Colleges Face 'Existential Threat'

Coronavirus is huge trouble for universities large and small
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 23, 2020 12:10 PM CDT
Colleges Face 'Existential Threat'
The empty Zell B. Miller Learning Center on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.   (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

"The math is not pretty." That's the understated assessment of a Seton Hall expert to NPR on the financial toll the coronavirus is taking on colleges and universities across the nation. And the pain isn't expected to end anytime soon as students remain home and take classes online. At this point, nobody is quite sure what the fall semester will look like, but schools and students already are preparing for more off-campus learning. Coverage:

  • Big picture: NPR has the details on that non-pretty math. Schools are refunding room and board, along with parts of tuition. They're losing revenue on sports and campus events, and they're bracing for lower enrollment in the fall (particularly for international students). On top of those losses, they're often spending money to bolster the tech necessary for online learning.
  • Dire assessment: "This will touch every sector of higher education. Every size of institution, every region of the country," says Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at SMU. And for some colleges, particularly those in remote or rural locales, "this is an existential threat that means they'll have to close." Also, public campuses might see funding from strapped states drastically reduced.

  • Bad timing: This unprecedented challenge comes as enrollment already was on a general decline, so expect this to intensify the national debate on whether the cost of college is worth the tradeoff in student debt, notes Axios. Plus, there's now a new wrinkle to the issue: "Why pay full tuition to sit at home and watch videos?" asks Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, per CNBC.
  • The fall? Well, who knows. One safe bet for students is to expect "another semester of Zoom lectures and seminars—meaning they'll miss out on athletics, arts, Greek life, extracurriculars, and everything else that defines the college experience," per Axios. But schools are exploring a wide range of options that revolve around upending the traditional academic calendar, from delaying the new term from August or September until January, to shifting to shorter courses of about a month for more flexibility. Another idea is a hybrid model, per NPR, with small classes reopening but larger ones staying online.
  • Example of pain: The University of Michigan projects that it will lose between $400 million to $1 billion in 2020, reports the Detroit Free Press.
  • Gap year: Amid all this, CNBC reports that more incoming freshmen than usual are looking at the idea of a gap year. "Everyone is freaking out a little bit," says the CEO of Command Education in New York, which works with college-bound students and their families. "Typically, only two to three students want to take a gap year; this year, it's about 75%." One fear: Gap years are often sanctioned by colleges, which allow accepted students to defer enrollment. It's possible that hurting colleges will tighten up on that.
  • Lawsuits: Class-action lawsuits are springing up around the nation from students who want their money back because of the shift to online learning, reports Inside Higher Ed. It counts five so far, including actions against Drexel University, Liberty University, and the University of Miami.
(More coronavirus stories.)

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