The Great Contraction

Indiana University of Pennsylvania was already shrinking. As regional demographics ebbed and competition for the remaining students increased between 2011 and 2020, the public college lost a third of its enrollment. Leaders had little choice but to cut back, trimming about 150 faculty positions over several years, mostly through attrition — retirements or not filling vacant positions.

When we emerge from this period, what will the reshaped higher ed landscape look like? Read on.

By the fall of 2019, the moves appeared to have worked. “We’re thinking, We’re going to be fine,” remembers Michael A. Driscoll, the president. The regional institution, about an hour outside Pittsburgh, seemed like it would be able to continue as a smaller but more stable institution, one better able to make necessary strategic changes to compete in the 21st century.

Then Covid-19 hit. Overnight, the university faced immediate new budget strains from giving housing and dining refunds to students and gained new enrollment worries for the fall. It could no longer count on short-term financial stability. It didn’t have the time to make the kind of gradual adjustments that leaders favored.

Last fall, Indiana rapidly settled on a strategy to emphasize five core academic areas, which were chosen based on student and employer demand, whether they were institutional strengths, and their potential for financial sustainability. Indiana also plans to lay off 53 tenured professors — 15 percent of the university’s tenured faculty — and to eliminate 47 additional faculty jobs through retirements or laying off nontenured professors. The final number and type of faculty jobs to be lost are still in flux, but along with layoffs among administrative personnel, the university will lose about 20 percent of its pre-pandemic work force.

With higher education facing average revenue losses of 14 percent or more due to Covid-19, the pandemic presents an existential challenge for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of colleges that entered last March with already precarious finances. Every week or so seems to bring new headlines about institutions making jaw-dropping cuts. Concordia University Chicago, a private institution, for example, announced in December that it would be laying off 51 faculty and staff members, about 7 percent of its work force, and shuttering 15 academic programs after a two-year “prioritization” process. Marquette University announced in late January that 39 employees had been laid off, part of a larger goal to shed more than 225 by 2022 to fill a projected $45-million budget gap. Many of those cuts were the result of ongoing program evaluations meant to meet longstanding financial challenges, but their urgency was hastened by the pandemic.

But slashing budgets alone, experts agree, isn’t enough to survive. Struggling colleges must cut strategically and adapt to a new way of operating, in order to find a way to eventually grow and thrive.

When the chaos of the pandemic eventually subsides and the dust settles, American higher education as a whole may look very different: Wealthy institutions will remain relatively unchanged, but a stratum of even leaner public universities and smaller private colleges are likely to have moved further away from the classic spectrum of a university education. Their academic offerings, taught by a faculty whose jobs are less secure, will be focused more tightly on job outcomes. And in the aftermath of a crisis that has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable students, they may employ fewer student-support specialists and may call on faculty and staff members more often to fill those shoes.

Such shifts don’t have to mean that colleges become trade schools, or that the liberal arts are dead. But Covid-19 has narrowed the options for leaders, shortened the timeline for any changes, and raised the stakes for the outcomes. Colleges may succeed in positioning themselves for a future in which they can grow, but that depends on the strategic decisions they make today.

Colleges evaluating how to cut programs in a strategic way must determine two things about them: their costs and their revenue, or, more importantly, what they contribute back to the institution. That might seem obvious, but it’s not as common — or straightforward — as you’d think, says Robert G. Atkins, chief executive of Gray Associates, a consulting company.

It’s intuitive that college leaders looking to stanch financial bleeding would start by axing their smallest programs first, and that’s what many do. But a niche program with only a few graduates, if it’s inexpensive to run, may contribute revenue to the college, or drive enrollment in a modest way, “so when you cut them, your financial situation actually gets worse,” Atkins says. “One of the biggest, most important things here is that the analysis that underlies these changes is sound. It’s not a time when you can afford to make cuts that are the wrong cuts.”

The University of Vermont believes it’s making the right cuts by eliminating four graduate programs and 12 majors and 11 minors, including religion, philosophy, and classics. While the university will still offer courses in those subjects, “students are voting with their feet and walking away” from those areas of study, says Suresh V. Garimella, the president. The cuts will affect about 120 current undergraduates, about 3 percent of the total number of students in the institution’s College of Arts and Sciences. While the cutbacks are taking place during the pandemic, Garimella says, they would have needed to happen eventually anyway.

Cutting or combining other programs or classes can create long-needed efficiencies and simplify the institution’s pitch to prospective students. When Garimella came to Vermont in 2019, it offered numerous programs for biology and environmental studies or environmental science, he says. “And I asked, If I were a student looking at UVM, how would I know which of those majors to pick?” He recently announced a plan to streamline the university’s environmental-studies and environmental-science offerings.

Professors often balk at closing traditional programs such as classics, but they are simply living through changing times, says S. Georgia Nugent, president of Illinois Wesleyan University, which is eliminating eight departments in the humanities as part of a program review. She has served as a college president for nearly 20 years, and in that time, she has watched students’ view of higher education shift to be predominantly about “the outcome of being prepared for a job,” she says. Looking out over a longer span of time, Nugent, who trained as a classicist, points out that knowledge itself has changed. Colleges used to focus on teaching Greek and Hebrew to future pastors. Now there’s more call for neuroscience and computer science, and “inevitably, we need to change along with that.”

These sorts of moves often run into faculty opposition. At the University of Vermont, professors held an online “teach-in” last month to protest the proposed cuts, and have taken to social media to organize opposition. Julie Roberts, a professor of linguistics and chair of the Faculty Senate, says administrators have been talking about the need for changes for decades, but the proposed department terminations seem “rather haphazard and don’t seem to be part of a bigger strategic plan.” She’s concerned that they will damage the university’s liberal-arts foundation. If the cuts keep, say, intro Latin and eliminate upper-level courses or the ability to major in classics, “essentially, you’ve turned a college field of study into high school. And there’s nothing wrong with high school, but it should be different qualitatively than the college experience.”

Some faculty observers worry that Covid-19 may simply be giving cover to administrators to make changes. Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University, says that, while she understands that the pandemic has had financial impacts, they “may not be as bad as some institutions want to claim, because they might want to use the crisis to make cuts they’ve wanted to make all along.”

And cuts alone will not be enough to turn around a college’s troubled fortunes. For long-term financial stability, Atkins says, “you have to find ways to grow.” That often means new programs.

Most colleges typically offer new programs based on the interests of the faculty, or imitating the successes of other institutions. If a college’s budget is tight and the stakes for its future are existential, it has to introduce programs that data show will bring in the most students and revenue — health care and tech are particularly attractive right now, for example — but that may not be the faculty specialty or the hot emerging program. That doesn’t mean that every program a college ever considers is worth doing only if it’s profitable. “If a struggling institution only has so many resources to reinvest to improve its fortunes, and you put it into something that doesn’t take off,” he adds, “then you just lit a match to the very scarce capital you have.”

Atkins spends much of his professional life helping colleges determine which academic programs will perform best in enrollment and revenue and which might be worth re-evaluating, but he believes that the university “isn’t supposed to be a vocational school — somehow or other, we have to transmit our culture from one generation to another.” Departments with just a few majors, or that lose money but serve the institution’s mission, can be just as important to a college’s future as the biggest program on campus. “You’ve got to build the right web of cross-subsidies,” Atkins says, “so the things that are big cover the things that are not.”

Cutting brings costs of its own — to human beings and to the institution itself. Payroll and benefits typically make up about 75 percent or more of a college’s operating budget, so shifting departments or merging majors to create administrative efficiencies is not likely to save the kind of money necessary to survive Covid-19. If an institution is getting smaller strategically, some people will have to lose their jobs.

Many people already have. Colleges have lost about 12 percent of their workers nationwide during the pandemic, according to an analysis conducted by The Chronicle. Most of those laid off were staff members, particularly in food services, maintenance, and other hourly wage jobs related to on-campus operations that were interrupted when classes moved online last spring. Some of those positions may need to be filled again when classrooms and dorms return to full capacity, though many may not.

Layoffs at a college can be especially complicated. Many higher-education labor forces are unionized, and job terminations are subject to negotiated conditions. And then there’s tenure. Academic tenure ostensibly protects the professors who have earned it from losing their employment except in the most extreme circumstances of misbehavior or institutional distress, but it’s eroding. In January, the Kansas Board of Regents temporarily granted the state’s six public universities expanded powers to fire tenured faculty.

Mulvey, of AAUP, says she gets that administrators want flexibility and nimbleness for hiring, “but it’s tenured faculty with academic freedom that make a great institution.”

Layoffs also affect individual lives, families, and communities. They can crush morale, strain working relationships, and in some cases, exacerbate larger inequities.

The layoffs of hourly workers during Covid-19 carry a racial dimension that college leaders must bear in mind, says Shaun R. Harper, professor of management and organization and executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California. The higher-education work force is stratified by race, with people of color largely concentrated in food-services, custodial, groundskeeping, and clerical roles. The latter are often the first laid off in tough times, and they absorbed the brunt of job losses during the first weeks of Covid-19 — laid off by a college leadership that is predominantly white, Harper says. That dynamic “creates even more racial inequity and more stratification in the workplace, if we don’t have a plan and a strategy for that.”

When college leaders contemplate big changes, they often focus on trying to minimize blowback. The college leaders Atkins works with typically see that as one of “their biggest challenges.” There is a relatively simple solution, he says: Bring data and involve the stakeholders in the process. Good data is especially essential for confronting change with professors. “They’re researchers, they’re analysts, right?” Atkins says. “And if you come with a bad argument, they’re not going to be very receptive.”

It’s important for leaders to make it part of their message that the contracting university will, eventually, grow. That will mean new hires, new programs, and, hopefully, new students, new revenues, and a new tailwind for other projects and plans. “Being willing to talk about growth and cuts in the same breath, I think, is terribly important in this environment,” says Atkins. “It gives people some hope.”

If the campus that emerges from Covid-19 will be smaller, it will also have to be more adaptable.

Over the past decade or so, for example, many institutions have expanded the number of employees in student services, many of them highly specialized, to meet increased demand for advising, counseling, and other supports. With the financial pressures already bearing down on colleges before Covid-19, and now with the increased financial damages of the pandemic, many institutions “won’t have the resources to afford some of the kind of vertical specializations that we have lived under in the last decade,” says Kevin Kruger, the president of Naspa, an organization for higher-education student-affairs professionals. Naspa did a survey of student-affairs personnel in September, he adds, “and, not surprisingly, found that a majority of student-affairs folks have new responsibilities after the pandemic started. I think that’s the beginning of this trend.”

Colleges may spread some student-support work around. “We’re going to see more staff playing roles in coaching and mentoring and advising, and expanding the portfolio of ways in which we interact with students,” Kruger says. Faculty members advising students, for example, isn’t novel, but making advising and mentoring more of an official across-campus job rather than an informal happenstance is.

As part of a plan to become more student-centered, Indiana University of Pennsylvania started a program last fall where each incoming freshman is assigned a “guide” — one of more than 80 employees who volunteered to be students’ personal contact for questions and help with problems. “As we walked into the pandemic, it turned out to be even more important to have a single point of contact,” says Driscoll, the president. He compares it to when students call his office to ask him to talk to the bursar about a problem: “I’ve got my day job, but I’m here to help you be successful. I’m going to do whatever I can to make that happen.”


Harry Haysom for The Chronicle

Not every job can be handled by nonspecialists. Colleges trying to shrink their budgets face doing so in an era when demand for student mental-health services and other supports has never been higher, and during a crisis which has spiked demand while making it harder to deliver those services. The pandemic has “made it difficult to think about how we would find reasonable ways to find efficiencies there to cut,” Kruger says.

But the pandemic has also helped bring some counseling efficiencies to light. Duquesne University, a private institution in Pittsburgh, was using videoconference technology for some of its counseling appointments before Covid-19 struck. Once all operations went remote last spring, counseling sessions went virtual, and administrators learned that “students actually like that as an option,” says David J. Dausey, the provost. “It’s more private.” He expects it will be a bigger part of the university’s approach in the future.

As leaders weigh where to prune from their operation, Kruger cautions against levying flat cuts and urges thinking about “where the investments in staff and resources are going to have the greatest payoff for the things that you care about the most.” It’s possible, for example, that student activities and campus programming might not be as active as they were pre-pandemic. “Not that we want to do away with it, but can we have some of those staff involved in other efforts?” he says. Kruger says he expects to see more small, non-revenue-generating athletic programs cut. That can be a risky move, since many small colleges recruit students in part through allowing them to continue their high-school athletic careers, but the expense of coaches’ salaries, equipment, and team travel can add up.

Few of these decisions will be easy to parse, or easy to carry out — it may be tough to cut the baseball team, for example, if a trustee lettered in the sport back when he was on campus. But college leaders are going to be forced to make a series of critical calls about “what is nice to have,” Kruger says, “and what you’ve got to have.”

The contracting university may ultimately emerge from the pandemic on stronger footing, but it may also exacerbate inequality.

The pandemic has been hard on lower-income Americans and people of color, but it has been particularly brutal for the latter, including college students. The number of Black first-time freshmen this fall dropped 19 percent nationwide, according to data compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, while the number of Latino freshmen dropped 20 percent, and the number of Native American freshmen dropped 23 percent. The number of freshmen of color attending community college dropped by nearly a third.

Unless government officials and college leaders do something to actively counter those trends, they will only get worse, says Harper, of USC. “The institutions that involve the largest number of students of color are chronically under-resourced,” he says. “When resources tighten, it’s going to be those institutions that are financially most devastated by that.”

With limited budgets and staff, Kruger says, many colleges will have to “direct resources to the students that need them the most, and away from students who need them the least.” Beyond basic health, safety, and wellness concerns, that may mean focusing on persistence and degree completion for first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color. That dovetails with Harper’s view that college leaders need to think about Covid-19 recovery for students of color in terms of reparations. Not lump payments for past harm, as is often the case in the larger national discussion over reparations, he says: “I’m thinking about giving extra support to institutions that, historically and chronically, have been neglected.”

Harper doesn’t believe that all discussions about institutional recovery have to be about race. “What I am suggesting, though, is that we are guaranteed to multiply the racial inequity that the pandemic produced if we attempt to do the financial recovery in a raceless way,” he says.

Inequity is one of many factors that contributed to the plight colleges found themselves in during the pandemic, and it’s one of the many factors that leaders must be mindful of as they plan how to emerge stronger. The contracting university can hope and plan for a brighter future, but unless it tries to avoid past mistakes, it’s likely to repeat them — or make them worse.

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