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Risk Management

The Evolving Risk Model of Higher Education

Universities require a more creative approach to their risk management program as they adapt to new financial and societal challenges. We uncover five of the top risks posing a threat to current models.

March 11, 2022

The dynamic risk landscape of higher education continues to keep university risk managers on their toes, with an abundance of new risks creating safety concerns that have the potential for future litigation. Additionally, staffing shortages, early retirements and career shifts have further increased pressures for institutions to make educator roles more enticing to the next generation.

“Collaboration is not a groundbreaking idea, but universities can forget how key it is in investigating, improving and resolving their overall risks,” said Kevin O’Sadnick, Senior Risk Control Manager at Safety National. “This enterprise approach not only empowers their educators to appropriately respond to a critical event but has the potential to prevent a worst-case scenario.”

Risk managers assessing their risk program for top concerns should closely monitor the development of these five evolving risks.

1. Cybersecurity

The pandemic heightened the demand for online education, creating challenging requirements for universities to meet technology and bandwidth needs. Universities were already a prime target for cyberattacks due to the amount of sensitive data, transactions and valuable research information they contained. With this increased traffic, the severity and frequency of attacks are rising, which urgently requires a more robust and experienced security staff to avoid penalties from unsecured networks and phishing attacks and prevent a potentially reputation-damaging event.

2. Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention

Universities aiming to diminish risks surrounding sexual assault have implemented transparent policies around social media interactions between students and teachers, lengthy background checks for hiring and incident reporting applications. Environmental changes, such as eliminating solid doors and educators meeting with students in common areas, can also reduce a potential incident. Incident reporting applications that provide anonymous or confidential tips can also be critical to violence prevention on campus. Reporting of alarming behaviors, bullying and inappropriate interactions can provide staff with information necessary to prevent a crisis event.

3. Local, State and Federal Compliance

COVID-19 forced many universities to reallocate federal funding to adapt to changing mandates and regulations. While some of these restrictions are being lifted, challenges around student housing limitations forced relocations into publicly accessible buildings, like hotels, posing additional threats to student health and safety.

4. Low Enrollment

There is still a significant struggle to attract students to an on-site campus as the popularity of flexible online learning rises. While this trend has a major impact on student life with limited interactions and social events, it has also questioned the role of higher education. In fact, nearly one million fewer students have enrolled in higher education since the beginning of the pandemic. Low enrollment figures have led institutions to invest in trade school-style job training, where a student can finish out a degree while working in a position that will ultimately become their career path.

5. Educator Pensions

Nearly 90% of educators in the U.S. are enrolled in a pension plan. And although these pensions are guaranteed to teachers that have paid into the program, an underfunded plan due to overly aggressive investment assumptions can lead to salary cuts, fewer retirement benefits and reduced hiring. These factors have also made the role less attractive to future generations, making recruitment more challenging. A recent poll conducted by the National Education Association found that 86% of its members have seen more educators leaving the profession or retiring early since the beginning of the pandemic, which will likely continue with burnout on the rise.