After coronavirus, US colleges worry: Will students come back?

Students move out of dorm rooms on Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University on March 12, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - For years, Ms Claire McCarville dreamed of going to college in New York or Los Angeles, and she was thrilled last month to get accepted to selective schools in both places. But earlier this month, she sent a US$300 (S$427) deposit to Arizona State University, a 15-minute drive from her home in Phoenix.

"It made more sense," she said, "in light of the virus."

Across the country, students like Ms McCarville are rethinking their choices in a world altered by the pandemic. And universities, concerned about the potential for shrinking enrollment and lost revenue, are making a wave of decisions in response that could profoundly alter the landscape of higher education for years to come.

Lucrative spring sports seasons have been cancelled, room and board payments have been refunded, and students at some schools are demanding hefty tuition discounts for what they see as a lost spring term. Other revenue sources like study abroad programmes and campus bookstores have dried up, and federal research funding is threatened.

Already, colleges have seen their endowments weakened and worry that fundraising efforts will founder even as many families need more financial aid.

They also expect to lose international students, especially from Asia, because of travel restrictions and concerns about studying abroad. Foreign students, usually paying full tuition, represent a significant revenue source everywhere, from the Ivy League to community colleges.

Some institutions are projecting US$100 million losses for the spring, and many are now bracing for an even bigger financial hit in the fall, when some are planning for the possibility of having to continue remote classes.

Administrators anticipate that students grappling with the financial and psychological impacts of the virus could choose to stay closer to home, go to less expensive schools, take a year off or not go to college at all. A higher education trade group has predicted a 15 per cent drop in enrollment nationwide, amounting to a US$23 billion revenue loss.

"The combination of fear for health and safety and the economic impact at the same time is one that I haven't experienced, and I don't think most university leaders have," said MR Kent Syverud, the chancellor of Syracuse University.

"Will families choose to send their kids to college?" he wondered. "Will they choose to not send them or delay them? I just haven't found anybody who has the best crystal ball to answer it."

The coronavirus forced campuses to shut down at a time when higher education, which employs nearly 4 million people across the country, was already facing major challenges. Population declines are expected to reduce enrollment, even as skyrocketing tuition and student debt have led to questions about whether a college education is worth the cost.

In mid-March, Moody's Investors Service downgraded the outlook for higher education from stable to negative, predicting that institutions with strong endowments and cash flow, like Harvard or Stanford, would weather the virus, while smaller ones would not.

But even wealthy universities have begun announcing austerity measures. Mr Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, said in an April 7 email to staff that to buffer its losses, the university would freeze salaries, slow academic hiring, suspend discretionary spending and look for other budget cuts. The University of Pennsylvania announced similar measures, including a hiring freeze and a pause in new capital projects, on Monday (April 13).

Although Congress provided US$14 billion for higher education in the US$2 trillion rescue Bill signed by President Donald Trump last month, a large chunk of that, US$6 billion, was in the form of emergency cash grants for students in financial distress.

The rest of the bailout amounts to just 1 per cent of total university expenses. College presidents say that won't be enough to protect some institutions from slashing staff and programmes, cutting back scholarships or perhaps even going under. They are asking for at least US$46.6 billion in aid, to be divided equally between institutions and students, in the next stimulus package.

There are some 4,000 two-year and four-year public and private colleges and universities in the United States, educating roughly 20 million students. They generated about US$650 billion in revenues in 2016-17, and in some states, like California, Iowa and Maryland, they are the largest employers, according to the American Council on Education, a trade group.

The council predicted in an April 9 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that college enrollment for the next academic year would drop by 15 per cent, including 25 per cent for international students from countries like China who often pay full tuition, helping universities meet their budgets and afford financial aid for Americans.

"The pandemic is striking during the height of the admissions process," the letter said. "College and university leaders are fully expecting significant, potentially unparalleled, declines in enrollment, both from students who do not come back, and those who will never start."

The spring is prime testing season for juniors applying to college in the fall. But dates for the SAT and ACT have been cancelled, and Advanced Placement subject tests have been truncated. On Wednesday, administrators of the SAT and ACT announced that they would develop digital versions for students to take at home if school closures continue into the fall.

In light of the turmoil caused by the pandemic, a growing number of schools, from the small but elite Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to the massive University of California system, are suspending the requirement that students take the SAT or ACT test for admission, accelerating a national trend of making the tests optional.

Many current students are dissatisfied with how the virus has changed the nature of college. To some, online classes and closed student centres, gyms and science labs don't seem worth the high prices they're paying. At places like the University of Chicago and Iowa State, students are petitioning their schools to cut tuition by as much as 50 per cent for as long as the pandemic lasts.

So far, universities have resisted, saying they will try to increase financial aid instead - although declining endowments and donations could make that difficult. The University of Chicago announced Monday that it would keep tuition, housing and fees flat.

For most universities, the question of how prospective students will react remains the great unknown. Already, many colleges have moved the deadline for students to accept admission from May 1 to June 1. And some schools are considering whether they will need to push that even further.

Orientation day, said Mr Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, "is probably the first time you're going to know who's really going to show up. Then you've got to scramble to add faculty or fire faculty or shift faculty. A lot of things that would have been done in a considered way will now in all likelihood be done at the last minute."

Ms McCarville, the student in Phoenix, said the coronavirus had made her more sensitive to price over marquee names, and to the value of being close to her family. Although her dream schools, Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, offered her scholarships, tuition at Arizona State was cheaper, and the overall package was better.

In the past, that might not have mattered to her. But after the coronavirus, it does.

"I would rather go to the least expensive school possible," Ms McCarville said, "just so I minimise my debt when I enter the workforce, and I'm not in over my head in a very uncertain situation."

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