PBS NewsHour Series “Rethinking College” Explores the Future of Higher Education Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

ARLINGTON, VA (January 5, 2021) — On Tuesdays, January 5 – 26, 2021, PBS NewsHour will air its signature “Rethinking College” series as part of NewsHour’s overall look at the future of higher education. The special four-part series will examine how higher education has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic. The college experience dramatically changed in 2020, with COVID-19 transforming campuses into ghost towns and forcing a historic number of students to drop out.  Education experts say the combined fallout will put hundreds of institutions at risk of closing in the coming years and the schools that survive will be permanently changed. 

NewsHour correspondent and weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan will explore how campuses are catering to students in the COVID era, how university administrators are balancing budgets and how students are coping with a string of semesters largely stripped of structure, tradition and friendship. 

With the support of the Lumina Foundation, the series reports on how campuses are adapting to an ever-shifting pandemic, the disproportionate impact on students of color, the rise of short-term credentialing programs, and the growing mental health crisis that is affecting students.

NewsHour’s broadcast reports include: 

January 5, 2021: Financial freefall
As schools prepare for the third pandemic semester, the grim toll on higher education is mounting. Small, private schools are especially at-risk. Ohio Wesleyan President Rock Jones recently announced his school will eliminate 18 majors — nearly a fifth of its offerings — due to budgetary issues accelerated by the pandemic. But some of the biggest schools aren’t much better off. The state universities of Michigan are facing a combined $1 billion shortfall. Sreenivasan examines what’s driving the massive deficits, while also exploring the short-term solutions that administrators are now rolling out.

January 12, 2021: The Pandemic’s Disproportionate Impact on Students of Color
Typically during a recession, community college enrollment increases as unemployed workers seek to learn new skills. But that’s not happening this time around. Economists say it could mean trouble for the economy going forward, particularly for low-income students and students of color. Community colleges have seen enrollment plummet 10.1 percent compared to last year — with some of the most significant drops among students who are either Black, Hispanic or Native American. The demographic plunge is affecting nearly every other corner of higher education. What’s driving these numbers? And what might the long-term impact be if more isn’t done to help these students?

January 19, 2021: Mental Health Challenges Amid the Pandemic
For millions who have transitioned to online coursework during this pandemic, the college experience now means classes are almost entirely online and there are great barriers to meeting new friends and building connections with professors. The result: increased anxiety, depression and loneliness. Students with complex mental health issues are having a challenging time accessing counselors in the new digital world. Minority groups are finding themselves cut off from their campus communities at a critical stage in their lives. What are colleges and universities doing to support these young adults? Why are many mental health professionals saying it’s not enough?

January 26, 2021: Surging Demand for Short-Term Degree Programs
In recent years, some colleges have seen a surge in demand for skill-based training linked to careers. Community colleges, four-year institutions and even corporations — including Google, IBM and Amazon — have responded with online certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeships, among other career advancement courses.  But these credentials sometimes aren’t as widely recognized as two- or four-year degrees. Will these shorter-term programs play a significant role in rebuilding America’s post-COVID economy, or will they turn out to be a waste of time and money for students who are often already struggling financially?

An introductory segment aired on December 29, 2020, with a timely discussion between NewsHour correspondent William Brangham and Jeffrey Selingo, author of “Who Gets In and Why,” on how the pandemic is shaking up college admissions and testing.

Senior producers Murrey Jacobson and Patti Parson; producer Jason Kane; and correspondent and weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan contributed to reporting for this series.

Coverage will extend to NewsHour’s digital and social platforms. 

Media contact: Sydney Cameron, Publicist, scameron@newshour.org