What Higher Ed Has Learned From Covid-19 So Far

The pandemic has locked down parts of the country for more than seven months now, and colleges have made it at least halfway through their fall terms. What have they learned? Which predictions from the spring came true?

The pandemic still poses many uncertainties, but some lessons for college leaders have emerged and can help them better weather the months, and possibly years, of Covid to come. Many of these lessons have upended the assumptions of the spring.

The pandemic would quickly subside. In the scramble in March to get students safely off campus, many college leaders perceived Covid conditions as a temporary challenge that a societywide lockdown would bring under control by summer. “In April, we were definitely thinking of this as a short-term something,” says Sean M. Decatur, president of Kenyon College, a small private institution in Ohio. In the months since, with no coordinated national response to the virus, and with distribution of an effective vaccine unlikely until next year, college leaders have reached a fuller understanding of the pandemic’s tenaciousness, and are shifting their perspective and planning, accordingly. “My mind-set is changing to thinking that this is a 24-months-plus crisis to navigate,” Decatur says.

Fall would be a financial bloodbath for colleges. After years of predicted waves of college closures, this was it. Covid-19 was going to knock the legs out from under financially tottering institutions everywhere. And it’s true, most colleges bled money all spring and into the summer — room-and-board refunds, lost revenue from athletics and events, additional expenses from adapting to Covid-19, and more. The University of Wisconsin system, for example, lost $212 million through the summer semester. George Washington University lost $38 million through the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

My mind-set is changing to thinking this is a 24-months-plus crisis to navigate.

Fall semester was supposed to deliver the coup de grâce. A survey of collegebound high-school seniors conducted in March by the Art & Science Group, a consulting company, found that 17 percent of respondents were rethinking their plans to attend a four-year college full time. If that sort of student uncertainty translated into enrollment drops, and thus tuition-revenue losses, across the board, the consequences could be devastating.

The sky didn’t fall. Enrollments dropped only slightly on average (see below). But the financial losses continue, though often with wide variation from campus to campus. Many of the colleges hemorrhaging the most money are small private institutions or regional public universities that were already losing the competition for the dwindling number of collegebound graduates in their regions. Ithaca College, a private institution in New York, for example, faces a $30-million budget gap, in part due to a 16 percent drop in fall enrollment. It plans to lay off about 25 percent of its 547 faculty members — and may well be a harbinger of what’s to come for other institutions.

Financial losses could continue into the spring and beyond, and get even worse. Public institutions, especially, face cuts in state support due to losses in state tax revenues, on top of any losses in tuition income.

While most colleges have been able to avoid major cuts in their personnel or their operations so far, the most financially vulnerable may not be able to avoid major structural change, or even financial ruin, for much longer, says Paul N. Friga, a clinical associate professor of strategy at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and founder of ABC Insights, a consulting firm and HelioCampus company. Some institutions, he says, “are going to get crushed.”

Students wouldn’t come to campus in a pandemic. Many observers predicted in the spring that fall enrollments at four-year institutions would be anemic at best, down sharply at worst. The health threat and the uncertainty of what a fall semester under Covid-19 would be like would lead many students to just stay on their couches.

Undergraduate enrollment is down 4 percent from last fall overall, according to data compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Anecdotally, some college leaders were pleasantly surprised by enrollment numbers that exceeded, or at least met expectations. The University of Kentucky welcomed its biggest ever fall class, exceeding its target of 4,500 new freshmen by about 500 students. Utica College, a private institution in upstate New York, planned for an 11-percent enrollment decline, but its fall class came in only 2 percent below its original, pre-Covid-19 projection. “We’re seeing a pretty significant revenue surplus right now,” says Laura M. Casamento, the president.

Colleges that brought students back to campus, despite often intense and ongoing debate over the safety of doing so, probably benefited financially from the decision. A Chronicle survey of 256 enrollment managers and registrars, in collaboration with the course-scheduling firm Ad Astra and Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, found that 40 percent of colleges that conducted fall classes fully or primarily online experienced enrollment drops of more than 10 percent, compared with only 13 percent of colleges that were primarily in person.

The notion that students would be eager to sit at home all fall after doing so in the spring and summer doesn’t hold up in hindsight. Before becoming the chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, known as NACAC, in July, Angel B. Pérez was recruiting a class for Trinity College, a private institution in Connecticut. The students and families he spoke to “were just dying to get back to some sense of normalcy, even though they knew going onto campus this way was not going to be normal,” he says. “They had been on lockdown for so long, they craved a different environment.” That ended up working in favor of many of the institutions that reopened their campuses.

They had been on lockdown for so long, they craved a different environment.

Recessions are countercyclical. During economic downturns, community-college enrollment typically goes up — undergraduate fall enrollment at community colleges rose from about 6.4 million in 2007, to about 7.6 million in 2010 during the 2008-9 recession. Many observers also expected community colleges to benefit this fall from a flood of students skipping four-year institutions for more affordable options closer to home.

Instead, community-college enrollments were hit hardest by the pandemic, with the number of undergraduates down about 9 percent and first-year students declining almost 23 percent, according to National Student Clearinghouse data. And so-called “reverse transfers,” in which students switch from four-year to two-year colleges, fell 18.4 percent this fall, compared with 5 percent last year.

It isn’t surprising that the conventional wisdom about community-college enrollment didn’t apply to this fall, says Martha M. Parham, senior vice president for public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges: “The pandemic is certainly a different animal altogether.” Also, community-college students are older, on average — 28 — than the typical four-year student and more likely to have a family and more adult responsibilities. “If they lost their job because of the pandemic,” Parham adds, “then certainly they’re more worried about paying rent and having food than taking a class at community college.”

The pandemic affects everyone equally. While Covid-19 can infect anyone, its spread has “shined a light on all the disparities that exist” between more affluent college students and lower-income ones, many of whom are of color, says Wil Del Pilar, vice president for higher-education policy and practice at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group. Wealthier students may be able to take a gap year and return to college when they like, and they may have easier access to the technology and resources to stick with remote learning. “What we see from the research on low-income students and students of color, if they don’t enroll, they’re not coming back, or it’s very challenging to come back” Del Pilar says. “That, to me, is extremely concerning.”

The peculiar dynamics of recruiting under Covid-19 may further contribute to inequity at many colleges, says Nanci Tessier, a senior vice president at the Art & Science Group. Many colleges were more generous in granting deferrals, in hopes of hanging on to students who might not be inclined to commit to attending this fall. But students who defer tend to be more affluent. If you commit to a certain number of deferrals, and they are wealthier and probably white, Tessier says, “it makes it harder to shape a more diverse class for the fall of 2021.”

The pandemic could open the door to a more digital future. There may be long-term advantages to higher education’s wholesale forced shift online, but in the short term, the high-touch approach may be even more critical. “All of a sudden, institutions realized that we need to show students that we are there for them,” says Pérez, of NACAC. For many colleges, reaching out to students, current and prospective, became a campuswide priority, with faculty, staff, alumni, and even trustees taking a chunk of the phone list and joining in. Pérez made many of those calls himself at Trinity, and “heard from students on the ground that ‘you really mean it, that you care about me.’” Many colleges that made the extra effort to build connection with their students benefited by retaining more students and limiting summer “melt,” he says.

Colleges will need to apply a more personal touch to recruiting for the foreseeable future, Tessier says. An institution she works with met its enrollment goal, and its net-revenue goal, even though it went fully online for the fall. What was its secret? The admissions staff “totally rerecruited this class student by student over the course of the summer,” Tessier says. “They didn’t assume they would be there. They kept those contacts and connections really, really close. And this may be a change now for us that lives past the pandemic.”

Reaching out to students can also help colleges serve students better in a difficult time, especially those students who are most challenged. Del Pilar, of Education Trust, cites the example of the State University of New York system, where leaders made a point of contacting students they hadn’t heard from, who had been missing from Zoom calls or hadn’t checked in to learning systems. In some cases, they found that those students needed technology they didn’t have to keep up with their studies. The system purchased and distributed about 8,800 computers as a result. Del Pilar worries that some college leaders are still thinking about their students as relatively affluent first-time, full-time attendees, “and that’s just not who higher ed is anymore.”

The pandemic may spark innovations that improve colleges’ ability to serve their students better remotely. Evergreen State College, just south of Seattle, is a public institution with a small liberal-arts-college mission. More than 50 percent of its students come from families with a household income of $30,000 or less a year. The college is trying to expand its reach by introducing a series of certificate and credential programs for placebound working people in the region, but “how do we provide support services to the adult learners that we are going to increasingly serve when they’re in a town 50 miles away?” asks George S. Bridges, the president. Covid-19 has brought many challenges, he adds, but “I’m actually pretty excited about what opportunities it has brought our institution.”

But in-person education is likely to remain the standard. Dillard University, a private, historically Black institution in New Orleans, brought students back to campus this fall to hybrid classes that meet, at most, two days a week. “And pretty consistently, our students are just, like, nope. Online is horrible. I need to be in class,” says Walter M. Kimbrough, the president. He hopes the university can offer more in-person instruction in the spring.

It takes forever for colleges to change. The move online happened remarkably quickly, especially for an industry that’s often described as so deliberative as to be hidebound. The newly quickened metabolism has endured. Leaders at Kenyon decided recently not to field a traditional season of winter athletics. Ordinarily, that would have been a decision that would require a long lead time, many meetings, and parsing a lot of information about lost fees and other ramifications, says President Decatur. Instead, like many decisions made under Covid-19, it was made quickly, based on limited information, because it had to be. “That felt very strange in the spring,” he adds. “I think it’s just becoming increasingly normal.”

This week, Metropolitan State University of Denver confronted another natural barrier to normal operations — its first potential snow day. The university shares a campus with the University of Colorado at Denver and the Community College of Denver, and in the past, the 5 a.m. phone call among the stakeholders to decide whether or not to cancel classes for the day would be “like herding kittens to get a consensus,” says Larry Sampler, vice president for administration and finance. The recent call “was a piece of cake compared to the decisions we’ve all been making around Covid.”

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