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COVID-19 and the Uncertain Future of Public Higher Ed

The pandemic is challenging colleges' enrollments and finances as never before. Some may not survive, and those that do will have to consider major changes in their structures and the way they teach.

A closed community college campus in Harrisburg, Pa. (US News)
During the Great Recession, public colleges and universities experienced an explosion in enrollment across all demographic groups. In that period's woefully bad economy, many who might have gone directly into the workforce instead took a chance on attending college to obtain more advanced academic credentials and wait out the financial drought.

But while the coronavirus seems likely to weaken our economy beyond what we saw in 2008 and 2009, this fall's college enrollment is likely to plunge. No one knows when colleges will be able to reopen their campuses for in-person learning, given the difficulty of social distancing in classrooms, dormitories and dining halls. The nation could face some of the lowest college enrollment in modern history. Some higher education institutions may not survive.

Even colleges that do decide to reopen at some level in the fall are likely to experience significant enrollment declines. In a survey of parents of college-bound seniors conducted in early April by Brian Communications, 40 percent indicated that they might keep their kids from immediately enrolling in college due to the coronavirus. Many seniors are also considering taking a "gap year" rather than enrolling in the fall and facing the dangers of COVID-19.

At Georgia Piedmont Technical College, where I formerly served as president, fall enrollment is already down 25 percent from last year. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid office reports that nearly 251,000 fewer returning students from the lowest-income backgrounds have renewed their Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the next academic cycle. Overall, FAFSA renewals are down nearly 5 percent, a good indication of what's to come in the fall.

As those numbers suggest, fears of COVID-19 aren't the only reason for the precipitous drop in enrollment. Students are also being put off by the high cost of college and the lack of adequate financial aid, a situation that for public colleges has been worsened by the pandemic's impact on state revenues and which the $14 billion federal stimulus for higher education does little to alleviate. In 2008, Georgia's technical-college system offered low-interest loans to low-income students in an effort to make higher education more affordable. Today the economic picture in many states is so bleak that neither the systems nor individual colleges can afford to offer these types of loans.

What's happening in Georgia is all too typical. Facing billions in decreased tax revenues, Gov. Brian Kemp has ordered cuts of 14 percent across the board for all agencies and departments, including colleges and universities. This means that the state's public higher education institutions, which originally were allocated about $3 billion, will see their budgets shrink by about $420 million. Nationally there are some 4,000 two- and four-year colleges that comprise the $600 billion higher education industry; for publicly funded institutions, cuts comparable to Georgia's would have a devastating impact.

Added to the financial chaos are the mixed messages colleges are sending to students about whether or not they intend to open in the fall or at what level they might do so. Even for those that do reopen, many students will not enroll or return until they feel safe or can be vaccinated against COVID-19. It may take years for enrollments and the revenues that support public institutions to return to pre-coronavirus levels. But in the meantime, there are steps colleges could take.

First, they should continue developing proficiency in online education. Distance learning — correspondence courses, for example — has been a fixture in higher education in the United States for over 100 years, but since the explosion of the Internet in the 1990s online learning has become a significant part of course offerings and revenue streams for many colleges. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, online learning has been a lifeline for education at all levels, allowing colleges to deliver course content remotely and evolve from semester scheduling to 24-hour scheduling, where students take classes when convenient — learning on demand.

Structural changes in our public higher ed systems may be needed as well. For many colleges with proud histories and traditions, merging may be the only option for survival. Between 2008 and 2012 in Georgia, 33 technical colleges were consolidated into 22 institutions. The system was able to save administrative and overhead costs, and most students were still able to attend nearby colleges because many campuses remained open despite being consolidated administratively.

Ultimately, however, some colleges will need to consider closing permanently. Many have been struggling financially for years, and Moody's Investors Service expects that about 30 percent of the public and private institutions it tracks "will have difficulties weathering an economic downturn." Now is the time for higher education boards to engage in deep introspection and, if they cannot find the resources to provide quality education, proactively decide which institutions to close so that stronger ones can be better supported.

Despite crises of the past, our system of public higher education has proven to be remarkably resilient. I believe it will survive the pandemic that has disrupted so many American institutions. But educators, while preserving their institutions' diversity and service to historically neglected communities, should seize the opportunity to address higher ed's long-standing vulnerabilities, including affordability, financing, outdated modes of teaching, and health and student safety. Addressing these will strengthen not only our economic system but also our democracy and civil society.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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