May 10, 2020; CBS News, “Face the Nation”; NPR; and Vermont Public Radio

“It will not be a normal semester next fall, regardless of which path we follow,” the president of the University of Virginia, James Ryan, said on Face the Nation this past Sunday.

Right now, campuses across the US are mostly deserted, except for a few that have allowed students to stay isolated in the dorms while they take classes online. The schools are bleeding money; besides food and housing refunds, and the loss of revenue from food courts and bookstores, they can no longer draw money from hosting fundraising events, collegiate sports matches, or renting space to outside organizations.

Expenses are higher, too. Along with upkeep for empty campuses, colleges and universities have had to invest in online classes in a mad rush, either outsourcing to colleges that already teach most or all of their courses online, or buying the required software and training professors to bring their in-person courses to the virtual platforms. International students, who generally pay full tuition, are not likely to return to campuses because of travel restrictions.

“The math is not pretty,” says Robert Kelchen, who studies higher ed finance at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “Colleges are stressed both on the revenue side and on the expenditure side.”

Enrollment was already under pressure nationwide and across institutions, seeing a drop of around 11 percent in the last eight years. March’s CARES Act provided about $14 billion for institutions of higher learning, but educators have said it was not nearly enough. Over 40 higher education organizations have lobbied congress for $46 billion more. Many states cut funding during the Great Recession, and funding for higher education hardly ever recovered to its pre-recession level. States faced with declining tax revenues today may well opt to cut higher education funding again.

Schools that have robust endowments must decide how hard to draw down on them. The University of Michigan’s three campuses may lose $1 billion by the end of 2020. While it plans to freeze salaries and hiring, the school has not yet tapped its endowment. President Mark Schissel says he is committed to honor donor intent, and that endowment funds will continue to be used to “support scholarships, important programs, and the long-term stability of the university.” Schools with endowments in the billion-dollar-or-greater neighborhood—Brown University, Duke University, and Virginia Tech, for instance—have also announced hiring freezes.

Meanwhile, the Vermont State College system, which had anticipated a $4 million deficit before the pandemic, now expects to see double that, with refunds for room and board and employees out on paid leave while students take classes online, and may have to close campuses permanently.

“We are looking at a reconfiguration,” [VSC Chancellor Jeb] Spaulding told the Senate Education Committee. “How do we get smaller? Do we get smaller everywhere? Or do we reconfigure campuses? Or consolidate campuses? Those things are on the table. We will need to make a decision pretty soon about which direction we’re gonna go.”

“This will touch every sector of higher education. Every size of institution, every region of the country,” says Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Baker worries most about the schools that serve the “vulnerable populations and are in more remote or rural places.” The students at those colleges rely on services and resources the schools provide on campus—jobs, food pantries, childcare, and healthcare. Those institutions are historically underfunded and may not survive this crisis.

Colleges and universities are actively considering whether and how they will bring students back to campuses after the summer. There are doubts that students will come back and pay high tuition if the classes are all online. At this point, about 74 percent are planning to have in-person fall classes. Hoping to increase the chances for in-person classes, colleges are also considering changing the start date for the fall semester, starting in October or later and shortening the traditional semester length.

Colleges with a majority of commuter students will have an easier time with managing the arrangement of students, being able to do the social distancing through class scheduling. Lecture halls of 100 students could go online, leaving small classes in-person. It will be almost impossible to create social distancing protocols in a dorm setting.

It seems there is an endless list of action items to check off with just the logistics involved to return students to campus, and all the items have a price tag. As Ryan said on Face the Nation:

I think in order for us to be able to have students back on grounds and in classrooms, there are a few basic things we’re going to need. One is testing capacity. I think we would need to test students when they first arrive and faculty and staff before the students arrive. We’re going to need to have the ability to do contact tracing. We’re going to need the ability to be able to isolate and quarantine students who have been exposed. And then we’re also going to need to enact a bunch of social distancing protocols in terms of how far away students need to be from each other in the classroom or in dining halls. As you can imagine, it’s a complicated task.

No matter the plan, the colleges are generally keeping the conversation in the background, pushing off the drop-dead date when they have to announce intentions. With lower enrollments across the sector, getting students to enroll is more competitive than ever. Those attempting in-person classes feel they have an advantage. Boston University made it public that it was planning for virtual classes in the fall, and the attention the story received was less than positive; they had to issue a new statement about in-person possibilities.

The academic sector will have a different look this fall. Time will tell what changes stick and the cost of the transmutation.—Marian Conway