President Barron reviews key strategies to address pandemic, national trends

November 13, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As COVID-19 continues to impact higher education around the country and the world, Penn State is implementing strategies to address both the pandemic and national trends — from enrollment to the future of learning to research, according to Penn State President Eric Barron. In a presentation to the Board of Trustees at its Friday (Nov. 13) virtual meeting, Barron revisited University actions taken in key institutional areas, as well as new strategies for moving forward in response to the pandemic.  

Nationally, COVID-19 has exacerbated financial strain and accelerated trends in higher education, such as demographic challenges and decreasing support, while also presenting new opportunities for fosteringinterdisciplinary research, creating flexibility for students, and developing career success and support programs — strategies already in place at Penn State before COVID, according to Barron.

“Throughout the pandemic, our ongoing priority has been the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, while also remaining focused on strategic programming that reflects national trends,” Barron said. “Looking forward, there will be challenges ahead for all of higher education, but because of our long-term strategic, fiscal and educational efforts, the University entered the pandemic in a strong position. As we weather this storm, we will continue to adapt and focus on important areas like attracting future generations of students, fostering diverse and inclusive communities, and offering high-quality, flexible learning options to meet student where they are.”

During the presentation, Barron said that programs like One Penn State 2025 — a guiding framework for University-wide educational innovation — are more important than ever as the pandemic has only increased the need to invest in online educational experiences and offer both in-person and virtual transformative experiences for students. 

At the meeting, Barron shared trends and strategic actions in five key areas: 

  • Enrollment: Before the pandemic, Penn State invested in efforts to prepare for national demographic changes and to attract and educate students, including underrepresented, low-income, and first-generation college students through efforts like Achieve Penn StateDiscover Awards and the Open Doors Programs, which have raised $477 million to date. As higher education institutions experience enrollment declines due to the pandemic, Penn State’s overall enrollment for fall 2020 saw a modest decrease of 1.8%, positioning the University ahead of nationwide averages. The University also saw growth in the overall diversity of its students and had enrollment gains in graduate and professional programs, as well as the Penn State World Campus. Moving forward, the University will continue its strategic focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, including, for example, seven change initiatives and Educational Equity Scholarships, which have had a total impact of $25 million. In addition, efforts to attract students who wish to remain close to home, provide unprecedented virtual access to students, and focus on career outcomes are underway.
  • Future of learning: With efforts like One Penn State 2025, living laboratories and Invent Penn State, the University was focused on innovation and creating transformative experiences for students well before the start of the pandemic. Since March, Penn State has undertaken significant measures to enable students to continue to achieve their educational goals despite health concerns, travel restrictions, and other constraints by instituting a variety of flexible learning and course delivery options. As students continue to indicate they want a college experience with flexibility and choices, Penn State remains focused on innovating with in-person, hybrid, remote synchronous, and remote asynchronous classes, along with efforts to foster student engagement opportunities and resources to support remote teaching at a high level.
  • Finances: Higher education institutions are continuing to face financial hardships as a result of demographic changes and declining state funding, which have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Forbes estimates that the pandemic’s impact on higher education has exceeded $120 billion. Despite the serious financial consequences and projected losses in revenue due to the pandemic, Penn State has a strong foundation thanks to long-term fiscal management strategies, recruitment efforts, efficiencies and cost-savings efforts, and critical reserves. Along with the early cost-savings measures this spring, including a hiring pause, salary freezes and unit budgets cuts, the University also is looking at new budget planning models, continued efforts to protect enrollment, and accelerated investments in online and remote education to build on Penn State foundations and expertise.
  • Faculty: Nationally, trends indicate an aging faculty body across higher education with at least 25% of tenured and tenure-track professors approaching age 70, making the renewal of faculty more challenging than ever. Some institutions have responded to that trend by hiring part-time and non-tenure-track faculty. Penn State has invested in efforts to add young faculty, expanding recruitment initiatives and increasing philanthropic endowments to support new faculty hires. In addition, Penn State has focused on supporting faculty through strategic hires of technical and support staff.  
  • Research: As research universities navigate flat funding levels, Penn State has continued to grow its research enterprise, which had expenditures that exceeded the $1 billion mark for the first time in the University’s history in fiscal year 2019-20 — up over 4% from the previous year. With a diverse research portfolio, the University has continued to invest in interdisciplinarity collaborations to focus on enduring global problems — such as energy, water, food security human health, economic development — as well as national needs like artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, 5G cellular data service, the opioid epidemic, child maltreatment and COVID-19. During the pandemic, Penn State prioritized the safety of research personnel, while shifting labs and research to study COVID-19 to contribute to national efforts and donating PPE to hospitals when there were national shortages. 

To view, Barron’s full presentation, visit https://www.dept.psu.edu/ur/newsdocuments/Nov2020presidentsreport.pdf.

Last Updated November 13, 2020