Universities that reject ‘business as usual’ have best chance of surviving COVID-19

Businesses — whether large or small, or whether they are healthcare, educational cultural or recreational institutions — all have been tragically affected by COVID-19. For colleges and universities, the beginning of the fall semester will be especially challenging.

Even prior to the onset of the coronavirus, many universities and colleges were confronted with dire challenges, particularly enrollment declines (down for the ninth year in a row and more than 2 million this decade); rising operating costs; and competition from less expensive, online, for-profit educational vendors. Almost 60 institutions of higher learning — public and private non-profit — have gone out of business or merged over the past four years. Urban universities, such as FIU, are projected to fare better because of its neighboring population and affordable tuition. Those most vulnerable for the next round of closings and mergers are small, church-related institutions where private tuition invariably exceeds that of nearby public colleges and universities.

By necessity, colleges and universities have been responding to COVID-19 with comprehensive planning for the immediate and medium term across a gamut of operations, managerial and financial. Even before the pandemic struck, colleges and universities were acknowledging that the cost of tuition and fees, in inflation-adjusted dollars, had skyrocketed by more than 300 percent between 1971 to 2020.

For next academic year, these expenses could climb even higher for students because of anticipated lower enrollments, especially from out-of-state and foreign students, and higher costs incurred by colleges and universities because of revenue shortfalls from room and board, athletics and elective procedures in university hospitals. And while tuition increases could occur, it is more likely that tuition decreases could take place because of students’ balking at fully online classes substituting face-to-face classes. Higher education will need to come up with a better business model to balance its act on enrollment and tuition revenue while refocusing on its core operation.

Higher education’s responses to these challenges have been swift and creative. Institutions have repositioned their course delivery through a panoply of face-to-face, online and hybrid modules. They have scaled back the menu of elective course offerings, reduced the number of tenured professorships, increased adjunct instructors, reduced staff and imposed hiring freezes.

The continuing explosion in online education offered by a variety of purveyors, traditional and non-traditional — for example, Coursera, EdX and Udacity — will intensify courtesy of the pandemic. This will create revenue-generating opportunities for colleges and universities in the areas of credit and non-credit courses, executive and professional education and degree offerings aimed at the international market. Those universities and colleges that are strategic to manage costs and cut programs that are not core to the survival will have a better chance of surviving the economic scrutiny.

As for COVID-19’s impact on students, beyond finances and academics, there is the oft-neglected arena of student mental health and well-being — especially important for all students, be they entering freshmen, transfer or graduate students. Nationwide, half of all Americans report that COVID-19 is harming their mental health, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Yet only a very small portion of emergency funding passed by Congress is allocated for mental health.

For college students, especially those beginning their post-secondary educational journey, their trepidation, anxiety and fear quotient has risen considerably. Loneliness, isolation, insecurity and a suboptimal learning environment at home are emotional hurdles that plague many college students and can lead to declining academic performance and even dropping out. Various surveys validate that students during this time of pandemic are more emotional, with sleeping and eating problems, and increased substance abuse.

Students manifest greater financial concerns, as well. Even with student loans, grants and work-study funds, many students must work part time to make ends meet; and most of the jobs they fill are in the services industry, particularly restaurants and bars, most of which have been decimated by the coronavirus. Most universities have stepped up to the plate and ramped up their student-support services in the mental-health area, with administrators, staff and faculty all increasing their involvement. Online study groups, clubs and affinity groups are contributing to a socially and mentally healthy atmosphere on and off campus and at the same time prevent students under duress from dropping out of school.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 will be with us for a long while. If there is a silver lining in this darkest of clouds, it is that higher educational institutions are heeding the call to design, plan and implement sweeping changes in their financial and managerial practices and in student services. These changes will surely put them firmer footing for both the present and post-pandemic.

Joanne Li is dean and Ryder Eminent Scholar Chair in Business and professor of finance in the College of Business at Florida International University.