It is difficult to imagine that enrollments at most US colleges and universities will not be dramatically down in the summer and fall. Students are unlikely to matriculate or return in large numbers to universities whose campuses are closed and whose courses are “delivered” online. And even if campuses re-open with a hyper-sanitized campus and back-up plans at the ready, it is hard to see students enrolling in droves.
While this may not be the case at elite private institutions or public Ivies, state 2-year, 4-year, comprehensive, and, yes, doctoral universities will all suffer dramatic drops in enrollment, as will private colleges and universities across the spectrum. And enrollment loss means loss of tuition revenue, which is the engine of private and most public colleges and universities.
My university is already facing a $7 million budget hole for the coming academic year because it did not meet its projections for enrollment in 2019-20. How much larger will this hole be for the second year of our biennial budget with tuition revenue down 10 or 20 or 30 percent or more in summer and fall 2020? It is not going to be pretty, my friends.
Public higher education in particular needs to be lobbying NOW for coronavirus financial assistance akin to that going to banks, airlines, retail, hotels, etc. We are, after all, as we have been told now for years, businesses. Without major infusions of cash from state and federal governments, we will see financial emergencies declared across the education sector beginning as early as the Fall.
And as most of you know, declaring financial emergency is at most universities a condition for firing tenured faculty and other academic and non-academic staff with “secure” employment. We will not continue to be paid if the physical or virtual doors to our campuses are not open, or if our departments or programs are shut down to address the financial emergency brought about by COVID-19.
Once the decks have been cleared of much of the salary costs that make up a university budget, then we will see the emergence of a variety of forms of online or hybrid universities. Fears that this crisis will transform higher education into an online industry are right, but only after the vast vast majority of existing public and private colleges and universities are closed or cut back so radically that they are almost unrecognizable.
I hope that I am dead wrong here, that we will have weathered this virus by summer and that students will return to the classroom in droves come September. But I am not optimistic. The sooner we begin lobbying for financial bailouts of the higher education industry along with those that Republicans and corporate Democrats make their money from, the sooner we will have any chance of saving colleges and universities from an otherwise catastrophic future.