"The Math Is Not Pretty" - COVID Concerns Spark "Existential Threat" For Many Colleges

Colleges across the country are trying to figure out whether they can reopen campus this fall. Right now, it's a 50/50 shot. No one knows, and with a second coronavirus wave looming later this year, face-to-face classes might not be seen until early 2021.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said reopening colleges could be a drawn-out process and lead to a 15% decline in students, resulting in billions of dollars lost for schools.

"The math is not pretty," Robert Kelchen, a student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told NPR News. "Colleges are stressed both on the revenue side and on the expenditure side."

The transition to virtual classes has been epic. Schools in nearly every state have moved courses online in just weeks, triggering lawsuits filed by some students that claim refunds for tuition, fees, and room and board must be seen. 

Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, warned that every college would feel financial stress related to coronavirus lockdowns. 

NPR estimates that virus lockdowns are leading to significant losses for some universities:

"The University of Michigan estimates it may lose up to $1 billion by the end of the year. For the University of Kentucky, it's $70 million. Hundreds of schools — including some with endowments of more than a billion dollars, like Duke University, Virginia Tech and Brown — have announced hiring freezes. Other institutions have cut pay and have laid off staff and contractors. In Vermont, state officials have floated potential college shutdowns."

Baker said the lockdowns would affect colleges in disproportionate ways. "For some colleges, this is an existential threat that means they'll have to close," she said, while others have the financial support to weather the virus storm. 

The higher education community received a bailout via the CARES Act. Congress allocated around $14 billion to colleges and universities affected by the shutdowns, though the American Council on Education said it was not enough and is calling for $46 billion more. 

Campus Reform identified the top ten schools receiving the most bailout money, courtesy of the American taxpayer:

  1. Arizona State University- $63.5 million
  2. Pennsylvania State University- $54.9 million
  3. Rutgers University- $54.1 million
  4. University of Central Florida- $51 million
  5. Miami Dade College- $49 million
  6. Georgia State University- $45.2 million
  7. California State University-Northridge- $44.6 million
  8. The Ohio State University- $42.8 million
  9. California State University- Long Beach- $41.7 million
  10. California State University- Fullerton- $41 million

Kelchen described a situation that happened over a decade ago when the economy crashed in 2008, and state budgets were not able to fund schools. With a depression unfolding, it appears funding for higher education will come into question once more. 

And to make matters worse, nationwide enrollment in higher education has plunged 11% in the last eight years as millennials figure out they don't need to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt before entering the labor force.

Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician at Yale University, said colleges are not returning to normal this fall. 

"This idea — that we can somehow just get back to normal and go back to school in the fall, because we always have, it's not reasonable, actually. I think we're going to have to figure out other ways of doing this," said Christakis.

Bryan Alexander, an educational futurist at Georgetown University, said the pandemic is going to reshape everything we know about college. 

"There are many ways a reconstructed fall might look, including the option of continuing everything online, though many colleges that teach in-person still think of that as a last resort. They cite online learning growing pains and an ambivalent faculty. Plus there's some fear that students and their families won't be willing to pay as much for an online offering. Among the ideas being floated for tweaking the in-person model is changing the traditional academic calendar. Instead of starting in August or September, school might open in October or even January. Instead of 16-week semesters, colleges could shift to quarter systems or even shorter, four-week courses to allow flexibility," said NPR.

Some have floated the idea of trying smaller classes and hosting larger ones online. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, along with colleague Benjamin Cornwell, said large lecture classes should be eliminated. 

"Just eliminating those 100-person or more classes didn't seem to reduce the small-world nature of the network all that much," Weeden said. Their research — which was published recently in a white paper, but not peer reviewed — was only looking at classes and didn't factor in dorm life or campus events such as social gatherings and athletics.

"There's just so much uncertainty," said Weeden. "You know, a big piece of this, of course, is whether there is going to be [coronavirus] testing available and what those tests can and cannot tell us. And you know, everybody wants to know the answer to that question."

The million-dollar question is if college classes will return to normal by fall. And the answer is likely no, while many schools will push for virtual classes, extended lockdowns, and a second coronavirus wave could lead to the implosion of higher education.