Three presidents of elite colleges–Harvard, M.I.T., and Stanford–published an op-ed essay in the New York Times a few days ago, justifying their decisions to close their campuses. To increase social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, the three university presidents wrote, they were forced to take drastic action:
That meant turning university life upside down: suddenly sending virtually all of our undergraduates home; asking faculty to swiftly bring all instruction online; canceling academic, athletic, artistic and cultural events, and virtually all in-person meetings; shutting our libraries; and asking everyone who could work remotely to do so right away.
The elite presidents basically did what most college presidents did over the past couple of weeks; they shut down their campuses. Of course, this was a severe inconvenience; but Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T. will weather this disruption. All three have enormous endowments, wealthy donors, and millions of dollars in federal research grants. When the coronavirus crisis is over, life for them will quickly return to normal.
But a lot of small colleges were teetering on the brink of closure even before the coronavirus pandemic began. As Scott Carlson recently reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, six out of ten colleges failed to meet their enrollment goals last fall, and two-thirds of the colleges were unable to achieve their revenue goals.
This crisis will push many small colleges over the edge. According to Education Drive, which keeps track of college closings, 95 nonprofit colleges have merged or closed since 2016. This trend will surely accelerate. I think at least 100 small colleges will close within the next two years.
Many small colleges will suffer death from a thousand cuts. To begin with, the demographics for higher education are not good. The number of people in the traditional college-going age has shrunk, and college enrollments have suffered. Colleges have experienced enrollment declines for eight consecutive years.
These declines were not distributed evenly across the higher education community. By and large, the public flagship universities have continued to grow at the expense of small private colleges and regional public institutions.
Colleges have tried various tactics to grow their enrollments. Several years ago, the small, private colleges began discounting their tuition rates to lure students through the doors. The average discount for first-year students at small private colleges is now about 50 percent. But for many colleges, this tactic did not allow them to balance their budgets.
In addition, a lot of colleges recruited international students to juice their enrollments and their revenues. Most international students pay the full freight, compared to Amerian students who often receive grants, scholarships, or discounts. But foreign-student enrollment has declined substantially in recent years, and the federal ban on international travel will likely accelerate this trend.
Spring is recruiting season for both public and private colleges, the time when college recruiters strive desperately to sign up enough students to have a healthy sized freshman class. But these recruiting drives are being canceled due to the pandemic, and many colleges will have fewer first-year students as a result.
The coronavirus pandemic itself has a financial cost, and this cost will hit small colleges hard. Colleges that close their dormitories will be forced to pay out refunds to students who live in campus housing. Some schools may not have the liquidity to make these payouts.
Although circumstances will vary, the virus will force many colleges to pay employees to work less productively from home or cease work altogether. Sanitizing college buildings, athletic facilities, and residence halls will be costly. College professors are being ordered to teach their face-to-face classes online, and many professors do not have online teaching skills. Retooling professors to teach their courses in a new way is an unanticipated expense.
Kent Chabotar, a nationally recognized higher-education expert, summarized the pandemic’s impact this way: “We’ve run into a crisis, and our flexibility is shot because we’ve already given away the store” [with high tuition-discount rates and other desperate measures].
In short, the coronavirus pandemic is an existential crisis for America’s small colleges. When the crisis is over, a significant number of them will be closed.
This is my advice. If you are a young person thinking about attending a small, private college with high tuition, you might think again. Enrolling at a state university might make more sense because a public university is less likely to close than a small, private school.
If you are a college professor employed by a struggling, small nonprofit college, it is probably time to develop your Plan B. Think about what you will do if you are laid off, or your college closes.
For everyone who works or studies at a small, private college, it is time to face facts. The future is not bright at the nation’s little colleges and universities, whether they are public or private. If you link your future to one of these struggling institutions, you may go down with the ship.