The pandemic hit to higher education

By Christopher Harper

Higher education is facing a severe crisis of confidence and money.

That’s not bad news. Colleges have become overpriced with tangled bureaucracies that often don’t prepare students for the real world.

I hope that higher education will face the stark economic outlook because the pandemic will force colleges and universities to strip away the fat that has become rampant. 

Overall, the number of undergraduates shrank by 4% in the fall, while first-year student counts fell by 16.1%, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The tally includes 9.2 million students, from more than half of schools that report data to the Clearinghouse.

Enrollment declined the most at community colleges, off 9.4% overall and 22.7% for first-year students. Enrollment at four-year public colleges and universities fell by 1.4% overall and 13.7% for first-year undergraduates. At private, nonprofit colleges, those declines were 2% and 11.8%, respectively.

The falloff in first-year students may reverberate through the entire undergraduate population for the next few years as students seek alternatives to the high cost of education, such as apprentice and training programs. 

But there’s more. New international students enrolled at U.S. universities online or in person fell by 43%, according to a survey of more than 700 schools. That’s the largest decrease recorded by the Institute of International Education, which has been publishing data on international enrollment since 1954.

International students pay full costs to most institutions, making these individuals crucial to the bottom line. 

The pandemic has forced universities large and small to make deep and possibly lasting cuts to close widening budget shortfalls. By one estimate, the pandemic has cost colleges at least $120 billion, with even Harvard University, despite its $41.9 billion endowment, reporting a $10 million deficit that has prompted belt-tightening.

Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities grappled with years of shrinking state support, declining enrollment, and student concerns with skyrocketing tuition and burdensome debt. 

Throughout the country, colleges and universities have cut back support staff and even tenured faculty members. For example, here in Pennsylvania, the 14 campuses in Pennsylvania’s higher education system have lost roughly a fifth of their enrollment over the past decade. As a result of the declines, including the one during the pandemic, Pennsylvania plans to cut about 200 full-time faculty out of 5,000 systemwide. 

One option to cut additional costs is to learn from the mistakes of moving online earlier this year. Most faculty members have resisted the notion of teaching online, which ultimately can save both students and universities a lot of money. Moreover, higher education could attract more older students who are working full time. 

Although I have a great deal of respect for some administrative staff in higher education, the number of people has grown significantly in recent years. 

In my college at Temple University, I used to know the first names of almost every staff member who worked there. Now there are so many vice deans, assistant deans, and assistant chairs that I know fewer than half of the administrative staff. 

I hope the pandemic has provided an opportunity for higher education to think about the waste that has accrued and to rethink colleges’ and universities’ missions throughout the country.