Launch of the OECD Economic Survey of the US


Launch of the OECD Economic Survey of the US


Reopening America: Reimagining graduate education

Graduating Masters students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) gather the day before their graduation ceremony, which is to be held online due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., May 15, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Editor's note:

The following is an excerpt from Reopening America: How to Save Lives and Livelihoods, a new report where Brookings experts offer ideas to help policymakers protect lives and save livelihoods in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Reopening America and the WorldIn May, I spoke to approximately a dozen deans of international affairs schools across the United States and in Europe regarding their plans for graduate education in the next academic year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As those deans work with their university leadership to determine whether any of their instruction will be on campus in the fall—or whether it will all be online, as the California State University system recently announced — many are wondering how many students will enroll if they can’t do the program in person as they intended.  

Deans understandably are swamped with figuring out the logistics of the coming fall semester while also maintaining their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion given the wide range of challenging situations students find themselves in due to COVID-19. But this work also gives them the opportunity to more durably reimagine how students might pursue their degree after the pandemic, mixing and matching face-to-face and online learning, including doing some of the work online while being on campus. The time when hybrid in-person/online programs will actually become possible is not, in fact, now during the pandemic, but after it has passed, when students and faculty can more freely choose what part of the program stays on campus and what can be done successfully online.

The pandemic will accelerate underlying trends in our world, including the position of the United States internationally and how we think about globalization; the curriculum will need to change with it.  

And it’s not just how the schools deliver graduate education that is important during this crisis. Schools also have an opportunity to reimagine what students should study if they are going to be future leaders in the public, private and/or non-profit sectors. The pandemic will accelerate underlying trends in our world, including the position of the United States internationally and how we think about globalization; the curriculum will need to change with it.  


Ideally, graduate students should have the ability to fulfill their degrees in whatever format works best for them, from fully on-campus to fully online and across the spectrum in between. Some students learn better on campus; others do equally well online. And everyone’s situation is different: some students can move to where the school is located and take classes when they are offered; others cannot. Some have children or elderly parents to take care of, or heavy traffic to contend with if they are trying to get from a job to a 5:30 p.m. class. The pandemic is only exacerbating gaps between the circumstances different students find themselves in (and this is particularly true for international students), and it is critical to transform the culture of graduate education to start incorporating flexible course designs 61 and ways to engage different types of learners, regardless of modality.

The deans I spoke with in May are all working with administrators, faculty, and staff to develop “hybrid” or what is sometimes now termed Hybrid-Flexible (HyFlex) models in the hopes that at least some students will be able to come to campus in the fall to take in-person classes, while others are joining online. While there is a lot of justified concern about the quality of virtual education among those who have only just experienced remote learning this spring, online discussions can work well if they are structured for intimate participation. Technology allows everyone in small classes to see each other onscreen continuously and enables the possibility for breakout groups. Schedules should, however, be built with a recognition of reasonable attention spans and “Zoom fatigue.” Moreover, while oncampus discussions have many advantages, online discussions offer one critical opportunity: the ability to bring together faculty and students with guests from other parts of the country or world to get a truly global real-time perspective, providing a way for schools to use their alumni networks to great advantage.  

Deans rightly fear that students starting online in the fall will miss out on the community-building experiences so important to graduate school cohorts. Indeed, many existing online degree programs have required students to participate in short immersion programs on campus so they can meet one another and the faculty in person, which has major positive benefits in building a sense of community and affinity. Schools might be able to bring small groups at a time to campus for such meetings even this coming fall, to strengthen the connections first forged digitally in person.  

As deans continue to think about how to execute hybrid programs, they should look at this initial foray as a pilot, not an aberration, and one that reduces barriers to entry for students unable to get their education in the traditional format. (This is also why it’s important for students to be able to dial in using their mobile phones, which work even where there’s no internet; this is extremely important for many international students, who will not be able to come to campuses anytime soon.)  

Rather than thinking about whether on-campus is better than online, consider which is most appropriate to meet the needs of individual students who have their own circumstances and learning styles. It’s easy to see hybrid models now as emergency solutions rather than a new normal. After all, we all want to go back to the old normal. But instead of treating transferring oncampus offerings to a distance-learning format as a temporary solution—as was necessary this spring—schools should strategize about what they can do differently in the long-term with the opportunity to design quality online or hybrid courses.  


In some ways, envisioning how to deliver graduate education post-pandemic is easier than rethinking the curriculum. International affairs schools typically teach a mix of courses, such as core concept-based classes; methods training; economics; in-depth regional classes on countries or parts of the world; and functional courses on topics like national security, international development, and international communication. For decades, students have taken classes in a world in which the United States was the established global leader upholding an international order that it built and fostered after World War II. But existing trends undermining that order have accelerated with the pandemic. International institutions have demonstrated their fragility given their previous dependence on U.S. leadership. Things are going well only where national governments have taken the necessary steps to do massive testing, tracing, and isolation.  

It doesn’t make much sense merely to teach the same courses as we taught them before, maybe with a week or two on the pandemic as an addendum. The moment calls for fundamental change in the curriculum. Whether it’s globalization or national security, Europe or China, faculty and students won’t be studying anything in the same way, and the curriculum needs to be adjusted accordingly, particularly with respect to new content in the introductory classes providing overviews of the main challenges in international affairs.  

All of the international affairs schools talk about training future leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. How will graduates of these programs navigate a world replete with disruption in the coming decades, not just from pandemics, but from climate change, supply chain fragility, artificial intelligence, and threats to critical infrastructure? Society needs professionals who have the knowledge and skills to manage risk, as we all better understand.  

While research faculty are knowledge producers, professionals in government or business are knowledge consumers, and international affairs schools are in the business of creating more savvy knowledge consumers. Graduates don’t need to be economists, but they need to be able to read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. They don’t need to have served in the military services or as intelligence analysts, but they need to be able to understand what military and intelligence professionals are telling them. And they don’t need to be epidemiologists; but as we now know, they need to be able to make sense of what epidemiologists are saying.  

After 9/11, students flocked to international affairs schools because they wanted to make a difference. Nearly all of the deans I spoke to in May reported applications and deposits for enrollments at numbers much higher than last year. This could simply be the traditional countercyclical phenomenon of students pursuing graduate school when jobs are hard to come by. And it makes sense for students to pursue those degrees now if they are able, so that they have a master’s degree by the time the economy rebounds. And none of the deans has a firm grasp on how many students will actually enroll if classes are all online. But the interest international affairs schools are seeing in their graduate programs might also be because now is a moment when individuals want to go into the field to make a difference in a world that needs all hands on deck. If they do make the decision to go to graduate school, programs need to be equipped to deliver the education students will need to be successful in the radically altered post-pandemic world into which they will graduate.