Home » Lifestyle » Coronavirus pushes colleges to the breaking point, forcing 'hard choices' about education
Coronavirus pushes colleges to the breaking point, forcing 'hard choices' about education
Brown University president: Working to bring students back in fall
Brown University President Christina H. Paxson discusses working towards safely reopening campus for students in the fall amid coronavirus.
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MacMurray College survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and two world wars, but not the coronavirus pandemic. The private liberal-arts school in central Illinois announced recently it will shut its doors for good in May, after 174 years.
Like many small schools, it faced declining enrollment and financial shortfalls. To lure prospective students, it was using steep discounts to its $30,000 listed tuition. Then the global health crisis brought unexpected costs for shifting classes online and partially reimbursing room and board for students forced to finish out the spring term at home. The loss of a $3-million-plus bridge loan was the final straw.
The pandemic "squeezed out the last rays of hope," said President Beverly Rodgers.
From schools already on the brink to the loftiest institutions, the pandemic is changing higher education in America with stunning speed.
Schools sent students home when the coronavirus began to spread, and no one knows if they will be back on campus come fall. Some colleges say large lecture classes and shared living and dining spaces may not return. Athletics are suspended, and there is no sense of when, or if, packed stadiums, and their lucrative revenue streams, will return.
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Every source of funding is in doubt. Schools face tuition shortfalls because of unpredictable enrollment and market-driven endowment losses. Public institutions are digesting steep budget cuts, while families are questioning whether it's worth paying for a private school if students will have to take classes online, from home.
To brace for the pain, colleges and universities are cutting spending, freezing staff salaries and halting plans for campus building.
"The world order has changed," said Sundar Kumarasamy, vice president for enrollment management at Northeastern University, where 18% of students are international and may not be able or willing to travel to the U.S. come fall. "When we build models, we don't have a variable called virus."
For many schools, the pandemic is exposing flaws in their own business models. Even before the virus hit, many colleges and universities were running on razor-thin margins, with 30% of those rated by Moody's Investors Service showing operating deficits.
Published tuition rates had skyrocketed, but few students actually paid full price. That left schools fighting over a limited pool of wealthy prospects. Some schools had turned to international students to bolster revenue — a strategy that may now prove to be a liability.