Sustaining Higher Ed is a monthly blog dedicated to helping college administrators and board trustees lead their organizations toward greater financial stability so they can stay on mission during challenging times. In this special post, members of Kaufman Hall’s Higher Education team offer guidance to colleges and universities on navigating the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.
As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies in the U.S., higher education institutions are making difficult decisions about closing campuses, moving courses online, and terminating study abroad programs. Given the high degree of uncertainty about the future course of the outbreak, institutions need to be thinking not only about the current term, but also about potential impacts on strategy and finances over the summer and into the fall term and beyond.
If your institution decides to stop in-person classes and encourages students to return home, there are two immediate concerns to address: coursework and operations.
Moving courses online
The biggest initial challenge is getting everyone onto an online format quickly. Faculty and administrators should be encouraged to:
- Create learning modules that address current needs but could also be easily adapted to future courses. It likely will be well over a year before a vaccine is available for the new strain of coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. If COVID-19 becomes endemic or behaves like influenza and returns in the fall or winter, faculty and instructors should be thinking about online education not only as a short-term fix, but as a potential long-term approach.
- Align with the institution’s technology stack. If faculty or instructors use a workaround that does not align with the institution’s technology stack, the online curriculum they prepare may have limited future utility. Many institutions ask that all faculty be on the institution’s learning management system (LMS), but faculty compliance with this request may vary. This is an opportunity to encourage compliance.
- Consider learning outcomes and other course or student requirements. Courses and programs may need to meet certain additional accreditation requirements for online delivery The U.S. Department of Education has already issued guidance for interruptions of study related to COVID-19, which, among other things, allows accreditors to waive their distance education review requirements for institutions working to accommodate students whose enrollment has been interrupted by COVID-19. However, this allowance will likely be rescinded later, so the normal accreditation guidelines for online programming should be followed as much as possible now, to optimize future use of the curriculum developed. The Department of Homeland Security has also indicated that it plans to follow the Department of Education’s guidance in relaxing restrictions on requirements that international students take most of their courses in person. Additionally, the student experience will be different in an online environment, which may affect end-of-term course evaluations. Those supervising campus-wide evaluations should consider how to best use this situation as an opportunity for further data collection about modality, while keeping in mind the quick adoption.
- Offer guidance for online options. Many faculty will not have experience teaching online courses. Institutions should make resources readily available to provide guidance on developing online units and interacting with students in an online environment.
With respect to operations, an immediate challenge is accommodating students who cannot leave campus (particularly international students) and administrators and staff who still need to work from campus. The institution will need to maintain a certain level of services (including residence halls, food service, IT, security, and custodial) for these individuals.
Other considerations include the following:
- Admissions. The coronavirus outbreak is growing at the same time that next year’s admitted students are making decisions on where they will attend. Institutions should consider options such as virtual tours of campus or online Q&A sessions with admissions staff or members of the student admission team. Institutions should consider making special accommodation for admission of international students, who may find it difficult to commit while travel restrictions and uncertainties over the spread of the coronavirus remain in place.
- Refund requests. If campus is closed, administrators should anticipate inquiries from parents who request refunds for housing, meal plans, athletic fees, and other services that the institution is no longer providing. Each institution will have to make its own decisions on whether and what to refund, and in what amount, based on such factors as its contractual commitments to vendors, the amount of time students are asked to remain off campus, student/parent satisfaction goals, and revenue needs.
Summer programs are an important and growing source of revenue at many institutions. Registration may be underway already, and colleges and universities should start planning what to do if the coronavirus has not subsided or continues to spread as summer approaches. Considerations include the following:
- When will the institution decide whether it will offer in-person summer courses? The coronavirus outbreak did not begin until well into the current term at most institutions, making it impossible to plan in advance. With a better understanding of the situation going into summer, institutions should set a deadline for determining when they will decide whether in-person courses will be offered.
- What adjustments to course schedules and tuition may be required? Does the planned course schedule for summer offer courses that rely on in-person attendance (e.g., lab-based or experiential learning courses)? If so, can these courses be adapted to an online environment or will they need to be cancelled? Also, institutions should consider whether they will adjust tuition for online courses or offer tuition rebates to registered students who prefer not to take a course online.
- Will residence halls remain open? Even if in-person summer courses are cancelled, students may be relying on staying in residence halls if they have an internship or summer job on or near campus, and the institution may rely on summer residence hall rentals as a revenue source. Also, some international students may not be able to return home because of travel restrictions and will need a place to live.
Fall Term and Beyond
Beyond the issues already discussed for the current and summer terms, institutions have two significant areas of risk for the fall term and beyond: enrollment of international students and study abroad programs.
- International student enrollment. International students make up a significant percentage of enrolled students on many campuses. Students who are able to return home this year may decide not to return, and newly admitted students and their families may have second thoughts about committing to study in the U.S. Institutions should consider the kind of support and encouragement these students should be given now and on an ongoing schedule.
- Study abroad programs. Many institutions already have had to cut short the experience of students studying abroad for the current term. Students may be reluctant to commit to study abroad during the next academic year or may face cancellation of their program if coronavirus outbreaks continue. The financial impact will vary by institution, but may be significant if, for example, an institution maintains one or more international campuses that are funded in part by tuition revenues from study abroad programs. Institutions may also encounter housing, class size, and other operational challenges if they rely on a certain percentage of their students studying off campus during a given term.
Much remains uncertain. The behavior of COVID-19 and progress toward a vaccine will largely drive student and institution decisions that could have longer-term impacts. Colleges and universities should start developing scenarios now to identify and quantify the financial and operational risks they face and use these scenarios to model the impact on their strategic and capital spending plans. A clearer understanding of risks—and the options to mitigate them—will provide institutional decision makers with the information they need to best serve the interests of students, faculty, and staff.