Rebecca S. Natow
March 1, 2021
Prognosticators predicted mass shutterings. That hasn’t happened, but other enormous changes are underway.
Last spring’s abrupt, pandemic-induced pivot to virtual learning led to tremendous financial disruption for colleges. The educational technology came with a lofty price tag. So did retrofitting campuses to comply with public-health guidance, with needs for plexiglass dividers, extra campus cleanings, and personal protective equipment — to say nothing of smartphone screening apps and the cost of Covid testing itself.
There were housing refunds to process, reduced revenues from flat or even decreased tuition pricing, and widespread enrollment declines. State governments threatened enormous funding cuts, and sometimes followed through, exacerbating a troubling pre-pandemic trend. The economic losses have been steep — one estimate comes in at $183 billion — and although the federal government has provided stimulus funding with more likely on the way, the amount seems certain to fall far short of the $120 billion advocates sought.
Observers were quick to grasp the enormousness of Covid’s effects on our sector. Last March, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded its financial outlook for higher ed, citing the pandemic as a cause for the change. In the pages of The Chronicle and elsewhere, experts like Robert Kelchen, Robert Zemsky, and William R. Doyle sounded dire notes. Existential perils loomed, it seemed; mass college closures appeared imminent. Zemsky told The Wall Street Journal in April that the toll could be as high as 200 closures in a year. In Forbes, Richard Vedder wrote that more colleges were vulnerable to closure now “than at any other time in American history” in an article headlined “Why The Coronavirus Will Kill 500-1,000 Colleges.” Last January, John Kroger, a former president of Reed College, predicted 100 small-college closures over the course of a decade. By May, he had revised that estimate upward: “More than 750 to 1,000” such schools would now “go under.”