How The Coronavirus Pandemic May Change College Forever

“Don’t come back to campus.”

This official instruction from colleges and universities across the United States didn’t exactly come as a surprise given the deadly coronavirus pandemic. But it was certainly a scenario not anyone would have expected.

Besides significantly affecting the tourism, travel, and food industries, the pandemic certainly took a toll on the education sector.

Initially, the class cancellations were limited to the hardest-hit areas, including in California, New York, and Seattle in Washington. The most prominent universities nationwide also took action by suspending in-person classes and shifting to online instruction. Academic gatherings and commencement activities are put on hold indefinitely.

College Closures

The closures started in Washington state, the location of COVID-19 patient zero in the United States, and currently one of the hardest-hit places. Eventually, hundreds of colleges and universities followed suit, announcing cancellations as a cautionary response to the pandemic.

Colleges and universities have also suspended their student travel programs, in response to CDC’s call. They also directed faculty and students who traveled overseas to refrain from coming to campus and self-quarantine instead upon their return to the country.

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In early March, only a few colleges confirmed they had students who had been exposed to the virus, and no outbreaks within campuses have been reported. When the schools made the in-person class termination announcements and sent everyone on campus packing, however, some 100 students deliberately ignored the warnings. They attended spring break parties and crowded in gatherings, ultimately testing positive for COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging U.S. institutions of higher education to coordinate closely with their local public health office if certain facilities are to remain with staff or faculty while in-person classes are suspended. To date, some remain open on an irregular basis to offer amenities such as dorms and meals to students. As the number of cases doesn’t seem to be dwindling, more and more colleges are mulling a complete albeit indefinite shutdown and sending their students home.

Across the globe, the college situation is no different. Nearly all countries are enforcing localized or country-wide school closures, disrupting 89% of all students anywhere in the world across all education levels.

College Closure Challenges…

The COVID-19 crisis highlights the plight of 86% of college students who suffer from food or housing insecurity, as revealed by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University in a March 2020 survey of 400 higher education institutions and more than 330,000 students.

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As colleges shut their doors, there is a growing fear of limited student resources and assistance. It is a cause for worry for students who depend on college financial aid and on-campus jobs. The closures are also giving rise to a major concern: student housing. Low-income students cannot afford to move out suddenly. Many who do not have a place to come home to say they fear homelessness.

Students who were sent home have their parents demanding housing or meal plan refunds from the colleges. And while some colleges have plans in place to pay back the families for the unused room and board, other families are struggling with non-response from the schools. For the academic year 2019-2020, the average room and board in four-year public and private colleges cost a bit over $11,500 and nearly $13,000, respectively.

…and Responses

As students are told to pack up, efforts to mitigate these effects on college students are on the rise. Student-focused groups, for one, are raising funds to drive financial help to students in need. Colleges and universities are also informing students, through social media and their websites, how to navigate the academic adjustments and get the help they need.

After canceling the basketball tournaments, as well as the championships slated for winter and spring, the National Collegiate Athletic Association said it is finalizing efforts for relief for student-athletes.

Stigma and Discrimination

Specific groups of students, mainly Chinese and individuals of Asian descent, reported having experienced discrimination and stigma in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals who returned from travel and were believed to be exposed to the coronavirus also feared being discriminated against.

The CDC advises the faculty and personnel of institutions of higher education to “minimize the potential for stigma on college and university campuses” and provide students the necessary mental health support. 

Similarly, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education urges colleges and universities to ensure that “no student is discriminated against based on race, color, or national origin.”

Dramatic Shifts in Admissions and Academic Affairs

To say that the closures jolted the entire education sector is an understatement. What used to be an unexpected turn of events in the many facets of education is now becoming the new normal as colleges and universities are forced to adapt to the crisis.

College admissions, which had its share of scandals that trampled the values of equity and fairness just a year ago, is now taking action to reduce the disruption caused by the pandemic. There will no longer be campus tours for incoming college students. Instead, colleges are facilitating virtual tours, ramping up online information for prospective students, and extending admission deadlines.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling catalogs the changes that colleges all over the country are implementing in their admission process and deposit dates. The National Admissions Community Cultivating Equity & Peace, an organization of admissions professionals, also lists the colleges that have postponed their admission deposit deadlines to a later date.

Commencements and other critical academic events are widely canceled. The colleges are heeding the advice of the CDC and their local health departments to avoid gatherings in order limit the spread of the virus.

Senior medical students are allowed to graduate early, with permission and guidance from the American Medical Association. Medical schools in states and cities with the highest number of cases—spearheaded by the Grossman School of Medicine at New York University—have sought approval of the early graduation of their medical students as an effort to strengthen their health care reserve.

$14.3-Billion Federal Fund for Higher Education

Of the federal government’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, And Economic Security (CARES) Act, $14.3 billion will go to higher education to cover for:

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  • $12.558 billion in emergency aid and grants to students and colleges for expenses “directly related to coronavirus and the disruption of campus operations”
  • $1.047 billion for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving higher education institutions
  • $349 million to be distributed by the U.S. Department of Education through the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) to worst-affected institutions colleges and universities

Part of this Education Stabilization Fund covers the Federal Student Aid office’s “relief…during the COVID-19 national emergency” for borrowers. Federal student loan payment deadlines are suspended through September 30, 2020, and the interest rate is temporarily dropped to 0% for specific loans.

The American Council on Education, an organization with more than 1,700 college- and university-members, previously called for a $50 billion funding for colleges and universities and $8 billion for online learning support. ACE called the stimulus woefully inadequate.

The National Governors Association called for the immediate distribution of Education Stabilization Fund to address the needs of the elementary, secondary, higher education communities and students.

Alternative Instruction

In the wake of the pandemic, colleges and universities scrambled for ways to avoid disrupting the ongoing classes or ensure their resumption after the spring break. The schools sailed toward a familiar path: online learning.

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Over the years, the benefits of online learning have been widely acknowledged. It has gained immense popularity that even traditional on-campus schools offer some form of web-based education to meet the rising demand. State-of-the-art technologies and platforms maintain the stability and capacity of virtual instruction. Still, with all such advancements, there’s no keeping the challenges from cropping up—and on a global scale.

But it’s the coronavirus pandemic that colleges are up against. In the wake of the widespread in-person class cancellations, online learning seemed the most plausible means to carry on with the academic affairs without risking the students, faculty, and personnel. The CDC also directs the implementation of strategies and approaches that are hinged on virtual platforms to continue education and student support.

How Are Students Coping with Online Education?

In a survey involving 600 responses from higher education institutions, the American Association for Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers revealed that 81% of colleges and universities across America migrated to online learning or remote classes entirely for the rest of the academic term. About 23% of them are holding virtual instruction for summer classes, and 38% are considering the same approach.

college online learning

For many college students, the uncertainties of being forced to vacate their dorms and sent were mounting. There are concerns over financial aid continuity and course completion. And without warning, they were thrust into 100% virtual classes, catching them completely off-guard.

For some—particularly adult learners and graduate students attending classes on irregular schedules—who are no stranger to the virtual learning setup, accomplishing academic requirements remotely isn’t much of a problem. Most, however, were inadequately unprepared.

Colleges continue to struggle to get their online learning efforts in order. They wanted to ensure students will not only learn, but also manage and adapt, but most of them barely had time to do so before students returned from spring break.

Not all professors and other school staff were fully equipped for it either. They are called to accelerate familiarizing distance learning tools and platforms for video lecturing and conferencing and other digital solutions for online education. Educators’ digital literacy and skills are also put to the test.

Similarly, colleges face the challenge of ensuring the adequacy of communication and tech support, and importantly, consistent access to high-speed internet. But it’s no secret that not everyone can afford a laptop of their own. Low-income college students also do not have access to an internet connection at reliable broadband speeds for virtual instruction and video calls.

Online learning proves to be a promising alternative, as learners and educators are “forced” to upskill themselves and integrate the components of machine learning, data science, and artificial intelligence into their area of study. However, the distance learning option also presents a problem for course requirements that require on-campus engagement. It does not offer the in-person interaction and applications that many disciplines entail. It is no substitute for actual laboratory work, for one.

The Economic Impact on Education

One of the biggest concerns of colleges is the financial uncertainty that could result from the coronavirus outbreak. Admissions-wise, higher education enrollment leaders worry about a steep decline in applications, according to a survey by the Education Advisory Board.

high school seniors on college

A related survey by Art & Science Group LLC revealed that college-bound high school students nationwide are rethinking their higher education plans. Some 63% of seniors still want to enroll in a bachelor’s program. However, because of the pandemic’s impact on their families’ finances, they worry about being able to attend their first-choice school. About 17% of them are considering changing plans to attend a four-year college full-time.

With reduced enrollment and retention rates looming, colleges and universities fear experiencing long-term financial shocks. And should the coronavirus outbreak keep campuses closed for an extended time, the financial repercussions on higher education institutions could be irreversible.

According to experts, closures, mergers, and consolidations among higher education institutions could be the usual strategic paths or last-ditch solutions to lower operating costs and enhance student outcomes following the pandemic. Still, these prospects are often associated with a number of challenges. In public college systems merger and consolidations, the trends point to issues such as cultural mismatches, higher tuition rates, and cost requirements for structural updates and marketing.

What Next?

colleges should prepare for the worst

Experts believe the existence of distance learning technologies—however inadequate—is playing a pivotal role in the higher education sector’s response to the pandemic. College students’ in-depth familiarity with how the internet works came in handy as well.

Moving forward, these two factors won’t present the real problem. The challenge lies in how higher education institutions would weather the coming months.

To date, the end of the coronavirus outbreak continues to be undetermined. And while the higher education sector continues to fight this battle, constructing solid, enduring, and long-term learning structures that are pandemic-proof should be in order.

Will a reinforced educational cyberspace meet desirable college learning outcomes? Will it provide students with the right platform for classes that are underserved by in-person interaction? Instead of highlighting the students’ income gap, will online learning ever be affordable to all students? Should the funding of online school technologies be on the horizon?

If there’s one thing the coronavirus pandemic taught the education sector, it is to prepare for the worst.

When this is all over—and soon, we hope—the education sector can reassess its risk management preparations and contingency plans. And while reeling from the pandemic impact, colleges and universities should put a spotlight on ensuring operational stability and quality learning outcomes in the wake of a global crisis.