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Pandemic wreaking havoc on higher ed

April 16, 2020
By: Ellen Marrison

Last week,  U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that more than $6 billion of the roughly $14 billion in funding for higher education through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act would be made available to colleges and universities to provide direct emergency cash grants to college students whose lives and educations have been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. Those disruptions reflect just a piece of the larger upheaval the coronavirus has inflicted on the entire higher education community. Institutions across the country are wrestling with ways to stem the damage from the pandemic, from easing admission standards and furloughing employees to delaying a return to campuses and possibly even closures. And some are saying that the funds that have been provided, just a fraction of the $50 billion the higher education community had sought, won’t be nearly enough.

College and universities were among the first to close their doors due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In early March the University of Washington announced it would cancel in-person classes, a move that was followed by others just as students were beginning spring breaks, only to learn later that they would not be returning to on-campus classes for the remainder of the term. Those decisions necessitated a rapid shift to online learning, a move that many universities are already contemplating extending through the summer and possibly fall terms. The economic repercussions have left universities refunding room and board fees, laying off personnel from now empty campuses and facing hiring freezes.

Some smaller institutions that may have already been experiencing financial stressors are faced with even more difficult decisions about their future viability. For example, the San Francisco Art Institute will not admit any new students and is considering suspending regular courses and degree programs at the end of spring semester, and MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, announced that it will close at the end of the spring semester, according to Inside Higher Ed. Hiring freezes have been announced and postdoc positions and internships are being suspended at institutions across the country.

All those factors, combined with lasting health concerns and altered family incomes, weigh heavily on high school seniors who traditionally face a May 1 deadline to choose a college. But this year many colleges and universities, already facing declining number of students, have extended that deadline to June 1 or later. Colleges are also reassessing admission testing, with some going “test-optional” as SAT and ACT testing dates are cancelled or delayed.

The pandemic will also affect the international student community, with one prediction from Simon Marginson, the director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, estimating a five-year recovery period for the mobility of international students, who are being hit by both health and economic factors.  Marginson also indicated in the story from The Pie News, an outlet for news and business analysis for professionals in international education, that East Asia countries recovering faster than their counterparts will lead to shifts in student mobility and that competitive effects will be greater than before with health facilities and reputation in education in destination countries becoming more important. Additionally, travel restrictions could impact international students who may not want to return to the U.S. which now has the highest recorded number of deaths from COVID-19.

While some may be comparing the stress on higher education institutions to that experienced during the Great Depression, John R. Thelin, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, cautions in a Chronicle of Higher Education story that such comparisons to today’s institutions are difficult. The institutions themselves were more local and existed in an era before medical and research centers were a large part of many campuses. Thelin said that with universities being “stalled” today, along with the idling of research labs and vacated campuses, today’s situation is much more problematic. He says in the interview with the Chronicle that higher education since about 2010 has been overextended and the adjustment today is going to tough.

Last week, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) called on Congress to expand emergency coronavirus relief to support the nation’s public research universities in its phase-four coronavirus relief bill and requested $47 billion in emergency funding as part of that relief. Noting that the pandemic has caused a shutdown of many university-based and national laboratories, the American Council on Education and the Association of American Medical College are calling on Congress to provide assistance to research universities, medical schools and teaching hospitals affected by the pandemic. Their letter to Congress noted that the groups believe that “the future health and strength of the U.S. research enterprise are at risk….”

Whether that risk will be met with additional funding from Congress, and whether the higher education community is able to use the current situation to reassess its delivery model and shift to new ways of providing their services to a greater number of the population in a more equitable manner remains to be seen.

higher ed, coronavirus