COVID-19 Response and Strategic Planning for Higher Education

Reshma Patel-Jackson
Senior Principal, Education, Nonprofit, and Commercial Services


Diane: Reshma is a senior principal in Attain’s Education, Nonprofit, and Commercial Services practice and has been serving the higher education and non-profit sectors for over 15 years. She specializes in strategy, change management, and organizational transformation and has been working closely with her clients to help them navigate recent events. Reshma, thanks for joining us to discuss the strategic responses across Higher Education to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reshma: Thanks for having me.

Diane: To begin, can you briefly summarize what our viewers need to know about Attain?

Reshma: I’d be happy to. We are a next generation, values-driven, built-to-last consulting company committed to serving the Higher Education and Nonprofit industries, as well as Federal, State and Local governments. As a technology firm focused on digital transformation, we amplify our capabilities by delivering expertise in strategy and change management to help our clients maximize their results.

Diane: Can you describe how Attain supported our clients during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Reshma: First, I’d like to acknowledge how difficult this has been for our entire nation—but particularly for the nonprofit industry, where demand for services has skyrocketed, as well as in Higher Education, where the model of in-person teaching and on-campus education was literally “turned off” overnight, leaving many institutions struggling to right their ships. Against the odds, we’ve seen our clients weather this storm as they have to make unprecedented decisions that impact their clients, their students, their faculty and staff as well as their overall mission.

One of the issues we have seen is clients grappling with modeling—how could they plan for the future when standard assumptions were no longer valid? We’ve been working with clients to develop financial models that both reflect past activities and adapt to this “new normal.” Those models represent a multitude of scenarios, which include a hybrid model inclusive of both virtual and on-campus learning, a 100% virtual model, and a staggered model where universities will transition into on-campus learning and then gradually shift to a fully virtual environment by Thanksgiving break. We’ve also identified additional drivers that are relevant to the implications of this pandemic such as:

  • Significant declines in international students due to travel bans and H1B1 visa challenges
  • Continued demand for lower tuition rates due to hybrid models
  • Potential decrease in enrollment in new and returning students (gap years)
  • Decreased revenue from auxiliary services due to social distancing requirements in areas like residence halls, dining services, etc.
  • Decreased revenue from athletics

What make these models even more powerful is the inclusion of the composite financial indicator, or CFI, and other, higher education-specific, ratios that are outlined in the Strategic Financial Analysis for Higher Education: Identifying, Measuring & Reporting Financial Risks, Seventh Edition1. This has allowed our clients to move beyond projections that are tailored to the for-profit sector, and deeply measure and project their performance in ways that are meaningful to their industry.

Diane: Those must have been challenging models to review, given the amount of revenue colleges and universities generate from student services and athletic activities.

Reshma: They were. However, it’s important for our clients to walk through those scenarios so that they can plan accordingly. Appropriate scenario planning and financial modeling helps our clients plan so they can rise to this challenge and meet their missions of education, research, and service.

Diane: We’ve discussed how Attain has supported institutions in the immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s turn now to how we are currently helping institutions across Higher Education with longer term efforts. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Reshma: Of course. We’ve shifted from the immediate triage activities to more medium- and long-term planning activities. Locally, we’re working to help universities develop a standardized decision-making approach for how they will manage activities in the fall of 2020. The big questions on everyone’s mind is “when can we get back to in-person education? When can our students return to campus? How can we do this while protecting the health and safety of our entire community—faculty, staff, visitors, and students?”

We created a report for a specific group of universities that summarized current “back-to-school” decisions made by colleges in similar areas, specifically schools in urban or urban-like areas with a high incidence of COVID-19. It seems that many schools are ultimately pursuing a hybrid model of some kind. Even those universities who have decided to return to in-person education this fall have an emphasis on smaller physical class sizes with corresponding increases in class listings and remote learning. The question we’re working to help universities answer is where on the spectrum of ‘hybrid’ they lie, and how are they building in and budgeting for the required safety activities that have become our new normal. This covers the spectrum from social distancing protocols, tracking, tracing, and isolation initiatives, additional investments in physical and mental health services, and increased cleaning protocols.

As I’m sure our readers know, there are no one-size-fits-all solution for colleges and universities, so each institution is working to develop their own plan that meets their individual needs and adheres to state and local guidelines.

On a personal note, I was recently invited to join as a charter member for Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) Technology Advisory Council. My role is to provide guidance and support on FCPS’ communications and change management workstream as they continue to integrate technology into their classrooms, whether at the individual school campuses and classrooms, or remotely. As a mother, it has been gratifying to translate my work with higher education and nonprofits to serve our local school district.

Diane: Reshma, thank you for your time.

Reshma: My pleasure. Thank you for yours.

Diane: Remind us where people can find us, and how they can access further resources.

Reshma: If you have any questions about anything we discussed here today, please reach out to us at info@attain.com. You can also visit our COVID-19 resource hub at attain.com/ENCSCOVIDResources. We’re here to help and are happy to answer any questions you may have.


1Prager, Sealy and Co. LLC., KPMG LLP, and Attain LLC. Strategic Financial Analysis for Higher Education: Identifying, Measuring & Reporting Financial Risks, Seventh Edition. 2010.

By Reshma Patel-Jackson, Senior Principal, Education, Nonprofit, and Commercial Services