9 ways coronavirus could reshape American higher education
The pandemic could catalyze a number of shifts that were already happening
Most colleges and universities have closed their campuses for the rest of the semester, with milestones like graduation ceremonies canceled and classes moved online.
But the 2019-2020 school year was already three-quarters finished when the United States' response to the novel coronavirus began in earnest. The bigger question now: What happens next year and in years to come?
We've been wondering if higher education is due for an overhaul for some time now — whether that be the right's notion of bursting the college bubble or the left's push for sweeping student debt relief. The novel coronavirus pandemic could be the event that fundamentally reshapes American higher education. Here are nine plausible shifts.
1. Colleges close and consolidate. Some schools have already permanently closed their doors or suspended admissions because of the pandemic. So far, these are small colleges with pre-existing financial woes. But other schools are likely to follow in their footsteps as economic pressures grow. Less funding for financial aid will mean fewer enrollments, which in turn will mean less tuition income. Some schools may be able to live on via a merger with another nearby university, selling unneeded assets and sharing newly limited resources.
2. No more sports unless they pay for themselves. Another plausible cost-cutting mechanism: Cancel sports, which also tend to run afoul of social distancing rules for players and fans alike. The probable exception to this would be athletic departments that are a net financial asset to their institutions. But that may be less common than you'd think — even some extremely popular and wealthy athletic programs are operating in the red — and it's uncertain whether such profitability would last if buzzy games and tailgating can't continue. The University of Cincinnati announced the end of its men's soccer program this week, and Old Dominion University shut down its wrestling team. Less popular men's sports are most likely to be vulnerable as schools seek to keep their football programs intact without running afoul of Title IX requirements.
3. The end of luxury amenities. Slamming universities for luring shallow teenagers with ritzy dorms, rock walls, and water park features is a bipartisan favorite, though there's debate (and conflicting data) on whether those amenities pay for themselves by increasing enrollment or simply hike current students' fees. Whatever the reality, they'll be an obvious choice for the chopping block during a recession.
4. Cuts to administrative overhead. Much like amenities, there's disagreement over how much administrative costs are to blame for spiking tuition rates. However, a 2014 study "found that from 1987 to 2012, the higher-education sector added more than half a million administrators," writes Columbia University's Philip Hamburger in the Wall Street Journal. "Their numbers have doubled relative to academic faculty." Lowering those numbers may be an attractive austerity move.
5. Fewer majors. The trend toward cutting smaller, less profitable majors perceived to have more insecure job markets (i.e. liberal arts) is already underway and could easily accelerate amid pandemic. That the lacking value of a liberal arts degree (even if you measure value by lifetime earnings and job prospects) is significantly a myth may not matter.
6. A permanent shift toward online education. Defending his controversial COVID-19 plan, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. in March charged that the nascent online education many schools are offering in place of regular classroom instruction is "really not the same quality of education" as residential courses. Falwell’s comment was meant to tout his own institution’s online programs, but we all know online education of any variety is generally at a disadvantage to learning in person. The merits of online education are its convenience and economy for student and school alike, but it's very difficult to replicate the vibrant learning environment of an engaged classroom online. Nevertheless, as everyone's belts tighten, universities may by choice keep the online classes they've launched of necessity. I would most expect this from large state schools with a significant commuter population; liberal arts institutions focused on campus life and seminar-style classes will be more resistant to the switch.
7. More localized student bodies. "For years, Claire McCarville dreamed of going to college in New York or Los Angeles, and was thrilled last month to get accepted to selective schools in both places," begins a recent New York Times report. "But earlier this month, she sent a $300 deposit to Arizona State University, a 15-minute drive from her home in Phoenix." Many other students will do the same, and schools that have long boasted of a student body hailing from all 50 states and several dozen foreign countries will have to edit their promotional materials. Sticking close to home makes financial sense in a bad economy, and international travel bans may be one of the last restrictions to be relaxed.
8. Canceled student loans. Part of the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Trump suspended payments on federally-held student loans through the end of September. It's plausible that policy could be extended, or even that a future relief bill will affect private loans, too. Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has a plan for widespread, permanent student loan forgiveness. Between Biden's platform and Trump's emergency measures, we may arrive at something close to the canceled student loans proposal of the fallen left wing of the 2020 Democratic field by a circuitous, stumbling route.
9. Reassessment of the value of college. The Obama administration called higher education a universal "economic imperative," but that's not obviously true. A university education is not the best or most necessary choice for everyone, and making policy as if it is can disadvantage those who do not want or need to go to college.
College enrollment was already declining pre-pandemic, and the earnings advantage of a bachelor's degree has begun to lessen, too. In a recession or even depression, some students will stay in school longer to avoid a barren jobs market, but others may decide the costs and risks of college are simply too great. An opportunity for full-time income and work experience, for example, might be more appealing right now.
May 1 is National College Decision Day, the date many schools require students to decide where they'll enroll. That's always a difficult choice, but this year it will be particularly hard. The calculations students made when they sent in applications six months ago will look very different today. Dream school acceptance letters will be set aside, at least for a year or two, while students rethink which school to attend this fall — or whether it's worthwhile to attend at all.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece inaccurately described the context of a quote by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. We regret the error.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.