The Future of Student Development: Leading Higher Education After COVID-19

Student success initiatives are always a priority for higher education leaders. However, this coming semester will demand changes in things like academic tutoring, academic coaching, counseling, career development, and so much more. I interviewed a panel of student life university leaders for an important conversation on the coming fall semester and beyond. They discussed topics including health and safety, contingency plans, and the changes that will inevitably come for students and leadership as we look to reopen schools.

Panelists Included:

  • Dr. Sarah Visser - Vice President for Student Life, Calvin University) 

  • Dr. William Washington - Vice President for Student Life, Bethel University

  • Becky Starkenburg - Vice President for Student Life, Trinity Christian College

  • Dr. Brad Voyles - Vice President for Student Development & Dean of Students, Covenant College

Encouragement for Christian Higher Education Leaders

  • As we try to find and maintain the balance of grace and truth during COVID-19, we can be encouraged by the resurrection hope in Jesus Christ. Isaiah 43:19 says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing…” Even though things seem to be turned upside down amidst the uncertainty for the future of our universities, be encouraged that God is doing a new thing, and has a purpose for our community. In the midst of a season that may feel burdensome, there are redemptive plans God is orchestrating.

  • Learn and grow in leading during ambiguity - 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Know that God has given you the power to get through this season, the love to care for others, and the authority to fight on behalf of your students.

  • Be reminded of the theme of God’s steadfast love and how predominant it is in scripture. God speaks of his loving-kindness for us. We need that steadfast love while we walk alongside students who are dealing with the startling impacts of COVID-19. Our students are facing tough realities such as family members who have or had COVD-19 and family members that have lost their jobs, all while navigating college. As Christian leaders in education, we have the opportunity to hold that space of steadfast love and loving-kindness for our students; the same way Jesus expends love towards us. 

  • Remember that you’re not alone. We are facing unprecedented times and no one truly has all of the answers. So take comfort in knowing we’re in this together, learning together, and we’re navigating each detail from point to point. In Psalm 16, David rehearses the promises of God. Extend grace to yourself and rehearse the truth of Christ over this complex time. Know that our communion with Christ is forever and unchanging. Take time to be filled with His truth through prayer and intentional time with God. Also, encourage your teams by thanking them for what they’re doing, they are feeling the impact of this challenging time as well. 

  • In Psalm 46 we can be encouraged by the truth that is, God is our refuge. Even though the mountains may slip into the sea, the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the implications of the future of our schools, He is our strength. Lean into His truth and allow it to guide you and cover you with peace.

Campus Conversations on Contingency Plans 

Although this is un-chartered territory for us, we have to be intentional and practical about moving forward and planning for the upcoming school year. Here are a few contingency plans and conversations that the panelists shared: 

  • Come up with a concept or picture that covers what we have to do in order to reopen. An example shared was a 3-legged stool that represents the following three groups:

    • Teach - This is a major part of what we do. It’s the purpose of our faculty that has to be taken into consideration.

    • Host - Residential aspect of housing, food, arranging events, and how we do chapel. 

    • Protect - Examining the measure we have to take to protect our students, faculty, and staff. 

  • Developing an Emergency Response Team that serves as a COVID-19 impact planning group. This team will ensure everyone is working together with different departments across the institution.

  • Creating an excel document that houses all of the questions people in each department have. This will help inform the direction we need to go in as we move forward as well as make certain we are addressing the concerns of our community. 

  • Approaching the phases of reopening as a dial, instead of a switch. This gives us time to actively prepare for scenarios of resuming face to face instruction in the fall. An example shared is: 

    • Moving the dial that develops a phased approach with a segment of faculty and staff who will return to campus. 

    • Re-designing the structure of chapel and classrooms that promote healthy social distancing measures. Also, taking into consideration ways we can maintain the culture of community that fosters who are while also being safe. 

  • Prepare virtual environments for the fall. Consider what it looks like to have classrooms of students with a faculty member who is teaching virtually if they still have children at home. 

  • Designate a location that is conducive for isolation if someone becomes sick. 

  • Establish a more frequent and detailed cleaning schedule.

  • Some leaders are considering a hybrid approach consisting of online courses and face-to-face instruction. Some are looking to adopt block scheduling and even a shift their academic calendar. 

Strategies, Concerns, and Plans for Reopening Schools

  • As more information becomes available, it’s evident that smaller institutions are able to pivot more quickly to  the continuous change. 

  • For smaller Christian institutions, we are relying on time and agility. We are developing multiple scenarios and holding them with intentions of waiting on the state and local government rules to implement plans.

  • All schools are committed to protecting their students, so it's important to address what residence halls look like when we reopen and remember that the bottom line doesn’t supersede the safety of our students.

  • There is a present concern of COVID-19 resurfacing. Colleges are hoping that there isn't a start and a stop similar to the one this year. To avoid this, it's critical to monitor the curve and have a cushion of time built in to transition.

  • There needs to be increased communication with our communities. Although education leaders don’t have a hard-deadline of making final decisions for next year, they are developing effective communication plans for their communities to remain in the loop. 

  • Consider the concept of risk-strategizing. Leaders are placing an emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable people on school campuses. This is a good time to strengthen your relationships with your public health providers that work with your campus.

  • Communicate expectations for students when they return. As you develop screening and testing plans, you may need to communicate that students need to bring masks, thermometers, or other protective gear.

  • Students are at multiple stages in their spiritual maturity and the Christian story has a lot to offer during this time. This is going to press leaders to teach our students that they’re part of a community and how they can live according to certain principles and expectations as followers of Christ. 

  • Technology has facilitated cross-divisional sharing and instant connection. Christian universities are expecting to think outside the box with how they have chapel sessions in the future. Leaders are asking pertinent questions such as, what is the goal of chapel, and are there other ways to do it? 

  • Many Christian education leaders are currently shifting from a stance of being reactive to being proactive. They are considering, what’s the worst-case scenario and what does it take for us to do what we’re called to do according to our mission. Here is an example of proactive communication efforts some one school is using:

    • One school is working with health authorities by crafting a guidance document to deliver to the government that gives them an idea of how leaders in higher education think they can reopen safely. This document gives them tangible problems to solve as we give clarity rather than certainty. 

Projecting Student Retention Numbers

  • Some schools have already gone through their advising process and are currently assessing the data to examine the shifts they are seeing in student enrollment.

  • Leaders have sent out student surveys asking how the semester has gone for them with virtual learning and what questions they have for the future. This give us a sense of questions, fears, and anxieties students may have. Leaders can then plan to address the issues their population is facing.

  • Some schools are forming a strategy centered around a room and board refund. This strategy grants credits to students around the same time they receive their bill for next year in order to help give people the opportunity to use their refund for their tuition bill. 

  • Unconditionally Calvin is a segment on Calvin University’s website that communicates their commitment to who they are as a faith formative community and academic entity. Check out their example of keeping students and parents in the loop.

Advice For All Christian Higher Education Leaders

It is important to live as people of hope who see endless possibilities through Christ during the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the future of reopening campuses. As Christians, we have the unique opportunity to help people see new ways to move forward. In a global crisis, it’s important for leaders to be empathetic with others and understand things from their perspective while also finding ways to meet their needs. This is an essential trait for leading well and stewarding the people God has entrusted you with well.

Although there are real hurdles for larger institutions, Christian leaders can bring a sense of more intimate communities within the public and large institutions. This can assist larger institutions with thinking through what’s manageable, preventative measures, and ways to try and mitigate any future spreading of COVID-19. There is a divine opportunity for private Christian organizations to be the example and share resources across institutions. 


Brian Jensen and Dr. Sarah Visser co-edited a book on student development called Reimagining the Student Experience that you can find on Amazon

Copy of Reopening The Church (5)