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Graduate School of Education professor Robert Zemsky co-authored "The College Stress Test." Credit: Stuart Goldenberg

A Penn Graduate School of Education professor released a set of prediction trends about topics such astransforming typical college curriculum and adding three-year undergraduate degrees, that will influence higher education decisions in 2021. 

Robert Zemsky, a GSE professor in the higher education division, co-authored the book "The College Stress Test," which was published just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to the United States. In the book, Zemsky and his co-authors outlined how many colleges and universities were close to financial ruin even before the pandemic hit, Penn GSE News reported

Now, Zemsky has released new predictions for higher education in 2021, because COVID-19 will exacerbate and speed up the effects he outlined in his previous research which he included in the book.

Zemsky predicts that leadership in higher education will begin to view their institutions as businesses more than ever before, as he believes that many colleges did not realize how dependent they were on “residual expenses” such as room and board. As a result of the loss of these income streams and the limited options for reducing non-academic costs, colleges will look to cut academic costs. Zemsky argues that colleges should not cut faculty pay, but rather hire fewer adjunct professors and increase tenured professors’ required course loads. 

In addition, he believes that colleges might look to transform the traditional curriculum to increase student retention rates. Penn GSE News reported that half of U.S. colleges lose at least 25% of their first-year class. Zemsky suggests that updating the curriculum to fit the needs and interests of today’s students would go far to alleviate this problem.

Among other solutions, Zemsky proposed that colleges may begin offering three-year degree programs. Zemsky believes a four-year degree does not make sense academically or financially for most students anymore. 

His fifth prediction is that university leaders will have to focus on athletics “for all the wrong reasons,” Zemsky told Penn GSE News. 

“The budgets of many colleges — even those that are never on TV — are entangled with their athletic departments in ways that are increasingly uncomfortable,” Zemsky told Penn GSE News. 

Lastly, college leaders will not be able to control exactly what will happen to their schools. Local and state health department regulations will be forced to make many decisions about school reopenings in light of the ever-changing nature of the pandemic.

In March, Zemsky told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the pandemic could lead 20% of U.S. colleges and universities to close permanently.