What a difference a year makes. Last November, when we published RECORD’s annual portfolio of new college and university projects, that building type, a steady source of commissions for many architecture firms, seemed stable.

But after Covid, who knows? The lockdowns, and now the third wave of coronavirus, have had a dramatic impact on institutions of higher learning. Freshman enrollment is down 16 percent, and revenues have dropped. Colleges and universities are holding few or no in-person classes, or only allowing students on campus on staggered schedules. Some operate a hybrid model of live and virtual courses. Many professors, especially older faculty who had never heard of Zoom a year ago, are teaching from home.

While no one can forecast where we’ll be a year from now, pedagogical leaders seem to agree on one thing: higher education in the U.S. will never be the same after Covid, largely because of the evolving potential of digital learning. That revolution is likely to have a big effect on how, or if, colleges build. “Universities will remain vibrant, dynamic, diverse places,” predicted Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, in the Chronicle of Higher Education during the early days of the pandemic. “But bricks and mortar don’t propel these exchanges. The institutions that thrive will be those that understand how humans cross the boundaries between the physical and digital and back again.”

Scott Galloway, the trend guru and marketing professor at New York University (NYU), has been more blunt. A private, liberal-arts education was a high-priced commodity before the pandemic, he argued in an interview with New York Magazine; he compared the future of many colleges to “department stores in 2018. Everyone will recognize they’re going out of business but it will take longer than people think.” And eventually, he speculates, top-tier universities (the places like MIT, Harvard, and Dartmouth that he terms “luxury goods”) will develop deep partnerships with big tech companies, resulting in opportunities for many more students to earn degrees through online learning and gain access to the Silicon Valley job pipeline.

Some schools already have begun to value this symbiosis: as RECORD showcased in November 2017, Cornell Tech in New York—a new campus with buildings by Morphosis and Weiss/Manfredi, among others—promotes the creation of tech start-ups as part of its mission.

In the November 2020 issue, we look at architectural projects similarly designed to foster a direct link between education and business. The National Automotive Innovation Centre at Warwick University, in the U.K., designed by Cullinan Studio of London, is part of the institution’s ongoing collaboration with industry. Here, the training of engineers and other specialists, as well as business research and development, take place under one large, timber-diagrid roof—which also shelters secure design studios for the Jaguar Land Rover brands. In Melbourne, meanwhile, the Woodside Building for Technology and Design on a campus of Monash University—the beneficiary of the largest producer of natural gas in the country—is supporting research into alternative energy in an immense facility. Designed by the Sydney office of Grimshaw, it meets Passive House standards. At a much smaller scale, the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, funded by the cofounder of the Alibaba Group and designed by Weiss/Manfredi, is a transparent elliptical oasis intended as a hub for cross-disciplinary programs and mentorship.

Other projects in this issue are home to more traditional programs. The Bobst Library is a finely detailed series of spaces by CannonDesign for special collections and research at NYU. Steven Holl’s lyrical Winter Visual Arts Center, at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, sits on the edge of campus, where gown meets town. And the Beloit College Powerhouse, a student-recreation center, occupies a former coal-fired energy plant which has been retrofitted by Studio Gang, with the addition of a luminous new field house that glows at night.

While these last projects serve the historic underpinning of campus life—academic research and collections, sports and exercise, and the arts—will such facilities be obsolete someday? The big questions clouding the future of colleges and universities are affordability, wider access to higher education, and the readiness of tomorrow’s students for a technologically advancing society. In a changing landscape for these institutions, architects may design fewer dorms and more computer labs and amenities for students only occasionally on campus. When the economy stumbles back to life in the wake of Covid, those next priorities for higher education will finally begin to come into focus.