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As pandemic wears on, colleges and universities grapple with how to survive

More than 397,000 people at American colleges and universities have contracted the coronavirus since March. As campuses nationwide look to start the third pandemic semester in coming weeks, the grim toll on higher education is mounting with the basic survival of entire institutions also on the line. Hari sreenivasan reports as part of our series, “Rethinking College.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly 400,000 people at American colleges and universities have contracted the coronavirus since March. That's enough to fill four Rose Bowls.

    As campuses prepare to start a new semester, the toll is mounting. In some cases, the survival of entire institutions could be on the line. The COVID relief package included $23 billion for colleges and universities, but schools say it doesn't come close to what they need.

    Hari Sreenivasan has our story.

    It's part of our ongoing series Rethinking College.

  • Rock Jones:

    When you get into the classrooms, when you walk into the dining hall, when you go into a science lab, you realize that this is not a normal year.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Squint hard, and this almost looks like fall semester at Ohio Wesleyan University, a liberal arts school of 1,500 students just outside Columbus.

  • Rock Jones:

    We have been doing surveillance testing of about 15 percent of the student body each week. Yesterday, we tested 72. Zero positives.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, this is just part of campus life.

  • Rock Jones:

    Just a part of campus life.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But beyond the testing, the masks, the grab-and-go meals, and solo study, there's something even more unsettling afoot here.

  • Rock Jones:

    Normally, this place would be packed.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ohio Wesleyan President Rock Jones recently announced that his school would be eliminating 18 majors, nearly a fifth of its offerings, and they're cutting 20 percent of the university's faculty and staff.

    It's a move expected to save nearly $12 million. Nearly every college and university surviving the pandemic has a cash flow crisis.

    Rock Jones We refunded the room and board fees that students had paid for the second half of the spring semester. We canceled our planned 3 percent increase in tuition, room, and board for this year. That's been a significant loss of revenue.

    We increased our financial aid budget, because we knew families were having financial struggles with the recession and unemployment numbers increasing. And then we have had added expenses for testing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You have increased your cost, decreased your revenues. To a lot of colleges, that's not good math.

  • Rock Jones:

    Well, it's not good math. And, again, we found ways to reduce expenses.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And it's on top of math that's been bad for a decade. Since 2010, enrollment at two-and four-year colleges nationwide has dropped by about 2.5 million, driven in part by a smaller population of high school students moving directly to college and concerns over the skyrocketing cost of college education.

    A team at Ohio Wesleyan had already begun looking for cuts before the pandemic.

  • Rock Jones:

    I believe that COVID has not created challenges, but has accelerated challenges. It's forced us all to think differently and quickly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last spring, that meant transitioning to online-only education within days. And this academic year, for schools like Ohio Wesleyan, it also meant finding a way to bring students back for a very different version of the college experience.

  • Jack Foley:

    It feels almost kind of like a zombie town, like a zombie apocalypse. Right? Everyone is walking around. They're all basically faceless because you can't really see them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jack Foley, a junior, self-quarantined for 22 days last semester after repeated exposures to the virus. But he says being on campus was worth the challenges.

  • Jack Foley:

    I needed the social life, even if it was going to be restricted due to COVID. Really, all my friends are here. So, it's where I took that risk.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Not so for everyone. More than 560,000 undergraduates in the U.S. decided not to return to school this fall, either in person or online. That's a 3.6 percent drop compared to 2019.

    Freshman attendance saw an unprecedented 13.1 percent drop, according the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The pandemic has cost U.S. schools, by one estimate, $120 billion and counting.

    It's devastating for small liberal arts schools, to be sure, but also bigger public schools that have seen state support plummet in recent years.

  • Dan Hurley:

    The state universities of Michigan, all 15 of them, are facing the most dire set of circumstances many of them ever have since their founding.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dan Hurley is the chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities.

  • Dan Hurley:

    As an example, Michigan state University, one of the largest universities in the country, right now, they have 15,000 to 17,000 beds on campus that are completely empty because of the pandemic.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Michigan State went almost entirely virtual this fall, leaving its 5,300-acre campus in East Lansing desolate.

  • Dan Hurley:

    Dining centers, huge conference services programs, summer youth programs, all that auxiliary enterprise were — went away, and, with it, tens of tens of millions of dollars.

    And then you look at the athletic enterprises, U-of-M and Michigan State among them, I think that's going to be an impact in the tens and tens of millions of dollars. And those dollars don't just benefit the athletic enterprise. They help subsidize other aspects of the University of Michigan.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan tried to offer students some semblance of normalcy with mask mandates and routine testing. But, within weeks, COVID cases surged.

    It didn't surprise nursing student Christian Magno.

  • Christian Magno:

    We are very tempted to go and hang out with a lot of people, because it's the culture that this campus is.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In October, undergraduate students were ordered to stay in their dorms until early November to help bring down the infection rate, and they have been asked not to come back to campus after winter break unless necessary.

    Most housing contracts for winter and spring have been canceled.

  • Christian Magno:

    I know that there's a lot of controversy around it, but if you take in consideration human lives, it reduces the amount of interaction that people have with each other.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But these moves come at a cost, Hurley says.

  • Dan Hurley:

    There's going to continue to be a lot of belt-tightening.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    U.S. colleges and universities have shed nearly a tenth of their employees in recent months, tied to both the pandemic and longer-term challenges, including 2,900 adjunct professors at City University of New York, campus-wide furloughs at University of Arizona.

    More than 230 college athletic teams nationwide have been cut or slated for elimination. In Ohio, Urbana University, founded in 1850, closed shop completely this year due to the pandemic and years of low enrollment. Analysts say hundreds of others are at risk of following suit in the next few years.

    Hannah Carpenter is a senior at Ohio Wesleyan.

    How are the changes the university is making when it comes to the bottom line going to affect you?

  • Hannah Carpentar:

    It's hard to see programs lose funding, because that part of the liberal arts university experience is having all of those different fields available to you to explore.

    So, it definitely is not the best feeling to know that your university is struggling financially, and that universities everywhere are struggling. But I know, at the other end of this, there will be opportunities for growth in the end, and things will eventually be on the up and up again.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    At least, that's the hope.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in Delaware, Ohio.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The pandemic is taking a particularly dramatic toll on students of color.

    We will examine why in the next installment of our Rethinking College series. That's next Tuesday.

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