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A Roundup of COVID-19's Impact on Higher Education
Posted On December 1, 2020
A recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that by “altering every part of the educational experience,” COVID-19 is having a profound effect on the very nature and structure of higher education in the U.S. and around the world. The report focuses on four key impacts that “will shape the preferences of a generation of students”:
  • The very nature of learning and the “classroom experience”
  • The massive and rapid restructuring of age-old business models for higher education
  • The changing definition of “disadvantaged students” and their support programs
  • Community colleges as offering a potentially more fleet-footed, locally responsive powerhouse of opportunities

Forbes is reporting that financial difficulties continue to rile higher education, which Inside Higher Ed estimates has already caused “hundreds of thousands of layoffs across public and private education sectors.” Forbes notes, “Full-time faculty, including some with tenure, are also on the chopping block as colleges and universities are forced to adjust the size and scope of their academic programs. The overall financial impact has been pegged at more than $120 billion, but that figure is already looking like an underestimate, as the effects of the pandemic are projected to affect almost all aspects of higher education for years to come.”


The impacts of COVID-19 are clear across academe, as more and more institutions announce reductions:

  • Ohio Wesleyan University is eliminating 18 majors and consolidating several departments.
  • Duke University announced plans to ax 75 positions in a “major restructuring.” The layoffs are centered around the Duke University Talent Identification Program, which is a support resource for more than 3 million “academically gifted students in grades four through 12.”
  • The University of California–Berkeley paused new doctoral admissions in art history, anthropology, and sociology.
  • The University of South Florida announced that its College of Education would become a graduate school only, ending the undergraduate K–12 teacher programs.
  • The University of Alaska announced it will cut 39 academic degree programs across its system, including sociology, creative writing, chemistry, and environmental science. The cuts are intended to save the university $25 million.

A September article in The Chronicle-Express reports that “the money woes [in upstate New York] highlight larger issues affecting a growing number of small residential private colleges in New York that have only been intensified” by the pandemic. “There is greater competition for fewer students; a drastic reduction in foreign full-pay undergraduates; and a greater percentage of those admitted requiring financial aid as economic conditions press family finances. ….”


“Fall has so far brought a flood of furlough and layoff announcements at colleges and universities large and small, private and public,” an article from Inside Higher Ed explains. They include the following:

According to an October U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, employment in state government education dropped by 49,000 jobs in September, and employment in private education fell by 69,000 jobs. Since February, the private education sector has lost more than 350,000 jobs. As Inside Higher Ed explains, “Unless the pandemic ends suddenly, the short-term austerity measures are likely a precursor to larger, more comprehensive budget overhauls.”

The CARES Act allocated $14 billion in federal aid to colleges and universities. Of this, $12.5 billion was distributed to institutions that participate in federal financial aid. Colleges serving minority students received $1 billion, while $350 million was left for any other schools with “significant unmet needs.”


For every 100 workers who lose their jobs amid mass layoff events, enrollment at community colleges increases by three students within the next 3 years, according to a new research paper published in Education Finance and Policy, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

The researchers also found an increase in degree completion by two community college students for every 100 workers involved in a mass layoff. And “the bulk of this effect is concentrated among short-term certificates, as opposed to associate’s degree programs.” In addition, displaced workers are more likely to enroll in career and technical areas, such as construction, manufacturing, and allied health certificate programs.

“In sum,” the report concludes, “we find evidence that workers respond to mass layoffs by seeking short-duration degrees and certificates that are generally in fields with higher labor market returns. This is consistent with the idea that displaced workers seek to make new investments in specific human capital and that there are high opportunity costs for their time.”


Brown University’s president, Christina Paxson, wrote in an April op-ed in The New York Times that explored institutional finances, “The basic business model for most colleges and universities is simple—tuition comes due twice a year at the beginning of each semester. Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue.” She continues, “This loss, only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic, especially for the many institutions that were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic.”

Nature notes, “As universities face major changes, their financial outlook is becoming dire. Revenues are plummeting as students (particularly international ones) remain home or rethink future plans, and endowment funds implode as stock markets drop.”

Kevin McClure, a University of North Carolina–Wilmington professor, tells The Guardian, “There are going to be colleges that, if they wish to survive, don’t have any option but to charge higher prices. If this follows the course of past recessions, we’ll see college affordability and student debt getting worse.”

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required) reports, “It’s a bleak time to be a college leader in America—and a new survey of nearly 300 presidents suggests that as the pandemic wears on, many are simply focused on their institution’s survival.” The article continues, “More than nine out of 10 [university] presidents reported a drop in revenue from special programs, and most saw decreases in profits from auxiliaries (73 percent), room and board (61 percent), and endowment earnings and/or gifts (54 percent).” And “the task of reopening during Covid-19 has created additional expenses. Some colleges are proactively conducting surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals, which can cost millions of dollars.”


COVID-19 highlights the fact that higher education institutions are businesses, The Guardian notes. Students—and their parents—are looking at various options. Some are participating in new types of learning experiences, such as “Zoom University,” which cuts many costs—as well as social opportunities. Ben Miller, VP of post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, tells The Guardian, “The challenge is that colleges need to meet their customer, and their customer in a lot of cases wants that in-person experience. That’s what we have societally stereotyped college as. It’s what students believe. They’ve had to sell a certain experience to their customer.”

For years, academic libraries have reveled in being able to provide services and information both in-person and virtually. Libraries have proudly promoted the huge growth in ebooks and OA ejournals as well as services such as global cooperative 24/7 reference collaborations, patron on-demand acquisitions, online tutorials, and Zoom-based meetings. Just as we no longer have reference librarians “shackled to the library and the print collection,” per an article in Reference & User Services Quarterly, academic libraries will also need to reimagine the value that large professional staffs (many with tenure) housed in huge campus buildings have for the teaching and learning goals of their institutions.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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