Admissions

COVID-19 College Consequences

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The onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic has turned higher education and college students upside-down. As the consequences of this incredibly infectious pathogen trickle down, virtually no aspect of normality has been left untouched. A search for proof of that statement turns up some dramatic reports. That's what I'd like to look at today.


A Google inquiry for COVID-19 college consequences yields impressive results. If we can imagine COVID-19 as a torrential downpour, the trickle down washes over college presidents first, whose responsibilities include keeping their institutions afloat. The trickle trail continues south to engulf admissions and enrollment administrators, then onto housing, physical plant, athletics, students, parents and alumni. Everyone gets wet.

Of course, like all businesses, the bottom line for higher ed is revenue. The flow of incoming cash lubricates the collegiate machinery and when something happens to stifle the lubrication, the gnashing of gears becomes audible quickly. Cash flows in from enrollments, and the national trend, even before the pandemic breakout, has shown fewer high school students choosing traditional colleges.

Colleges Face Tough Choices

What follows is a brief summary of some of the more pointed articles from my search. When taken as a whole, one might possibly see the logic behind Professor Scott Galloway's projection that a surprising number of America's 4,000+ colleges and universities will go out of business in the near future.

First, Andrew DiPietro, writing in Forbes, sums up the situation rather well:

One huge area that COVID-19 is impacting and sowing major confusion is in higher education. Colleges and universities have been thrown into very uncertain waters as they are forced to convert to online-only courses while struggling with a myriad of other issues, especially in the realm of finances. We asked college professors and administrators, counselors, higher education consultants and many other experts in the field of higher education for their views on how COVID-19 is impacting colleges and universities, both currently and in the longer-term

Two significant comments from those interviewed:

  • "The colleges best positioned to survive the financial challenge may be the urban commuter schools. Living at home while attending schools with limited-sized classes may become a much more palatable option for parents afraid to send their children to live in densely populated campus dorms," said Gil Gibori, CEO and founder of The House Tutoring Lounge
  • "For new students, it's going to be a mess. I expect that we will see many of the students who were so excited to be accepted a few months ago will either elect to take a gap year. Especially if the school is residential and far enough from home to make it difficult to return if needed," said John Pryor, founder of Pryor Education Insights

These two points highlight the one-two punch colleges must absorb: (1) the trending cultural change toward commuter schools — community colleges and vocational trade schools, and (2) falling enrollment. As I've discussed before, ever-rising college costs are also causing families to rethink their return on investment in this era of increased unemployment. That's why community college and vocational trade schools fill a broad need now.

CNBC's Abigail Hess notes that Some students are considering dropping out of college because of coronavirus. These are the kinds of stories that strike fear into the hearts of college administrators. Hess cites one example under the heading of "Worsened financial realities":

Taylor Hill, 22, is a sophomore communications major at Indiana University South Bend. She lives alone and was working 35 hours a week as a cashier at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore to support herself through her degree. But since being laid off in mid-March when the store closed due to the pandemic, Hill has been forced to evaluate if she is financially able to continue her education.

"I've got at least $6,000 in debt, which isn't too bad, but I'm still a sophomore so I've got a couple more years to go. It's hard to say if going back would be financially responsible because I don't have anything in savings. I was working and living paycheck to paycheck," Hill tells CNBC Make It. "I honestly am not entirely sure how I'm going to dig myself out of this financial hole I found myself in."

She says this concern is shared by her peers. "Just about all of my friends are laid off right now, so a lot of us are in the same situation," Hill says

Hill brings up another threat to colleges: student loan debt. Even though she has "at least" $6,000 of debt at the (hopeful) midpoint of her college career, she may not be aware of "front-loading" financial aid. That's where colleges give attractive aid packages in the first year or two then systematically diminish their generosity during upperclass years, thus increasing debt for students whose financial resources haven't improved or worsened, such as Taylor Hill's have.

Could Liberal Arts Departments Suffer?

One of the hardest hit areas is liberal arts. The loss of revenue sometimes requires the elimination of entire degree programs. Classical liberal arts, frequently underestimated as a credential for "real-world" employment, are among the first areas to be scrutinized when administrators start cutting.

Another CNBC reporter, Jessica Dickler, documents this fact in her report Colleges cut academic programs in the face of budget shortfalls due to Covid-19:

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, some things may never be the same. A liberal arts education could be one of themIn early June, the University of Alaska system announced it will cut 39 academic departments in all, including degree programs in sociology, creative writing, chemistry and environmental science

Thirty-nine departments! That would be enough to scuttle some liberal arts colleges. Smaller schools are also making sweeping cuts.

Elmira College in New York said it is eliminating a number of academic programs, including American studies, classical studies, economics, international studies, music, philosophy and religion, and Spanish and Hispanic studies, in addition to cutting several athletic teams and reducing staff by 20 percent ...

The increasing trend of technical and vocational education is providing a safe harbor of sorts for some schools that recognize students' needs for hands-on skills rather than esoteric knowledge. For example, look at how Hiram College is reacting to the changing landscape.

Hiram College, just outside of Cleveland, eliminated several majors, including religion, art history and music, in favor of an increased emphasis on technology and programs in sport management, international studies and crime, law and justice ...

And what would college be without sports? The potency of the COVID-19 impact has reached even the highest levels of collegiate athletics, as Insider reveals: Cincinnati, Stanford, and 17 other Division I schools are permanently eliminating dozens of sports programs in an unexpected loss from the pandemic.

As of this article's writing [July 8, 2020], 19 Division I schools have cut at least one of its teams since the pandemic began. In total, those 19 schools — only one of which belongs to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or Southeastern Conference that comprise college sports' Power Five — have permanently cut 57 teams between them. Baseball, softball, wrestling, men's and women's lacrosse, men's and women's tennis, and men's and women's golf are among those cut

Here is the comment that quickly caught my eye. It reflects colleges' instinctive sense for revenue, regardless of how many degree programs may have to be cut:

Predictably, not one school has chosen to discontinue its football or men's basketball team as a money-saving measure

So, to complete my title's alliteration, COVID-19 college consequences are considerable. Unfortunately, as we are about to enter August, I think we've just seen the tip of the iceberg.