5 Great Business Lessons from Luther College’s Re-opening Plan

In my continuing series on pivots and innovative actions by different companies during the pandemic, I want to spend this week talking about another industry entirely: higher education. Specifically, at a time when the largest university system in the USA has already canceled most of its in-person classes next fall, the “phased and modular” approach Luther College is taking to reopen its campus is one of the smartest solutions I’ve seen – and there are some great lessons to be learned for any business.

The Problem: Most colleges and universities shut down abruptly around Spring Break this year, forcing students to finish the rest of the academic year online. As colleges gear up for a new wave of incoming freshmen, how do they onboard new students into a Fall 2020 semester with so many unknowns?

The Pivot: Luther will invite only the freshmen to campus for the month of September, at which time they will take a comprehensive, intensive 4-week class (normally taught in January). Then, all returning students will come back to campus in October, where everyone will have two 7-week “quarters” from October through January. Everything will revert back to a normal semester schedule from February to June. 

Why this is awesome: I love this pivot/recovery for a few reasons:

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FOCUSES ON THE MOST AT-RISK “CUSTOMERS” FIRST. Before most people had ever heard of a coronavirus, many colleges and universities were already facing declining enrollments as they struggled to articulate a strong value proposition in the face of soaring tuition costs. COVID-19 has created another reason to give prospective students pause; if they can’t have the “real college experience” they are paying for in 2020-2021, should they take a gap year? Or even more dramatic: should they rethink the 4-year college experience entirely? By giving incoming freshmen the most complete experience possible from Day 1, Luther College has lessened the likelihood that incoming students will change their plans to attend this fall. 

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GETS THE REST OF THE CUSTOMERS BACK AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Although sophomores and upperclassmen have more sunk costs toward their degree – and therefore are more likely to return to finish their studies anyway – by coming back only a month late and still getting a full year of classroom instruction, their experience will face as little disruption as possible.

EASES INTO A NEW NORMAL FOR OPERATIONS. How college campuses learn to exist with social distancing in classrooms (and hallways), community bathrooms, buffet-style cafeterias, and the like are going to be challenging across the country, but Luther can work out the kinks over four weeks with only 25% of the normal undergraduate population around. 

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PRESERVES A MORE DIVERSE INCOME STREAM. One 2014 study referenced in a recent Forbes article showed that from 1976 to 2013, the inflation-adjusted rate of increase in public four-year college housing prices was about 72%, compared with less than 5% for housing in the broader economy. Although this study of public universities is not necessarily reflective of changes in housings costs at Luther College, “auxiliary fees“ like room and board remain a significant source of revenue for many 4-year schools, particularly when they require students to live on campus. This creative way of getting students back on campus as soon as possible (even if it’s only at 25% capacity to start) is a smart business decision.

KEEPS FLEXIBILITY FOR FUTURE UNCERTAINTY. Once all of the students have returned, the other key element of the Luther 2020 Fall semester is offering two 7-week sessions (Oct-Nov and Dec-Jan) of two classes each as opposed to the normal single 14-week semester of four classes. The main advantage of this schedule is that, if the campus is forced to suspend in-person classes again prior to January, there will be far less disruption.

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I’m incredibly hopeful that Luther’s incoming freshmen (and college students everywhere) will be able to have a meaningful college experience for all four years of their studies, and there are currently at least 15 different scenarios colleges and universities are considering for the fall. But hats off to Luther for finding a creative way to turn the hand they’ve been dealt into a win-win situation for the students and the school.

Alex Hultgren is CEO | Founder of Customers 1st Marketing, where he helps companies delight their customers and find new ones as a fractional CMO. In full disclosure, his daughter will be attending Luther College this fall, but in no way was he compensated for the content of this article. Nonetheless – I mean, now that the article has been published and everything – if the nice folks in Luther’s Financial Services office wanted to lop a digit or two off of her tuition balance, there would be no objections from the Hultgren household. 

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