Three months ago, many of us thought our nation would bring the COVID-19 virus under control. With business and recreation closures, social distancing, and testing, we believed we could flatten and reduce the curve and slowly return to normality. Unfortunately, it is clear the disorganized and politicized U.S. effort to contain the virus has failed. A vaccine is probably a year away. Cases are sky-rocketing. This puts higher education in a terrible position. You think things are bad now? Wait until fall.
Here’s the reality. Most college and university presidents are declaring that their institutions will be open for on-campus education this fall because they face financial disaster if they do not. Enrollments and tuition and housing revenue are already expected to decline precipitously. If a president declares that all education will be conducted online, at a distance, those numbers will collapse. Most students who enroll in a traditional residential program do so for good reasons: for better educational outcomes, networking connections, personal development and leadership opportunities, sporting events, and fun. Many of those students will decline to enroll just for online classes, but even if they do, housing, sports and dining revenue will disappear, and tuition revenue will be reduced because parents will be expecting big tuition reductions.
Faced with this predicament, most presidents feel they have little choice but to declare their campuses will open and hope for the best. Perhaps seventy-five institutions have sufficient cash reserves and endowments to weather a year with substantially reduced revenue, and some commuter and public schools can probably stay online without catastrophic financial impacts, but all the other institutions do not have that option. Very few boards of trustees will authorize a president to shut down if it means the school may never reopen.
Unfortunately, this is likely to lead to a public health disaster. Most campuses will not be able to put rigorous COVID-19 testing regimes in place. Most dorms and dining facilities, even if utilized well below capacity, will become COVID-19 hotspots. Teaching in indoor classrooms, even with distancing, will likely spread the virus. Young students are unlikely to follow institution social distancing rules. Students, faculty and staff members will get sick, and some will die, particularly those who are older or have preexisting health challenges. All the travel and social interaction will boost the number of cases – and deaths – in local communities. For all these reasons, virtually no one in the public health community believes campus opening is the right call.
Under normal circumstances, the higher education community might expect leadership from the federal government to help address this burgeoning crisis. The federal government would issue public health regulations preventing campuses from opening (with limited exceptions for programs that cannot be conducted online), a step that would help flatten the virus curve nationally, create a level competitive playing field for all institutions across the country, and give “political cover” to institution leaders reluctant to make this decision on their own. The government would also provide major financial subsidies to closing institutions to make up for lost revenue, preserve our essential higher education infrastructure and help campuses survive financially.
Unfortunately , this scenario is not going to happen. The President and his team have shown virtually no appetite for national preventative measures of this type, and Congress is divided on providing substantial aid to higher education. This means the higher education community is on its own.
I expect that as we get closer to fall, some wealthy institutions – the ones that can afford nine months of revenue loss without closing their doors – will announce that they are not reopening. Some public commuter schools will do so as well. A few brave presidents from less wealthy schools will also announce that they are staying on-line, in light of the immense public health risk. But most institutions, facing financial disaster, will choose to re-open and hope for the best, despite clear negative public health consequences. This is tragic, but in the absence of decisive government leadership, probably unavoidable.