The Year That Pushed Higher Ed to the Edge

In January 2020, as America was beginning its fourth year of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, higher-education leaders were focused on long-haul struggles that had dogged the industry for years.

New studies were being published on institutional viability, and The Chronicle was reporting on increasingly ominous warnings about college finances, the demographic cliff, climbing tuition-discount rates, and the shifting value proposition. College officials could not have suspected that their challenges — formidable but still manageable — would rise to crisis levels within weeks.

Meanwhile, unsettling videos that were being leaked out of China depicted a city locked down amid an outbreak of a mysterious virus — even people dying in the street. In the United States, the news barely registered as a concern.

By March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic, all of that had changed. President Trump, who had told Republican senators a day earlier to be calm because “it will go away,” shared the health agency’s news in a stilted Oval Office address. It was clear to anyone paying attention that life was about to be irreversibly upended.

Covid-19 touched off a financial wildfire for colleges, fanned by short-term losses and expenses but fueled by the fundamental fiscal precarities that many institutions have been facing — or failing to face — for some time. As the days and weeks turned into months, and the short-term emergency became a long-term state of existence, the pandemic exposed the gulf between higher ed’s haves and have-nots. It also revealed long-ignored income and racial disparities at colleges and a widening national political divide symbolized by the college credential.

Some colleges have found themselves nearing a breaking point, and some may yet arrive there: Hairline fractures aren’t always evident.

Lisa McLeod

Signs affixed to empty chairs symbolize jobs eliminated at Guilford College. Nationwide, colleges have laid off more than half a million people during the pandemic.

The crisis, when it came, differed in several respects from its most obvious point of comparison for many college leaders — the recession of 2008-09.

First, it happened virtually overnight. With little warning, millions of businesses shut down, millions of Americans lost jobs, and thousands of colleges had to refund millions of dollars in room and board fees and spend additional cash to ramp up online learning and provide needed technology to students and faculty. The University of Massachusetts alone lost nearly $170 million from its operating budget. The macro- and microeconomic consequences were swift and staggering, especially for the most vulnerable members of society.

Second, it was unprecedented and unpredictable, which made planning and reacting difficult. In late April, some colleges still had summer events on their calendars, hoping that the initial lockdown would bring the virus under control in a month or two. The notion that Covid-19 would be as dangerous, if not more so, as 2020 ended, didn’t register. As the spring semester drew to a close, college leaders were forced to devise enrollment targets for fall and operating budgets for the coming fiscal year at a moment of peak uncertainty.

Third, the recession arrived near the apogee of a long boom in American higher education, following decades of generally upward momentum and growth. But Covid-19 descended on a postsecondary ecosystem that had never fully recovered from the blow it took 12 years ago. While state support for public colleges crept back up over the past decade, it has never quite recovered its pre-recession flush. The cost of attending a state university or community college has shifted definitively to students and their families, while wages stagnate.

The recession also contributed to a deepening demographic dip that has depressed the number of college-bound high-school graduates in many regions of the country, creating intense competition for students among public and private institutions alike. Faltering tuition revenue, private colleges’ use of high tuition-discount rates to attract students, and years of trimming every possible expense left many institutions ill-prepared to absorb the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic.

The federal government provided a crucial lifeline to many colleges and their students with $14 billion of emergency relief money delivered through the Cares Act. Though it amounted to less than a third of what higher-education advocates had said would be needed, the aid allowed many colleges to defray some unexpected losses and expenses, and it supported many students hit hard by unemployment or other hardships. But the money lasted only so long, and subsequent attempts to pass a second stimulus have lagged. Advocates asked for $120 billion, though it appears that colleges may receive as little as a sixth of that sum.

When things got tough, financially, the costs were not borne equally. Layoffs and furloughs, when they came, often affected an institution’s lowest-paid workers first — food-service and custodial workers — reflecting a trend that has continued at colleges and throughout the work force nationally. Colleges have lost as much as 10 percent of their employees since the pandemic began, although job losses among top administrators and tenured faculty members still remain relatively rare.

When fall finally arrived, economic inequities had consequences for enrollment as well. Four-year students didn’t stay away in droves as expected — undergraduate enrollments at public and private colleges were both essentially flat from last fall, according to data collected by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. At public two-year colleges, which enroll more lower-income students and students of color, enrollment was down about 10 percent. While most colleges will suffer some financial strain from enrollment drops, community colleges may be especially vulnerable going forward.

International students proved another enrollment wildcard, and another unpleasant financial surprise. The xenophobic hostility of some Trump administration policies had already weakened enrollment from abroad as a lucrative source of tuition revenue for many colleges. Covid-19 nearly pinched it off. New enrollment of international students, which had already been dropping, plummeted by 43 percent this fall.

The cumulative effect of the economic strains amounted to a surprise stress test on the financial health of colleges, and some are showing significant weakness. Ithaca College, for example, announced in the spring that it would cut nearly a quarter of its faculty. Other institutions, like the University of Vermont and the College of Saint Rose, have made plans to cut programs and professors, including some with tenure. More than furloughs or temporary layoffs, these kinds of announcements bespeak structural, even existential, challenges. The bond-rating agencies Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings project revenue declines of 5 to 10 percent for colleges for 2021, so more institutions could falter. There have been surprisingly few closures, or announcements of mergers or sales, given the circumstances. Financial consultants to colleges whisper that we will almost certainly see more.

If there is reason for optimism, it may lie in the fact that most students did show up in the fall, at least at four-year institutions, and despite some grumbling, they seemed willing to pay full tuition to do so, even amid Covid-compromised circumstances.

There is still plenty of bad news to go around, however. Despite the initial rollout of several effective vaccines, Covid-19 and its aftermath are likely to compromise ordinary college operations into 2021 and beyond.

Even as the physical health of the country begins to recover, its economic health may lag, especially when it comes to state taxes and support for public colleges. In states that depend heavily on tax dollars from industries hard hit by the pandemic, like energy or tourism, public revenues could drop by double digits over the coming couple of fiscal years, and those shortfalls would very likely affect public colleges.

“When we look at the state funding data for higher education, usually the big cuts come the year after the recession and the second year after the recession,” says David Tandberg, senior vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Students and families financially affected by the events of 2020 will be unlikely to stomach any tuition increases, cutting off one of the most expedient means for shoring up their own finances. It could take years to rebuild enrollments, while a smaller-than-hoped-for Class of 2025 works its way toward graduation. And all the while, institutions will still struggle with sliding demographics numbers and questions about the purpose and value of higher education.

Justice For Black Lives

Craig F. Walker, Boston Globe via Getty Images

Students at UMass in Boston marched in June against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.

That purpose of higher education — to promote free speech, democracy, civility — came into sharp focus in the spring. And it was triggered by an event far from the walls of a college campus.

On May 25, Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, knelt for more than eight minutes on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, while onlookers recorded the arrest and begged the officer to let the man breathe. When responding medical personnel finally told Chauvin to get off Floyd, his lifeless body had to be lifted onto a stretcher. The video — impossible to ignore, especially for people stuck at home staring at screens — sparked protest everywhere.

Even before Trump’s presidency, and especially since it began, colleges had been hotspots for activism and conflict in a national conversation about race, opportunity, and equality. Consider the turmoil over race relations at the University of Missouri, or the controversy over the “Day of Absence” at Evergreen State College, or the toppling of the Silent Sam monument at the University of North Carolina, or the furor after students at Georgia Southern University burned the book of a Latina author who spoke about white privilege.

Floyd’s death inflamed that activism and gave it a renewed sense of urgency. Activists on campus — both students and faculty — demanded that higher education continue to evaluate its relationship with the police, its history of white privilege, and ties to historic symbols of racist America.

“There has been such a long history of the blurring of the lines between town and gown — between what happens on campus and what happens in the community for African Americans,” says Devin Fergus, a professor of history and Black studies at the University of Missouri. “When I go off campus, my experiences are no really no different from that of other African Americans.”

In that sense, Floyd’s killing led to yet more soul searching regarding the representation of nonwhite people and nonwhite stories in higher education — opening up a window for the changes sought by activists.

Colleges offered new courses and programs in justice and equity, while some considered making such courses requirements for graduation. And nonwhite professors found themselves with empathetic new allies among their colleagues.

That, in turn, led to worries that higher-ed’s social-justice advocates were engaging in a dangerous overreach. While some academics made calls to root out “racist” research and teaching within the academy, others argued that doing so promoted ideology over the bedrock academic tenets of pursuing free inquiry and truth. Knee-jerk political correctness could also lead academe to “fetishize” nonwhite status. Jessica Krug, an associate professor of history at George Washington University, stood as 2020’s version of Rachel Dolezal: A woman who grew up as a “white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City,” who posed as a Black Latina.

But the reactions also stoked anger among those with a more nationalistic impulse. In September, the Trump Administration issued an executive order, threatening to yank grants from colleges holding diversity training “rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country.” While some colleges plowed ahead with diversity programs, others responded by canceling lectures and programs.

Actions like those led to a question among academics: Has the American university become so corporatized, so dependent on monies released by conservative state governments and donors, so obsessed with its own image and prestige, that it can’t effectively advocate for important yet politically dangerous issues?

“In my institution and others, the primary concern is, How can we avoid the vitriol and public castigation from state officials and voters?” says Fergus. “That’s the primary concern, far more so than issues of stratification and issues of racial social justice.”

The Year In Review

Fergus points to the case of Garrett Felber, a University of Mississippi assistant professor of history, who was fired this month. The university had rejected a grant Felber won to study incarceration in Mississippi. Felber contended on Twitter that the university “prioritizes racist donors,” and that his study offended them.

The attention on race also highlighted — once again — higher education’s role in widening gaps between white and nonwhite, wealthy and poor students. Covid-19 only exacerbated the pressures on colleges’ most vulnerable students — and faculty and staff.

“The pandemic has laid bare the stark inequalities that have existed in our higher-education system for decades,” says Tandberg, of Sheeo. If states respond to their financial pressures with across-the-board cuts, those will disproportionately affect institutions that serve poorer, nonwhite students.

“The employees that have been required to show up — who are people of color, who are older, who are paid less, have less job stability — are putting their lives at risk,” says Tandberg.

The pandemic would surely lead to a decline in jobs for contingent faculty; some argued that this could kill the job ladder for nonwhite faculty.

“My hope is that this pandemic is a stark wake-up call, that policy makers and institutional leaders can’t ignore these issues anymore,” Tandberg says. “I mean, that would be the best-case scenario. Otherwise, there’s really nothing good about what’s happened. It’s all been devastating.”

College is often the gateway to good jobs in the labor market — and a college education will be essential for workers in a future that is increasingly mechanized or outsourced. The cost of college and student-loan debt have long been key issues to progressive advocates.

With Joseph R. Biden’s presidential inauguration just a month away, discussions of making college free and canceling all student-loan debt have gone mainstream.

Fergus points out that the first New Deal coalition, starting in the 1930s, was formed from a coalition of Southern whites, immigrants, Blacks, labor unions, intellectuals, and political operatives. It came after decades of the Gilded Age running headlong into the Great Depression. Perhaps we’re in the same place in 2020, says Fergus.

“I’d say we’re headed toward a second New Deal coalition, a coalition which might be a little bit different from the first coalition, but in many ways kind of similar,” he says.

Of course, all of that depends on whether Democrats can push for such an expansive vision in a deeply divided country.

And although the year is nearly over, the 2020 election cycle is not: To secure their agenda, the Democrats must win both of the U.S. Senate seats that Georgia voters will decide in runoff elections on January 5.

President Elect Trump Continues His “Thank You Tour” In Grand Rapids, Michigan

Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, pushed an agenda of deregulation.

In a year of “brain fog” and scrambled perceptions of time, two memories from 2020 will stick with us: One is Trump’s rigid Oval Office address in March, acknowledging that the federal government had not contained the spreading virus. The other is Election Day and the four days of vote counting that would make him a one-term president.

Those two events bookended a year of crisis — and one in which the authoritarian and nativist impulses of Trump’s new far-right movement collided with the culture of higher education.

The pandemic unleashed the resentment of people who had been left out of the new economy, who doubted the science and the eggheads, who had grown tired of the righteousness of campus liberals. After all, it was the caricature of academics that had helped elevate the former reality-TV star to the White House in the first place.

As our colleague Jack Stripling observed in his November 2016 article “A Humbling of Higher Ed,” Trump “rode a rising wave of resentment toward the elitism and insularity that higher education is often thought to represent.”

“For a candidate who offered so few specific higher-education proposals,” Stripling wrote, “Trump ran an effective right-flank offensive against many of the values academics hold dear.”

In the months that followed, Trump banned travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries, seemed to offer succor to the white supremacists who marched with torches through the University of Virginia’s campus, and tried to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

His secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, pushed an agenda of deregulation, with more relief for the for-profit sector, which had been scrutinized under the Obama Administration, and tried to block state efforts to rein in companies that abused student borrowers.

Over the years, Trump frequently assailed the science of climate change, even while wildfires raged out of control in the West. His long record of denying science came home to roost with the pandemic, a situation that pitted scientists and the public-health community against political opportunism.

The whiplash between health officials’ directives to wear masks and limit contact, versus Trump’s impulse to downplay the virus was confusing and potentially fatal. It contributed to a return in the fall semester with the virus uncontained — and people on or around campus flouting the precautions. (That actually fit the virus battle plan for some within the Trump administration: “We want them infected,” wrote a then-adviser with the Department of Health and Human Services in an email obtained by Politico. Exposing non-high-risk groups, like young people, to develop herd immunity was the only way to defeat the virus, the thinking went.)

Biden’s thinking on several core issues aligned with those of student Democrats during the campaign: In addition to his support for reducing the financial burdens of college, he vowed to increase the Pell Grant, invest in historically Black colleges, restore protections for transgender students, do away with standardized testing, and give more money to community colleges to expand access.

The incoming First Lady, Jill Biden, has a doctorate in education and wrote her dissertation about retention at community colleges. Conservative pundits pounced on her title as fraudulent because she is not a medical doctor; such columns were widely seen as patronizing and sexist.

Trump will leave office on January 20, but Trumpism will most likely live on. White resentment about economic opportunity and political correctness could continue to animate the Right, especially if Trump continues to dominate the Republican Party. The Right could even generate another candidate like Trump in the future — one who is more calculating or brutal.

And although vaccines are already being rolled out, the pandemic will very likely stay with us for a while, too — maybe for most of the coming year, which could add to the unrest, the economic desperation, and the political polarization. The end of 2021 might seem far away — especially for colleges and universities that are, right now, having a hard time seeing how to get to the end of the spring semester.

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