In higher education, April is when college and university administrations prepare for their freshman incoming classes in September. In a normal year, an institution could predict, with a high level of certainty, how many students would show up after Labor Day (based on the number of deposits from accepted would-be students).
But this isn’t a normal year. Health risks are a new factor in how students and parents view higher education. We should expect institutions to be impacted the most are those in the New York City area and small, private, but unexceptional liberal arts institutions.
The New York City factor: let’s say Jane Smith has been accepted to two Ivy League schools, Columbia (located in New York City) and Dartmouth (located in rural New Hampshire). For their peace of mind, Jane’s parents urge her to choose Dartmouth, and she does.
Does this mean Columbia University will be scrambling for freshmen? No, but Columbia may discover there are a larger number of foreign students or wait-listed students (with lower SAT scores) filling their freshman seats, compared with previous years.
Now let’s consider Jane’s choice between New York University (again, located in the city) and Cornell (located in rural upstate New York). All other things being equal (e.g., scholarships), which university seems safer to Jane’s parents?
The health factor also impacts decision-making for the small, private, unexceptional liberal arts institutions.
Where I live, in the greater Philadelphia region, there are many small universities founded by Catholic religious orders a century or more ago. Today, however, the nuns and priests are gone, leaving the institutions to find a raison d’etre, while searching for donors to shore up their endowments. Meanwhile, parents ask if it’s worth spending $20,000 a year to send their child away from home.
Perhaps the parents have been hit with a layoff or pay cut. Perhaps they have fears about putting their child in domicile situation that carries a health risk. Although younger people are less likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, health risks remain.
Let’s say Tyler Jones is a high school senior with average grades and SAT scores. Big State University has a branch campus near Tyler’s home. Moreover, Tyler’s local community college boasts a partnership with Alpha State University, whereby students can complete their university education at Alpha without loss of credits.
Although one of Tyler’s parents is an alumnus of a small, private, unexceptional liberal arts university, the case for Tyler staying home (and safe) while attending the less-expensive Big State branch campus or community college is compelling.
Further, consider the persons who make large donations to higher education. A solid endowment results in an institution being able to attract top-flight faculty and resources. It also enables the institution to offer meaningful scholarships (e.g., 50% off the sticker price of tuition).
Then comes the metaphysical aspect: how the donor feels about the would-be recipient. Donors, being successful people, want to align themselves with successful enterprises, including those in the higher education sector.
A small private college/university that lacks a mission, with incoming cohorts of students with declining SAT scores, is not a successful institution. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ wife was president of just such an institution that went bankrupt.
Many similar institutions today are teetering on the brink of failure. They will face a one-two punch this fall as thousands of Tyler Joneses will opt for cheaper, closer alternatives, perhaps out of necessity, perhaps due to health-related fears, or a combination of both.
As these small institutions face declining enrollments, the downward spiral will continue as their donors are likely to send their money elsewhere. In fact, the impact of COVID-19 on these institutions is merely accelerating the trend to diminishment.
Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of higher education by introducing a new factor in evaluating higher education choices: health and safety. Parents want good value for their tuition dollars, but just as importantly, they want to know their children will be safe.
Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware.