out this new technology and all of their lesson plans. Lots of people were learning and creating so many different things, but without networks, that information couldn't be shared. That was also true for principals. This has been some of the focus of what HGSE has been doing to try to connect practitioners to each other, to share what they've been figuring out, what works and what doesn't.

And then finally, something that really came through with our younger learners in the K through 12 system is the importance of nonprofit organizations outside of schools. The before school, the afterschool, the mentoring, the childcare, the academic enrichment, the mentoring, the sports. All of these different functions that were really handled by non-school actors. Again, like non-profit organizations. Just how important they were to the system and how all of this was woven together. And so even if you reopened the schools, but you don't have all those other kind of bells and whistles and supports that are so important for the development of children, such important supports. It's been really underscored that that's been somewhat overlooked. It's a missing link even now as schools try to reopen, if they don't have, or aren't able to layer with these other important supports.

Jill Anderson: It's almost like go back to the basics in a way.

Bridget Long: Yeah.

Jill Anderson: Coming out of the significant changes that have had to be made.

Bridget Long: Absolutely, you know we're leapfrogging ahead. And we're getting rid of some of those misperceptions about, online education is just filming what you would have done. Face-to-face that is not what good online education is. And in fact if that's all you're doing in your classroom is chalk and talk, that's no exactly what we were hoping for in face-to-face either. So it has been great that this pivot has spurred so many deep conversations about how do you teach? And what is the learning experience that we are trying to achieve? So I hope that is something that we do take away as one of the very important lessons during this period.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much. It was a pleasure having you on to talk about all this.

Bridget Long: You're welcome. It was wonderful to join you.

Jill Anderson: Bridget Terry Long is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an internationally recognized economist. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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