Residential colleges and universities are scrambling to finish the academic year online, fretting over next fall’s enrollment, and struggling with cash flow challenges. What terrifies so many higher education leaders is a scenario in which the coronavirus persists into late summer and campuses are not permitted to reopen next fall. If the Class of 2024 is forced to start its college career from home and an online, the impact will be cataclysmic.
In that scenario, institutions may offer to start first year students with online delivery, but there is little reason to believe that students will pay regular tuition for an online education. Not because well done online education is not of high quality, though what many of them are experiencing now falls well short of that standard given the hasty shift to online for many institutions. Students won’t pay regular tuition if they are not getting the coming of age campus experience that is what they value most about going away to college.
Colleges and universities pride themselves on their academic programs and mostly should, but often fail to recognize that students see a quality academic education as a base line, as table stakes. What they pay for is everything else: the intentional community that is a campus, the opportunity to discover themselves, to participate in athletics, student organizations, study abroad, and more. In the case of elite and selective institutions, they are also buying the signal to the labor market that those brands send and the value-added network of fellow alumni they join at graduation.
Even in those cases, students may simply elect to defer admission for a year until they can have the “normal” campus experience. A young friend recently accepted into Yale told me, “If I can’t step onto campus in September, I’m deferring for a year.” Wealthy elites will survive the storm and bounce back (though it will be very ugly even for them), but those institutions number fewer than maybe 50 out of the 5,300 or so post-secondary educational institutions in the country. Everyone else is in trouble.
For many colleges, there are two large infusions of cash revenue each year. When students pay for the fall semester and then again for the spring semester. Cash flow gets very tight in the weeks before those tuition checks start coming in and less wealthy colleges often dip into a line of credit to carry them through. If they are denied normal tuition revenue this fall, as well as room and board revenue (room and board revenue often spells the difference between a deficit and a surplus for many institutions), they will be in crisis mode.
A colleague, head of a highly selective college, texted me that she is running scenarios around a closed campus for September and “they are all very ugly.” Expect program cuts, layoffs, halted capital projects, and then the closure of many institutions. Higher education was already reeling from declining enrollments in many regions and broken business models before the pandemic. While the $14.5 billion Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (part of the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package passed last week) will help higher education in the near term, there is not enough money to keep the industry on life support should campuses be closed in September.
The fallout will be worse for non-selective private institutions, the industry’s most vulnerable sector. Their endowments are meager and will buy them only a little time. Even somewhat more selective privates, brands well known nationally, often have balance sheets that are fragile. Public institutions are harder to kill, but many have already struggled with massive budget cutbacks. As states eventually come to confront the enormous cost of the pandemic, they will then be hit hard by the recession we are almost surely in now. It’s not out of the question that some public institutions could be shuttered.
There is also no reason to think that the Class of 2024 will be any less eager to get to campuses when they are finally re-opened. If reports from parents now unexpectedly sheltering in place with college age children are any indication, they will be as eager to see them off as the children are desperate to get out from under their parents’ roofs. Higher education is also far more resilient than its critics appreciate. In a fight for survival, many campuses will seize the opportunity to re-open, if they are given the choice and deem the risks to be moderate. Higher education can get through the crisis. But if campuses are ordered to remain closed for September, the higher education landscape in America will be forever altered.